This story first appeared on the Business Record Innovation Iowa site on June 29, 2023.
The five John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers in Iowa are working to build out a statewide program fostering mentor relationships to help entrepreneurs expand their businesses.
Last year the centers each launched their pilot phase of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Venture Mentoring Service program, a mentoring model developed by MIT and implemented by more than 100 organizations around the world.
VMS uses a team mentoring methodology, where each entrepreneur has a team of three or more experienced mentors with differing expertise who help address the business’s current needs.
The program is free to entrepreneurs and offers a confidential space to openly discuss their goals and challenges, said Jeralyn Westercamp, who operates the VMS program at the University of Iowa JPEC, which is leading the statewide rollout of VMS.
For both entrepreneurs and mentors, Westercamp said the top incentive to participate in VMS is a desire to advance new businesses and entrepreneurship overall.
“It’s truly just saying, ‘Hey, we have this amazing ecosystem in Iowa. We have this incredible model from MIT.’ How can we take those two parts and blend them together to give more opportunities and connections to entrepreneurs in Iowa with hopefully the goal of growing the ecosystem by helping them scale their companies?” Westercamp said.
Each JPEC’s VMS program operates on the same principles and structures with variation in the mentor pools. Westercamp said entrepreneurs can choose to participate in any of the five programs but common factors are their location, their alumni status and the expertise of the institution.
“If you’re in med tech, University of Iowa might be a great fit,” she said. “Let’s say if you’re in ag tech, Iowa State might be a better fit based on what Iowa State does as an academic institution.”
Although the programs function independently, the five JPECs focus on how to collaborate so the program can reach more of Iowa’s entrepreneurs, Westercamp said.
She said mentors in the program are best suited to support early-stage entrepreneurs who are pursuing their business venture full time and are ready to launch their business or are earning revenue.
“The entrepreneurs that I think that have been in the program that are most successful, again, they have that passion where they want to see their business succeed, and they’re willing for this ongoing relationship,” she said.
Part of expanding the initiative statewide is bringing on partners in different capacities, Westercamp said. In December 2022, Iowa’s West Coast Initiative became a partner of the Iowa JPEC to help connect entrepreneurs in underserved areas of Iowa to the program.
Here is more of what Westercamp shared about the statewide VMS program. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What makes the VMS program different from other ways entrepreneurs can find mentors?
It helps to know the mentors are in it for the right reason too, because I think it’s a risky landscape for entrepreneurs sometimes because you don’t know why that person is saying yes. With VMS they are saying yes because they want to help you. There’s no other hidden agenda other than wanting to help, and I think that’s where the power of the MIT model is. I think it’s that relationship-building that makes it different, having that protected space makes it different, and then the way we pair I think makes us different as well. It’s very holistic. It’s not matching. If we go back to the classic academic setting, where we have 20 students, and we have 20 mentors, like, no surprise. Maybe we’re the last two in the class, and you’re a mentor in marketing, and I want to do ag finance, how’s that going to go? I’ll make a connection, I’ll network, but with VMS it’s very holistic about how the pairings occur. Speaking for the University of Iowa, just since I’m our program manager for Iowa VMS, we actually have an application system for both sides, and we compare that. One question we ask the mentors is what technical experiences can you offer insight? Then the parallel for the entrepreneur, what technical experiences do you need insight? We also are very transparent with the mentors. We share, “Hey, here’s the entrepreneur, here’s the stage they’re at. What do you think?” We really put a lot of the decision on the mentor to see if the mentor thinks it’s a good fit.
What can mentors new to the VMS program expect?
All JPECs and VMS programs across the state are accepting both ventures and mentors. What mentors can expect is they’d have a one-time training because we want to empower them with this MIT team mentoring methodology. Just speaking for Iowa VMS since we all operate a little differently, at Iowa VMS they could expect time commitment is what they want to give. If they want to serve on one team, if they want to serve on three teams, we have some mentors who are retired. When you think about team mentoring you’re saying like three mentors per team, so we always need more mentors to help our program succeed. But in terms of time, again, at Iowa VMS we have some all-mentor meetings where we want to build that mentor community because we’re very committed to building mentors as well. Like how can we help expand your skill set? How can we network you as a person? Typically our teams meet roughly every six weeks and that really depends on the entrepreneur’s need as well because the base of the model, it’s not academic, it’s what the entrepreneur needs. Some months, they might email a mentor weekly if they’re making a pitch that they want to share and they need feedback. Sometimes they might meet once a month to figure out what they need.
What kind of need do you think the VMS program can serve statewide?
The JPECs have been doing fabulous work for years. But how can we take that to the next level? Because VMS is meant to be that gap in service, really, where let’s say we have someone who was an undergrad student, and they did every program at JPEC, how can we continue to serve them? It’s not like “Oh, you graduate and you get pushed out of the nest and then never again.” That’s where VMS can be that continuum. Like, let’s say if you are an entrepreneur, and you’ve never been with any of Iowa’s JPEC programs, but you’ve already graduated, or maybe college isn’t the route for you, how can we also serve you?
What else is important to know about the program as it moves forward?
I think one thing that’s key that I’ve discovered just working with our own entrepreneurs is even though we talked about mentoring constantly, it is more than mentoring. It’s also education, which really leverages the power of, like, being the University of Iowa, right? If you need help learning too, don’t be afraid if you want mentoring and help because that’s why we’re here. So it’s educating. I’d say it’s the support, it’s advising. It’s also absolutely inspiring. I know one session this guy already had his MBA and everything, and the mentors just were like, “Hey, I know this is your agenda, but let’s talk about you. How can we help you with impostor syndrome?” I think in terms of the future, I’m just really excited to see where this goes, because I can only imagine once we get outside of our university and community college service areas really having that statewide rollout I think will be amazing. Then mentors will learn more from each other. I think just the statewide opportunity is a really great way to ramp it up because our goal is we want to serve river to river and we do that by collaborating with each other.
How the Iowa JPECs became MIT VMS sister programs
Bringing the program to Iowa started in 2021 with David Hensley, executive director of the University of Iowa JPEC, seeing the opportunity for experienced alumni of the state’s higher education institutions to mentor up and coming entrepreneurs. The five JPECs applied for and received a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2021 to establish a mentoring program. The JPECs’ staffs were trained in the MIT Venture Mentoring Service model and each center ran a pilot program of VMS from fall 2021 to fall 2022.