Mentorship Models Aimed at Maximizing Impact

At OpenIDEO, we've been asking ourselves: How do you build an at-scale mentorship program that’s at once customized, impact-oriented, and meaningful? Here’s what we’ve learned.

When building our Challenges and Prizes, we strive to provide value to all participants, whether they’re submitting an early-stage concept, a full-blown startup, are part of the broader innovator pool or become a Top Idea. This has taken the form of online collaboration opportunities, guidance through a design thinking-inspired process, visibility and knowledge sharing—and now, mentorship.

In the spirit of creating “value for all,” we’ve been working to design the conditions for mentorship to happen at scale, aiming to offer hundreds or even thousands of people access to this resource, while retaining the personal and meaningful nature of a smaller program. It leaves us asking ourselves what characteristics bring about a rich mentorship interaction, and in turn, how we can match and create conditions for those valuable relationships by the hundreds? We also believe in mentorship that goes beyond the traditional framework of “person with more experience” mentoring “person with less experience.” Instead, how can mentorship be used to bring power to voices that are necessary for the development of human-centered innovations?

How We Build Mentorship Programs

Our team works with thousands of innovators each year and the needs of those innovators vary as widely as their thousands of topics, stages, and skill levels. In a Challenge, we’ll see one team looking to build out their business model or learn how to better incorporate user feedback, while another might be developing a specialized pitch video or diving into a technical roadblock in their work. As we build our mentorship programs, we lean into human-centered design, speaking with innovators and experts in the field in which we are working, to understand which kinds of mentorship will be most impactful on an individual level, as well as pushing thinking in that particular sector or field.

We use this information to build our cohort of mentors, drawing from our existing pool of mentors and recruiting specifically for expertise needed for a particular innovator cohort. We then survey all participants, to ensure we capture and understand their specific needs and use algorithms that match those collected needs with the skills of the networks of mentors we have built. The algorithm can be adjusted to optimize for tactical items like time zone or language spoken, as well as any other relevant item, from skills, to areas of expertise, to hobbies outside of work (and beyond). 

Depending on the program, teams may then meet with mentors one-on-one or in groups, to learn from each other as well as the mentors themselves. We develop onboarding webinars and  toolkits to guide their relationships, and surveys to ensure that participants and mentors receive the support they desire. 

1. Mentorship that Bridges Creatives and Technical Experts

Earlier this year, OpenIDEO partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to launch the Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge, aiming to create a more compelling and relatable visual language for cybersecurity. We shared this open call with a global community in hopes of engaging visual creators of diverse backgrounds. In doing so, we recognized that these artists may not have deep familiarity with the cybersecurity space and, therefore, would need guidance to ensure their imagery was rooted in technical accuracy. At the same time, we heard from technical experts that the cybersecurity space was deeply lacking in new perspectives and creative energy.

So we invited a set of cybersecurity professionals—including cyber policy experts, ethicists, technologists, and cyber safety activists working on issues like digital privacy, surveillance, and cyber conflict—to join us in this work and to serve as mentors for the Challenge shortlist of visual creators. Twelve mentors supported the 25 shortlisted participants to ground their concepts within the technical field of cybersecurity. Each mentor hosted a video call to provide supportive and constructive feedback to each participant’s initial portfolio before they finalized their submissions. And, many of these collaborations continued after the initial feedback call.

As evidenced by excerpts from mentors and participants below, this program united creatives and technical experts to tangibly collaborate together on a specific Challenge in a very unique way. It not only energized them but also sparked reflection on new approaches to the space. The visual creators came with ideas and skills to visualize them, while the cybersecurity professionals provided tangible feedback to improve the accuracy of the graphics, in service of elevating quality images for this field.

Before and after: Mariah Jochai, an art director and winner of the Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge, iterated her submissions after receiving feedback from her mentor.

We heard directly from a mentor and mentee pair:

“The most valuable feedback came from our mentor during the mentorship call. I was urged to revisit the illustration and to convey the moth in flight to better convey the idea of a transfer of information during encryption. This feedback altered the illustration for the better.” — Mariah Jochai, an art director in the USA
“It was great to be able to talk to the mentees and explain different technical concepts. I also got a lot of value out of hearing how non-technical individuals understand these concepts.” Jonathan Barrett

2. Mentorship by People with Lived Experience

More than 70.8 million men, women, and children are forcibly displaced worldwide today — yet rarely are they included in the world's effort to respond to this crisis.  In partnering with GHR Foundation to launch the $1M BridgeBuilder 2019 Challenge: People on the Move, we prioritized including people with relevant lived experience in framing the Challenge, and in supporting and evaluating participants. The Challenge called upon organizations to submit project ideas in response to our Challenge question: “How might we, as people on the move and neighbors, build bridges to a shared future of stability and promise?”

We believe that the deepest experts are those who have lived experienced or first-hand contextual understanding of a given topic. Knowing that mentors can be catalytic in empowering innovators around an issue, we tested a new approach to mentorship, in which we enlisted the support of experts and leaders who had lived experience with migration and displacement, and connected them to participants for guidance and support.

“The mentors inspired both the innovators and our team to push our thinking, by helping us identify blind spots and understand complex issues from the beneficiary’s perspective.” — Ashley Tillman, OpenIDEO Community Manager  

An onboarding call between the OpenIDEO team and several Mentors

People on the move are systematically forgotten and not included in the design process of programs that are supposed to help them. To shift the power dynamic and to elevate refugees and migrants to a position of authority and expertise, we embarked on a collaborative partnership with NaTakallam, a language service startup (and previous BridgeBuilder Challenge winner) that is deeply and directly connected with people on the move. The mentors—who represented a diverse range of geography, age, and life experiences—offered targeted feedback to innovators in the form of online comments, small group work sessions, and video calls, leading to more refined and impactful ideas. Intentionally building these relationships allowed us to move towards co-designing with the communities we're serving, while enabling mentors to engage with an issue they were passionate about solving.

“By speaking with the mentor, we were able to understand and recognize what was lacking, including expansion of outcomes, connecting migrants abroad, and making the whole program feasible and sustainable.” — Narayan Adhikari, CEO and Social Entrepreneur Accountability Lab, Nepal

3. Mentorship that Moves Ideas from Concepts to Tangible Solutions

The fiber cup is everywhere. In 2016, 250 billion were distributed globally, and it’s estimated that number will increase to 266 billion by 2022. While convenient for enjoying a hot coffee or cold beverage on the go, too many fiber cups end up in landfills, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and wasting valuable resources. The NextGen Cup Challenge—part of the multi-brand NextGen Consortium convened by Closed Loop Partners in 2018—aimed to push the boundaries of sustainable design and material and chemical innovation to solve this prevalent global waste issue—calling on innovators, suppliers, designers, and problem-solvers to join the Challenge and reinvent the fiber cup system.

For this Challenge, we paired specific seasoned experts from a variety of relevant backgrounds—leaders who had vast expertise in the recovery, materials, and circular economy ecosystems—with the innovator teams to help them advance in a specific area in which they needed support. Teams had the opportunity to work alongside mentors to share knowledge, ask questions, and advance their concepts. For mentors, this was an opportunity to empower new talent in the field, keep a pulse on up-and-coming innovations, and help move us toward a more circular future.

"Creating the next generation fiber cup is incredibly technical, and we sought to provide innovators with highly specialized knowledge and support not currently represented within their teams or networks." — Christopher Krohn, OpenIDEO Program Lead

After being matched with cup teams based on their knowledge of the sustainability ecosystem and needs of the teams, mentors spent several weeks supporting the teams through webinars, one-on-one video conferences, and regular check-ins. Many of them stayed on as mentors through the next phase of the program (the NextGen Accelerator), continuing to provide invaluable feedback to the six winning teams.

The NextGen Circular Business Accelerator teams had the opportunity to work closely with mentors and industry experts throughout each phase of the program.

Mentorship was also a key offering of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize, launched in partnership with Gary Community Investments to improve children’s lives by channeling investment capital into the early childhood development space and fueling innovative new solutions. . More than 200 innovators were matched with mentors—a range of early childhood experts, industry leaders, designers, and entrepreneurs—using a custom-built algorithm that matched innovator need with mentor skill set. The Prize platform also fueled connections between participants—a benefit consistently reported as one of the most valuable elements of the Prize. 

“Our mentor gave us ideas on how to prototype and helped us articulate the problem we wanted to solve. We took for granted how many questions we really had. Doing several iterations quickly and cheaply got us to a point of understanding not only what to do, but what not to do.” — John Nash, Learning on the Move

In our mission to address pressing social and environmental issues, we’ve found that mentorship programs are best when designed intentionally to help innovators bring their ideas to fruition, faster—using tailored approaches best suited for each Challenge topic. By encouraging innovators to achieve greater scale by iterating on their ideas, centering their models in the needs of users, and making space for growth and learning, mentors have become a crucial mechanism for systems change in multiple contexts—whether it’s designing better visuals for the cybersecurity space, improving the lives of people on the move, or making a coffee cup that won’t end up in landfills.

“Relationships are such an important conduit for change,” says Alex Nana-Sinkam, a Program Lead at OpenIDEO. “It's crucial to intentionally design mentorship programs that will create connections that not only benefit those involved, but bolster the ecosystem as a whole by increasing access and connection.”