Mentoring the Startup Entrepreneur: An Ancient Human Dance

What an incredible honor to be named a White House Champion of Change. In thinking about entrepreneurship and the importance of mentors to the process of creating and launching a company, I wanted to share a few thoughts that have profoundly affected my own journey as an entrepreneur and a mentor.

I’m a product of Mississippi. I was born in the rural, northeastern part of the state known as Booneville. Our family farm was about 15 miles outside the city limits. Gravel roads, soybean fields, small farmhouses, and a sizzling summer sun are some of the images that come to mind. I grew up on the same soil as my great grandfather,my grandfather, and my father. Our hardships were the salt of a true, all-American childhood, and I value that legacy.

My commitment to service comes from my parents. My father is a minister. My mom is a nurse. At a very young age, I had the opportunity to see the “care” side of healthcare through my mom and the pastoral side of mentoring through my father.  My parents love me unconditionally. When faced with life’s many challenges, when we know we are loved in this way I’ve come to believe that we, as individuals, can push ourselves far beyond what the average person would normally do.  It’s an intangible quality, and I admit it can be difficult to teach, but when even a small piece of this becomes integrated into the mentoring process, that’s where the magic happens—that’s when lives are changed and companies are born.

I’ve always been “entrepreneurial” – even pushing a lawnmower up and down my neighbors’ yards as a child. I formally began my own entrepreneurial journey when I decided to leave the safety of a corporate job in 1992 and begin the development of my first company – Theraphysics. Now 20 years and 3 companies later – I’ve had the opportunity to live out the American Dream. As a mentor for entrepreneurs across the nation, and as a national mentor who trains armies of the next generation of mentors, equipping individuals to realize the American Dream has become an integral chapter of my life’s work.

As an entrepreneur, I grow things. It’s an intrinsic part of who I am. I’m betting that if you’re an entrepreneur reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about. As a mentor, knowing that I can only meet with so many startup entrepreneurs a day, about two years ago I realized that, like my previous companies, I needed to grow my ability to reach more entrepreneurs. Fusing my entrepreneurial mindset with mentoring, resulted in a specialized Mentor and Master Mentor training program. To date, with the help of fellow serial entrepreneurs (our Master Mentors) at the Entrepreneur Center, we’ve developed a phenomenal mentor training program, and I’ve traveled to train hundreds of mentors – many of whom are probably mentoring a startup entrepreneur as you read this. It’s a privilege to work with so many individuals who share in the passion for equipping our fellow Americans to realize their Dream.

My entrepreneurial journey largely was possible because individuals along the way gave me encouragement and support.  I had my first “business” mentor in my mid-twenties. And I left each interaction with a thought provoking question and a thirst for knowledge.  I’ve always known that I would return this great gift given to me, by paying it forward to help others. My earliest form of mentoring has been teaching. Within each of the entrepreneurial classes I lead at Vanderbilt University, there are always 2-3 students in the class that capture one’s attention – their story, the challenges they’ve overcome, the sheer drive to change the world for the better. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been privileged to work with many of these bright young minds – and I continue to hear from individuals I taught in the 1990’s. It’s an incredible rush, to watch people you’ve taught or mentored go out and change the world. 

This quote by Parker Palmer on Mentoring captures for me the essence of the mentoring process.

“Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn.”
― Parker J. Palmer 

The transition from a “founder” of a startup to a CEO is a significant journey. The mentoring process enables the founder to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to be a great CEO / Leader. I find that I learn as much by mentoring as the mentee gains from my insight and questions. One of my most memorable mentoring experiences was accomplished by asking a single question. The young man I was mentoring spent the next several hours in deep introspection trying to formulate the answer. Only much later did the young man realize that I was asking, not to satisfy my own curiosity, but to drive the young man to find the answer for himself.  He did discover the answer, but more importantly he sharpened himself through the introspection – and he began his journey to become the amazing CEO that he is today.

We began the work of the Entrepreneur Center (www.entrepreneurcenter.com) in late 2007, with the goal of equipping any American who has an idea, a passion, and a strong work ethic, to be able to realize their Dream. To date, we’re changing lives and building world-changing companies every single day. The facility opened with my being its first CEO in the summer of 2010.  Since opening, we have met over 800 startups – entrepreneurs from around the world from Princeton to Slovakia – listening to their concepts and helping turn their dream into a reality. While there are many rewarding aspects of building out an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem – which I’m privileged to help accomplish with fellow leaders across the nation through the Startup America Partnership – the most cherished experience for me continues to be mentoring startup entrepreneurs and founders.  Listening to their ideas, challenging what they believe is even possible, and sharing in their passion as they live out their American Dream, is the capstone of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. It builds companies. And it changes lives.

Michael Burcham is President & CEO of the Entrepreneur Center. A serial entrepreneur who began his career at Hospital Corporation of America, Michael has a passion for helping individuals organize and grow their businesses.

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