Getting on board — How INCLT is preparing startups and seasoned leaders for mentorship success

The Innovate Charlotte (INCLT) Venture Mentoring Service looks very different today than it did just over a year ago, when the program officially launched in the Queen City.

For one, INCLT has welcomed a total of 19 companies looking for mentorship into the program (including 12 currently enrolled) and added more seasoned business veterans to its pool of more than 35 mentors. But the biggest changes have happened behind the scenes — the team worked on mission, vision, and values for the mentoring program, and documented the processes, specifically the on boarding component that forms the foundation of the program.

As with any startup, once you get your MVP out into the market, that’s when the real learning starts to happen.

Igor Gorlatov, VMS Operations Manager

“Over the course of the past year, we learned there was a lot more we could do to educate and support not just our mentors, but also the companies taking part in the program,” said Igor Gorlatov, VMS operations manager at INCLT.

The INCLT leadership team drilled it down to three core goals to improve the onboarding process and make the program more powerful for both mentors and companies.  

“We needed to improve transparency and ensure both companies and mentors understood the opportunities and challenges that would come with the program. We needed to get everyone focused around how to maximize the impact of the program and to understand that it was up to the founders to be accountable to themselves and to their mentoring team. And we needed to ensure all parties respected the process and were committed to showing up, taking notes, responding promptly, listening and doing what they said they were going to do,” Gorlatov explained.

To accomplish all of that, INCLT decided to start at the beginning.

The startup onboarding process

On the company side, the onboarding process begins when an application comes in from an
interested founder. INCLT conducts an initial screening to ensure the company hits certain
baseline requirements:

  • Coachable founder(s)
  • The founder is already working full-time on this venture, or is planning to go full-time in
    the near future.
  • Some paying or at least pilot customers
  • All founders are able to meet with mentors in person

From there, the INCLT intake committee meets with the prospective mentees.

“The intake committee is a group of mentors who talk with the prospective founders to make sure they’re coachable and that they understand what the program is about,” Gorlatov explained.

When the intake committee recommends a company move forward, that company participates in a two-hour onboarding session to go over the history of INCLT, the core principles of the Venture Mentoring Service and the overarching goal to create a program that benefits all parties involved.

“During that meeting, we’ll actually look into specific situations, such as what to do if you have a meeting scheduled with your mentors and then you get a call from a potential investor at the same time. What do we consider appropriate behavior in that instance?” Gorlatov said.

Then, the first three months of the program are considered another trial period, he added.

“The goal is to figure out if the founder is actually coachable: Are they willing to do the homework, commit to growing the business and learn together with mentors? Usually that’s decided within the first three meetings,” Gorlatov said. “In that time, we’re also able to find the right mix of mentors for the team and to ensure that the founder and the mentors are having a truly good experience with the program.”

Wendy Hickey, the founder and executive director of ArtPop Street Gallery, joined the program as a mentee earlier this year, after going through the revamped onboarding process.

“The process allows founders to be clear with the mentors about what they need most from them. At the same time, we as the founders learn how our responsibility to the project allows for a mutually beneficial relationship and commitment,” Hickey said.

The mentor onboarding process  

On the mentor side, the onboarding process begins when INCLT receives an application from an interested individual. If the candidate seems like a good fit, Gorlatov conducts an interview.

“I’m learning about their background and career and the lessons they’ve learned in life. But one of the biggest roadblocks is time commitment. Our expectation is that a mentor commits one year to the program and spends eight hours a month with us. It involves mentoring two ventures, attending a monthly mentoring session and doing some communications via email in between,” Gorlatov said. “It means that the mentor needs to be at the stage in their life when they have the time to commit to this program.”

If the mentor is a fit, he or she takes part in a two-hour onboarding session to go over principles of the program, which originated at MIT, as well as actual case studies that help define how these principles apply to real-life scenarios. Then, the mentors can select the companies they want to work with and start helping local founders build strong, thriving companies.

“We have over 35 mentors, and they are referring their friends because they’re enjoying the experience. They get to learn from each other. They get to be part of a community, and they get to provide guidance for the challenges that early-stage startups are facing,” Gorlatov said.

One of those mentors is Judith Jeffries, a former executive with Carolinas Healthcare System, who appreciates the value the onboarding process brings to the experience.

If there is a conscious effort to introduce the mentors to mission, vision and each other and subsequently the culture, trust is built,” Jeffries explained. “Leaders often want to be so helpful that they could defeat the purpose of mentoring. Keeping the mentors from enabling is essential for a successful mentoring program.”

And the more people learn about the benefits of what INCLT provides, the more people are aligning with the program. RMCSoft, for one, has signed on to sponsor INCLT’s monthly publications and help the organization continue spreading the word.

“We are proud to support an organization that is committed to consistently improving and growing its mentorship program overtime. It’s also exciting to be of assistance to mentees who need advanced software development talent and expertise,” said Olga Muller, Director of Business Development at RMCSoft.

INCLT is currently accepting applications for companies and mentors looking to take part in the Venture Mentoring Service.

Apply to get a team of mentors

Apply to become a mentor with INCLT

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Want to learn more about how to support INCLT? Contact Igor Gorlatov at [email protected].