By Laura Donnelly-Smith
GW senior Farhan Daredia, a political communication major, already has a successful startup company. He’s got a professionally designed website, paid employees, an office, revenue coming in and plenty of ideas for expanding and improving his brand.
But what Mr. Daredia doesn’t have—yet—is years of formal business experience. That’s where his mentors come in. As part of the new George Washington University Entrepreneurs Round Table (GWERT) Mentors program, Mr. Daredia has been matched up with five mentors with expertise in areas like accounting, social media marketing, strategy and operations. They’re helping him make his startup, Bookstore Genie, a textbook price comparison and rental engine, the best it can be.
“Working with the mentors has been excellent. They’re really excited to help. They’re super successful—it’s a little intimidating,” he joked.
Mr. Daredia’s mentors include Dan Kunitz, a founding manager of Politico, who is advising him on PR strategy, and Mark Rothman, an entrepreneur who started and sold a highly successful technology staffing firm, who is advising him about how to make Bookstore Genie’s operations more efficient. And making successful matches between new entrepreneurs and experienced ones is what the GWERT Mentors program is all about.
GWERT Mentors began as an idea that Jim Chung, the director of GW’s Office of Entrepreneurship, brought with him when he came to GW in 2010 from the University of Maryland. A successful venture capitalist, Mr. Chung had invested in a startup where the principal players had been mentored through a program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT Venture Mentoring Service was founded in 2000 and has worked with more than 1,000 successful startups since then.
“The program has dramatically increased the success of the startups, and allowed the entrepreneurs and the mentors to form a community,” Mr. Chung said. “Now we’re looking to do that here.”
SEAS alumnus Randy Graves, D.Sc. ’78, who is also a successful technology entrepreneur himself, volunteered to serve as director of a GW mentoring program based on the MIT model. He and Mr. Chung decided to call it GWERT Mentors because of its close relationship with the existing Entrepreneurs Round Table program.
“The idea here is that the mentors, both from GW and from outside, can assist GW-related startups in making their ideas a success,” Dr. Graves said. Because the MIT Venture Mentoring Service model has been so successful, GW’s program, which is part of the Office of the Vice President for Research, is built using primarily the same structure. An important feature is a strict ethical code that prohibits mentors from being investors in startups they are advising, as well as guidelines for confidentiality and conflicts of interest.
At a GWERT Mentors kickoff event in August, four startups pitched their ideas to a group of about 25 potential mentors. Mr. Daredia was among them; so was David Mathison, a physician and associate director of pediatric transport at Children's National Medical Center, as well as an adjunct professor at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr. Mathison’s startup, called HealthEWorks, is a video service that customizes and improves health education for patients who are in urgent care and emergency situations. It won first place in the GW Business Plan Competition in 2010.
“There is a unique set of personality traits common among entrepreneurs: They are often passionate, free thinkers and risk takers,” Dr. Mathison said. “So for me, this program links me with others who have been successful and who share that set of unique characteristics. I anticipate my mentors will offer a wealth of business experience, logic and guidance that will help my company become successful.”
After the pitches, the startup personnel left the room while the mentors conferred and determined how best to match up their expertise with the startups’ needs. Each startup left the event with the names and contact information for at least three mentors. The Office of Entrepreneurship will continually monitor the mentors and startup outcomes, Mr. Chung said, and will help facilitate communication.
“The startups get an instant board of advisers,” he said. “Having someone to answer questions is extremely valuable.”
Among the mentors were Peter Weissman, J.D. ’96, and Renee Lewis, M.S. ’90, both successful entrepreneurs who were happy to help advise startups connected to their alma mater. Mr. Weissman, a partner at Blank Rome LLP, has been involved with the GW Entrepreneurs Round Table since its inception. He was paired with both Bookstore Genie and Driver Suite, a startup focused on producing custom sales materials for car dealerships.
Mr. Weissman said that new entrepreneurs often have legal questions but don’t know where to turn for good advice—nor do they have money to pay for it. His role as a mentor helps solve these problems, he said. And there are benefits for him as well.
“I always find that being around entrepreneurs is motivational for me,” he said. “They’re really excited about their businesses, and it’s always invigorating to work for people who have a lot of belief in what they’re doing and a lot of motivation to get things done.”
Ms. Lewis, president of the Pensare Group, is also involved with ACTiVATE, an initiative of the Office of Entrepreneurship that helps female entrepreneurs develop their ideas. She said that one of the biggest benefits of the GWERT Mentors program is that the university is the go-between that helps cultivate relationships. “It’s hard to always know where to look and who to ask,” she said. “I like that GW does the matchmaking.”
Ms. Lewis recently advised entrepreneurs from the Driver Suite team about how to best handle an important meeting with a potential investor. But her advice is relevant to all entrepreneurs, she said.
“It’s always best to ask someone a question. You may open a door that you didn’t know existed, simply by the way you ask a question,” she said. “I make fewer statements these days, and ask more questions. You never know how someone will respond.”
For Mr. Daredia, his experience with the Office of Entrepreneurship and the GWERT Mentors program is already making a difference.
“I can honestly say that [Bookstore Genie] probably wouldn’t have gone beyond being a cute project and into an actual business without Jim Chung and the Office of Entrepreneurship,” he said. “They’re awesome.”
To learn more about the GWERT Mentors program, including how to apply to be involved as a mentor or a startup, visit the website.