Feature

Prince's Trust mentors share their experience

When technology director Steve Pikett returned to the UK after working in the US he noticed one big difference between the two office cultures, writes Nathalie Towner.

"In the US it is normal in office life to take part in community work," he explains. "When there were floods in the Midwest, we were all out sandbagging. We also did reading classes in schools and spent time with children who did not have a role model at home."

When he came home, Pikett was keen to carry on where he had left off in the US but was disappointed to find the only opportunity on offer in most UK offices was to put some coins in a box.

However, when he became technology director at private investment bank NM Rothschild, he got his chance, as its charity committee had chosen to promote the Prince's Trust mentoring scheme.

The Trust is a charity that gives young entrepreneurs start-up finance and support. Once they have been given the money, they are assigned a mentor who is there to proffer advice for their first year of business.

Pikett, along with seven other colleagues, was keen to get involved. He went along for an interview, was sent on an induction programme, and one week later was assigned to his first start-up.

"It was a one-man band in his dad's garage and his idea was to sell electric components for guitars," says Pikett. "There were problems with book-keeping. I helped him build up his budget and we ended up slightly altering his line of business."

The experience gave Pikett some interesting insights. "Helping a start-up makes you realise how cumbersome a big business can be - it is brilliant to see close-to-instant results from any actions taken."

At the start of the year, Pikett visited once or twice a month and made weekly phone calls. Once the start-up was more established, he was called upon only for about an hour a month.

Pikett is now working with three graduates who produce graphics for products such as record sleeves. "My IT background helped with networking their business and sorting out software-licensing issues," he says.

In cases where the mentor cannot help the entrepreneur directly, they can call upon the vast resources of the Prince's Trust and their own network of contacts.

Pikett believes anyone interested in mentoring should not underestimate what they have to offer.

It is not just about helping with practical issues, but also giving encouragement and helping the entrepreneurs maintain their enthusiasm while keeping their goals realistic.

And it can be more fulfilling than just putting money in a box. "I enjoy it - you want them to succeed. It is easy to make a donation but have no sense of connection to where it goes," says Pikett.

Another mentor, Microsoft business manager Duncan Ledwith, agrees. "I love doing it and get a lot back from it - I am always trying to recruit other people to become mentors," he says.

In between working in IT, Ledwith started up a music company, so he knows what it's like when you have no corporate infrastructure to fall back on.

He says support from the Trust can make a huge difference to start-ups. "The failure rate for start-ups is high, but the success rate for those backed by the Prince's Trust is phenomenal," he says. Sixty per cent of Trust-supported businesses are still trading into their third year.

Ledwith believes more IT people could gain from contributing. "There is a huge untapped resource of people in IT who don't know much about the Trust mentoring scheme, but I know they would get a lot back from it."

Become an IT business mentor
The Prince's Trust helps to set up more than 4,200 new businesses every year in the UK. Each is assigned a business mentor during its critical early stages. On 30 April the Prince's Trust launched the Technology Leadership Group to focus on technology-oriented companies and is looking for technology professionals to help with mentoring.

What you have to do
  • Commit between three and six hours a month

  • Form a professional relationship with a young entrepreneur

  • Meet regularly to provide business advice, guidance, monitoring and counselling

  • Help with progress forms

  • Attend Prince's Trust area meetings


What do you need?
  • Professional/business experience - no formal qualifications are necessary

  • Good communication skills, patience and a non-judgmental manner

  • The ability to develop a strong rapport with young people


For more information
Go to www.princes-trust.org.uk/ or call 0800 842 842 to obtain details of your nearest Prince's Trust area office

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This was first published in October 2002

 

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