Cecilia Corral was just out of college when she got involved in a health care startup with other recent graduates.
The young management team was brimming with energy and ideas but had little experience launching a company. When it came to decisions on hiring, firing and how to grow the business, they relied on advice from a formal and informal network of older mentors.
"My co-founders and I are fairly young," said Corral, a 2012 Stanford graduate in product design who works as chief design officer at CareMessage, which aims to improve the health of under-served Americans through targeted cell-phone messages. "We've worked, but very briefly. We were right out of college when we started, and there were a lot of things we didn't know and still don't know, and we really rely on our mentors for that."
For example, one informal mentor, Peter Bing, helped them understand the importance of making their health messages culturally relevant and respectful of traditional values of the populations they aim to serve, Corral said.
"He's a much older gentleman who doesn't even text but he understands what we're trying to accomplish, to tackle the health disparities," she said.
Today Corral's two-year-old firm has partnered with 65 health organizations to reach 50,000 patients and is on track to reach a half million by the end of the year. The nonprofit enterprise offers its products free to clinics serving low-income patients and earns revenue by selling the same technology to larger health-care systems and hospitals.
Corral was at the Avenidas senior center for a recruiting event held recently by Enterprise Futures Network (EFN), an organization that provides mentors for her company and for other university-affiliated entrepreneurs.
More than half of EFN's 160-plus mentors are over 50, said founder Thomas Jensen, whose business career has included a directorship of a technology and engineering company and teaching at universities.
"We're all about broadening the circle of entrepreneurship," Jensen said.
"We're based on mentors interested in giving something back in terms of their wisdom, insight and time. I personally co-founded a software firm about 12 or 13 years ago and I wish I'd had more mentors and wish I'd been better at asking people to be a mentor," he said. "That was part of the inspiration behind EFN, my own personal experience."
Working with 10 partner universities, including Stanford and University of California at Berkeley, EFN has mentored 2,400 students on 800 teams in its 11-year history, Jensen said. About 100 of the teams have actually "launched," that is, found investors. Collectively the 100 have raised a little more than $50 million, he said.
EFN relies on its partner universities to provide the students. Mentors advise on everything from business plans to market research to presentation skills. In some cases, mentors find themselves judging university-sponsored contests such as the Duke University "Start-Up Challenge."
EFN also has a high school program in which students shadow mentors to learn about business development and the entrepreneurial process.
Among the Avenidas audience members was retired Palo Alto entrepreneur Dick Smallwood, who said he was going to apply to become a mentor.
"I've been sitting around retired, and I have a lot of experience," Smallwood said. "I had my own startup (in the area of market intelligence). I keep thinking, 'Gee, I've been through all this stuff. Here I am getting old and I have all this information. Why don't I help somebody with it?
"And working with young people, too that's the thing I miss, being retired."
Audience member Judy Lochead, a recently retired consultant in data analytics, also said she was interested.
"I really would like to help with mentoring but I'd also like to flip the role (and receive mentoring) because I have some ideas," Lochead said.
Jensen said EFN's goal is to provide mentorship, not receive it, but added that mentors themselves often gain new ideas and connections in the process.
Investor David Arscott, general partner in Compass Technology Group and a longtime EFN mentor, said that while mentors receive no financial compensation, "the compensation really is, at least for me, learning about businesses in areas that I didn't know about before and didn't have any information about.
"These are young, bright minds that are applying themselves in a focused way to whatever the problem is and they're coming up with new perspectives that, for me, have been very enriching. I come out and say, 'Oh, I ought to look at this and I ought to look at that.' It's not exactly a Socratic process but it's an interactive process where you're bringing your background to these teams and helping them benefit."
EFN has an application process and generally seeks mentors with seven to 10 years of substantive experience in starting or managing a company, Jensen said.
But Arscott noted that a technical background is not always required. "The mentoring process can involve every single professional, and it doesn't even have to be professional you can learn things out of public service. In any career you've developed a level of expertise to understand and contribute. All that information we don't always realize how much we've learned, but that information can be turned back on itself in terms of coaching people."
Relatively new platforms like the mobile phone and the Internet have generated "a tremendous amount of company formation" in fields as diverse as clean technology, consumer products, instrumentation, extraction and medical devices, Arscott said.
With dramatically reduced barriers to entry, "any of us can start a business this afternoon on the internet, and they're virtually free. To me, that's the most profound thing that's happened in the commercial world since I started working."
EFN, Arscott said, "is kind of the glue between all the people out there with expertise and these young teams coming up, and that's a big source of opportunity for mentors."
Another mentoring opportunity, an Avenidas participant said, is the SCORE program run by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
A spokesman for the San Jose-based Silicon Valley chapter of SCORE said the group has about 50 active volunteer counselors, who meet with small businesses as diverse as restaurants, web developers and distributors of patio equipment.