Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison is a sustainable development professional with 30-years experience. Tom’s main interest is the contribution that the private sector can make to addressing poverty and disadvantage. Following a number of management roles, mainly in the tea sector, Tom became an independent consultant focussing on private sector development. He has completed assignments for, among others, DFID, GIZ, the World Bank and UNDP. In recent years Tom has had a lead role in management of the Business Innovation Facility (BIF) for which he is Technical Director. In addition to supporting BIF’s work in Myanmar he has been involved in supporting large companies to develop innovative business models that benefit people on low incomes.

The value of 'seasoned' mentors

14. Sep 2015

The launch of the Connect to Grow programme reminds me of the great value of business-to-business mentoring. A number of years ago I helped to manage a programme in which highly experienced business owners would volunteer to spend time with entrepreneurs running SMEs in developing countries. When trying to capture the essence of what these volunteers had to share, we decided that the word ‘seasoned’ captured it best.

The word ‘seasoned’ to me carries the connotation of having lived through many seasons with the storms and droughts, and extremes of heat and cold that they will bring. A person who is ‘seasoned’ will be experienced, but the meaning goes beyond experience alone. ‘Hardened’ and ‘battle-scarred’ are two synonyms in the Oxford Dictionary.

As business owners themselves, these mentors have had to find ways to overcome, and find opportunities in, the problems and difficulties that had been thrown at their own businesses. They will have devised strategies to exploit growth opportunities and survive the tough times. It is this ability to speak from personal experience that makes a ‘seasoned’ mentor so valuable. I do hope, and fully expect, that this kind of sharing will be a major feature of Connect to Grow.

In the BIF programme I am currently supporting in Myanmar there is a very good example of this mentoring happening right now in our work in the tourism market. The mentor –who I hope won’t object to being called ‘seasoned’ –both owns his own tourism businesses in Indonesia and has extensive experience as a consultant in the region. He has been able to mentor more than fifty entrepreneurial owners of Tour Operator SMEs over a short period of time, helping them to understand the opportunity to develop inclusive tourist activities, and also sharing practical advice on how they might operationalize these ideas. This will also enable them to enter a business competition that BIF is running that will share the cost of piloting the best ideas.

Recently he had cause to reflect on what he had noticed when doing this mentoring work. He noted that the entrepreneurs he was supporting often have a ‘strategic vision’ for their small- and micro-businesses, but that this is largely influenced by short-term sales and cashflow. While they could develop some elements of a new business idea in their own minds, most were unable to develop and present a coherent business idea without the support of a mentor. They were especially weak in articulating and sharing their new business idea.

What I found particularly interesting is that there was little understanding among the entrepreneurs of the meaning of ‘piloting’ and ‘rolling out’: both concepts had to be explained in detail by the mentor.

The interaction with the mentor was both through face to face meetings but also through answers to questions posted on a FaceBook page, and hints and tips regularly posted there. This is highly relevant to our times, and to contexts such as Myanmar (and also noting that many of these entrepreneurs run their business from a smartphone not a PC).

The partnerships supported by Connect to Grow will link businesses in India that have already achieved scale with those in other parts of the world that are ready to grow. In doing so it will surely link the people behind this success with other entrepreneurs who can benefit from mentoring from these ‘seasoned’ operators.

Visit the website for more information or to register on the Connect to Grow programme, funded by DFID.

This blog was a part of the September 2015 series on collaboration for innovation. Click here to read more analysis, guidance and case studies from around the globe on partnership working.