Fostering Startup Mentorship on a Global Scale

Is business school losing out to startup incubators and accelerators?

Rather than fretting about which business school to attend, today’s entrepreneurs are starting their own companies and learning through the visceral, trial-and-error challenges that come with startup life. Even prominent investors are embracing those who eschew the traditional business school route. Peter Thiel famously offers young entrepreneurs $100,000 to start their business rather than go to college.

As budding entrepreneurs jump into the startup pool, they’re not entirely without support. Incubators and accelerators like Y Combinator, 1776dc, TechStars and MassChallenge are providing the resources and connections entrepreneurs miss by forgoing a formal business school education. Amazing mentorship bonds are forged in these organizations, much like those formed between professors and students. Participants connect with seasoned entrepreneurs, investors, past founders and current executives. These connections have proven fruitful time and time again with companies like Airbnb, Reddit, Dropbox and others rising to the top of the startup world.

But with the startup ecosystem growing beyond the borders of the United States, the needs of entrepreneurs are shifting. Recently, David Killion, United States Ambassador to UNESCO, suggested in a Huffington Post article, “Entrepreneurship culture has broad global appeal. Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are veritable superstars in today’s world, inspiring young people from New Delhi to Dakar.” But too often, the mentorship and support structure that global startups need are cut off as soon as their time at an incubator or accelerator class ends. It needn’t be this way.

Young founders could benefit by continuing their dialogue with incubator or accelerator support networks beyond the programs’ defined timelines. This is particularly important for organizations from countries where local startup resources are limited. Founders who maintain ties to their networks may increase their chances for success. In turn, incubators, accelerators and advisors that extend their mission beyond a single class engender grassroots entrepreneurship beyond borders and innovation around the world.

Accelerators like 1776dc are already working on ways to support global startups beyond its four walls. Together with entrepreneurial centers in London, Berlin, Moscow and elsewhere, 1776dc founded the Startup Federation to collaborate on a global scale and enable founders to network in places most appropriate for their next stage of growth. Video collaboration has been particularly effective in connecting incubator founders and mentors though two-way live video collaboration. Members of the Foundation have also livestreamed roundtable discussions and workshops, providing an engaging platform for questions and learning, regardless of geography.

We are witnessing the power of this approach. Flatev, a tortilla and other flatbreads preparation system based on a machine and corresponding dough-pods, is headquartered in Zurich and participated in the 2013 MassChallenge Accelerator in Boston. Its three founders are from different countries and the team is spread over multiple cities in Europe and the US. The company’s support network includes angel investors in Switzerland, Brazil, the United Kingdom and France. Technology and a focus on keeping Flatev connected with its accelerator family are allowing it to grow and thrive.

In 2010, a Kauffman Fellows report discussed the rise of a cross-border venture revolution. Like Ambassador Killion, the authors asserted, “The power of Silicon Valley will be in the lessons that can be adapted and exported across borders.” But even as recently as 2010, communication technology lagged. An investment group profiled in the report “began by crafting custom collaboration tools to facilitate communication, evaluate deals, and assess global deal partners. These tools were critical given our physical distance…” Building a global network and mentoring entrepreneurs required a custom system, raising an expensive barrier to entry for mentors connecting internationally, or entrepreneurs seeking those connections.

Today, the world is a different place. We are entering a magic moment for international startups like Flatev and the accelerator and incubator networks that support them. Mobile collaborative video and advanced text chats are widely accessible at a low enough cost to deploy globally. It bodes well for our future. Reflecting on the impact of the growth of global entrepreneurship, Ambassador Killion acknowledged, “Given the ripple effect that entrepreneurs have on their communities, it’s safe to say that the world will be a different place with half a million new entrepreneurs.”

What are you doing to help foster global mentorship at scale?


Rony Zarom is founder and CEO of Watchitoo, a web video collaboration platform. Learn more at or on Twitter @watchitoo, Facebook and Linkedin.