In addition to the advising provided by Big Ideas staff, Big Ideas finalists cite the mentorship as the most important and impactful resource provided to applicants during the Contest. Since Big Ideas implemented its mentorship program in 2012, it has successfully recruited 220 mentors that have played pivotal roles in teams’ developments. Applicants report on surveys (see the Evaluation chapter) that working with a mentor greatly improved their final submission, helped them more deeply understand their area of intended impact, and improved their experience in the Big Ideas contest.
Starting in mid-January, Big Ideas finalists are matched with mentors—industry professionals from a set of diverse fields including business management/administration, engineering, agriculture, and health services, among others. Together, finalists and mentors work approximately one to two hours per week for six weeks to refine the teams’ project ideas, develop partnerships, and craft their Full Proposals. Students work with their mentors via in-person meetings, phone calls, or email exchanges to develop impactful projects and viable implementation plans. The mentors are asked to serve in an advisory or consulting capacity to the project—they are not intended to participate in the actual writing of the Full Proposal.
Over the course of each fall semester, the Big Ideas staff works to recruit as large and diverse a pool of potential mentors as possible. Mentor recruitment and matching is particularly challenging each year, largely because the specific mentorship needs of each team are diverse and do not become fully clear to the teams or Big Ideas staff until the end of Pre-proposal review process in December. However, Big Ideas begins recruiting potential mentors long before Pre-proposals are even submitted.
There are many reasons why someone may want to participate as a Big Ideas mentor. Thanks to evaluation data and conversations with more than 75 former mentors the most-cited reasons for becoming involved as a mentor are the following:
In 2015, Big Ideas streamlined the judge and mentor recruiting processes to one major outreach push in the beginning of the year, supplemented by smaller efforts throughout the rest of the contest cycle. This was due to the fact that marketing approaches for judges and mentors were quite similar, and conducting outreach at three separate occasions throughout the year (for Pre-proposal Judges, Mentors, and Full Proposal judges) led to redundant and inefficient communication. Big Ideas thus employed the following strategies to enlist a large pool of potential mentors and judges with expertise within the nine Contest category areas:
Once potential mentors indicate their interest, they are asked to fill out a Judge & Mentor Application Form. On this form, potential mentors provide information on their mentorship experience, professional experience, areas of content expertise, and geographic areas in which they had worked or had specialized knowledge. After finalists are announced at the end of the fall semester, finalist teams are provided with their Pre-proposal judges’ feedback and asked to submit a Finalist Mentorship Application Form. This form mirrors the Judge & Mentor Application Form (e.g., asks about what areas of expertise they would like their mentor to have). Importantly, it has teams describe in one sentence who their ideal mentor would be, which is used as the basis for matching.
In the 2015-2016 contest year, Big Ideas recruited 136 interested mentors by the time finalists were determined, but only 49 teams requested mentors. Using the students’ request forms and the mentors’ applications, Big Ideas finalists are matched by staff based primarily on the team’s requested mentor attributes and mentor’s stated areas of expertise and experience. Where there is no strong fit, Big Ideas reaches out to its pool of former mentors and judges and/or conducts online research to see if an additional person would be interested in mentoring a Big Ideas team.
Big Ideas staff has found that, although matching teams and mentors based on content expertise is certainly important, the most successful mentorship relationships occur when both mentors and teams are engaged and willing to communicate frequently and openly with each other, regardless of how good the original match between the team’s interests and mentor experience was. In other words, engagement is often a better predictor of mentorship success than a mentor’s credentials, and eagerness to participate in mentorship should be a primary consideration when selecting and matching mentors to teams.
After a match is identified, Big Ideas will contact the mentor to reconfirm their commitment, share information about the team and project, and verify their interest in being matched with the finalist team. After the mentor confirms their willingness and commitment to mentor the team, the mentor and team are introduced over email and invited to participate in and hold their first consultation at the Final Round Kickoff Event (see the templates for the Mentor Matching Emails in the Tools section).
The Final Round Kickoff Event is the first time teams and mentors connect with one another, and signifies the launch of the second half of the contest. During the event, teams and mentors are provided an overview of the expectations for the mentorship period, and requirements for the Full Proposal. The purpose of the event is to make sure that students and their mentors are on the same page in terms of the anticipated final round deliverables and the terms of the mentor-mentee relationship.
During this time, teams and their mentors are provided a set of recommendations on how to best engage each other during the mentorship:
It is important for Big Ideas staff to follow up with teams over the course of the mentorship. Both teams and mentors reported that getting the first mentorship meeting off the ground is the most challenging part of the process due to busy schedules. They recommended that Big Ideas push both teams and mentors to set up a meeting early on to avoid delays in starting the mentorship.
Within 10 days following the Final Round Kickoff event, Big Ideas staff members follow up with each finalist team about the status of their signed Mentorship Agreement Form, and asks them to fill out the Mentorship Progress Update Survey (see Tools section). The survey asks teams a) how happy they are with the match and b) whether they have had their first meeting with their mentor. It allows the Big Ideas team to adjust the mentorship if necessary (sometimes Big Ideas will provide the team with an additional mentor to supplement their existing one if the team reports dissatisfaction with them match), and identify mentors that may require reminders to be more responsive to their teams. Big Ideas often acts as a facilitator or moderator in the relationship in case there is a misunderstanding or misalignment between the team and mentor.