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 over 400 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 seven 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.

Mentor Recruitment

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:

  • Mentors report that mentorship played a role in their own professional development, and they hope to repay the favor by mentoring a student team.
  • In a similar vein, mentors are often alumni who wish to stay connected to their alma mater and who are committed to giving back to the university.
  • Mentors indicate a wish to contribute to projects that have potential to make a lasting social impact.
  • Mentors appreciate the opportunity to preview and get (re)inspired by the next generation’s most creative ideas.
  • Mentors benefit from the opportunities to expand their professional networks and build university connections through Big Ideas trainings, mixers, and special events.
  • Mentors also report that their mentees provide them with opportunities to learn and grow professionally.

Mentor & Judge Outreach Strategies

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 various social impact track areas:

  • Utilize track sponsor and partners’ connections. Track sponsors and partners are one of the best resources for identifying prospective mentors and judges. For instance, CITRIS, which sponsors the annual IT for Society category, pulls from its broad network of faculty and industry professionals to assist Big Ideas staff in finding judges. Sponsors are contacted and asked to provide a list of individuals who they thought would be interested in mentoring or judging in the Big Ideas contest. This strategy was most effective when the sponsors themselves reached out to their lists. In most cases, Big Ideas staff did the initial outreach and subsequent follow-up to these prospects.
  • Outreach to former judges and mentors. In the most recent contest year (2019-2020), Big Ideas staff utilized its existing judge and mentor network to reach out to individuals who have participated in former years. Given that many of these experts at one point were interested in serving as a judge or mentor, it is highly likely that this pool of people will participate again. Furthermore, former judges and mentors have been tested and verified for excellence. As Big Ideas continues to grow, it is better able to retain a high quality network, which makes the mentor recruitment process much more manageable with each year. Pre-proposal judges are allowed to nominate particular teams that they would like to work with as a mentor based on the proposals that they had reviewed during the Pre-proposal judging round. Likewise, teams will also request to be mentored by certain judges if the feedback that judge provides is especially enlightening.
  • Utilize personal networks. Big Ideas managers and coordinators routinely tap into their existing networks to recruit mentors and judges.
  • Innovation & Entrepreneurship networks. With the assistance of the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), Big Ideas has successfully tapped into the innovations and entrepreneurship ecosystem across all 10 campuses of the UC system. As the Contest has grown into a multi-campus system, this network has been immensely valuable both for referrals to potential mentors as well as mentors themselves. 
  • Outreach at events. Big Ideas is well integrated in social innovation networks that exist in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. It taps into these networks, and advertise opportunities at large events to draw in students and professionals working in this space. In the past, Big Ideas has recruited judges and mentors at the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Expo, Social Capital Markets, Berkeley Festival of Ideas, and Haas School of Business Food Entrepreneur Event.
  • Cold call new recruits. Where the above mentioned outreach strategies fall short, often times Big Ideas needs to cold call topic area experts to fill its judge or mentor quotas. In the case of mentors, sometimes there won’t be a strong match between a finalist team’s needs and the skills offered by the existing pool of interested mentors.  Thus, Big Ideas conducts extensive online research on potential professionals who may be able to fill the required expertise gap and reaches out to them via email or phone. In most cases, mentioning that the innovation contest is based at a reputable university, and providing substantial information on the team’s background and their needs for a mentor leads to a high response rate.
  • Advertise in newsletters. At regular intervals, the Blum Center and Big Ideas sends out announcements and newsletters. During the fall semester, these communications contain a short message about mentorship opportunities and a link to the Mentor Interest Form on the Big Ideas website.

Pairing Mentors & Teams

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 2019-2020 contest year, Big Ideas recruited over 200 interested mentors by the time finalists were determined, but only 40 of the 43 final round 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).

Final Round Kickoff Event

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:

  • Teams should be the ones to take initiative, and prepare an agenda for each meeting to best effectively utilize their time. Mentors are very busy and teams should not make light of the dedicated weekly hour allotted to them.
  • Mentors and teams should review contest rules, criteria, and Pre-proposal feedback together.
  • Mentors and teams should establish work objectives, plans, and deadlines from offset, using the Mentorship Worksheet (provided in the Tools section) to set clear goals.
  • Mentors and teams should set up regular meeting times, communication modes, and efficient knowledge sharing channels from the offset
  • Students should leverage their mentor’s expertise and not be afraid to inquire about additional skill sets or introductions.
  • Mentors should be proactive in asking teams’ questions and challenging their assumptions.
  • While mentors may have a clear idea of how to improve the project, they should ensure ownership of the idea stays with the team. As such, mentors should not be writing the Full Proposal.

Regular Checkups

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.


  • Focus early on mentor recruitment and follow-up constantly. From an administrative standpoint, mentorship recruitment is one of the most time-consuming and difficult aspects of running the Big Ideas competition. In order to develop a deep and qualified pool of mentors, it is important to start the recruitment process early and have a dedicated staff person responsible for outreach and follow-up.
  • Be explicit about the difference in mentor and judge experiences. Big Ideas should emphasize that participating as a judge may be better suited for individuals with less flexible schedules who are interested in learning about a broad range of ideas. The mentorship may be more attractive to those who want to dive deeper into one project, connect substantially with a student team, and are focused on taking an idea to the next level. It’s important to understand the constraints of the audience being targeted, and to deliver clear and distinct marketing strategies for each role. Just because an individual does not express interest in serving as a judge does not mean that they are unwilling to serve as a mentor.
  • Don’t downplay the mentorship commitment. The most effective mentors are those who are committed and energetic. If a mentor is worried by the expectations or commitment, it is likely that mentor will not be an ideal candidate. In other words, if a prospective mentor is at all concerned about the time commitment, it is not useful to try to talk them in to mentoring.
  • Focus on building relationships with great mentors. It is important to identify and build relationships with effective mentors to increase the likelihood that they will participate in future years. Increase their sense of connection to the Contest by acknowledging their effort (e.g., thank you notes, swag), extending personal invitations to Big Ideas events and networking opportunities, sharing Big Ideas news and newsletters, etc.