A recent study has shown that business owners need more mentoring. According to Kate Harrison (2018), an entrepreneur who writes about green businesses and helps startups grow, 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, 30% of small businesses fail in their second year, and 50% of small businesses fail after five years when their financing or enthusiasm, or both, dry up. 92% of small business owners agree that mentors have a direct impact on the growth and survival of their business.
For Derick Omari, an entrepreneur, innovator and founder of Tech Era, a good business is one that learns quickly from its mistakes. It’s a great opportunity for business owners to have mentors because then, they don’t have to make certain mistakes anymore since they can learn from others who have made those mistakes. He believes that mentorship is important for SMEs in Africa because of uncertainty and also because of the fact these business owners are constantly figuring out what to do and how to do it.
Tech Era is a Ghanaian social enterprise that has built a unique innovation development model for inclusive, sustainable, and affordable solutions to some of Africa’s hardest challenges. It has validated its model in the education and disability space by developing affordable assistive technology, ed-tech solutions, and intervention programs for persons with disabilities, schools, and organizations. They have about 14 products in their portfolio and these are made up of hardware innovation, software innovation and interventions which are basically like impact projects that are more service-oriented.
In a 20-minute conversation, Omari highlights what set him on his career path, what he has learned from the mentorship experience and how it has helped Tech Era to grow.
Ann-Marie: What set you on your career path?
Derick: The organization did not start from Tech Era, but the vision and motivation were to build IT literacy in Africa. For me, I went through a foster care system and thought I could give back and find solutions to the problems we face in our societies, especially in Africa.
Ann-Marie: So, for you as a business owner, what do you understand by mentorship and why is it important for SMEs in Africa?
Derick: Mentorship is a space where you get the privilege of not making mistakes people have made because you get to learn from them. It is the process of guiding someone to achieve specific results. So, mentorship is important for startups because of uncertainty; you’re trying to figure out what to do and how to do it so you need people who’ll guide you on the right path. Most business owners do not benefit from mentorship because they do not know how to tailor questions based on their needs. So, when you have been on a journey for a year or two and you’ve seen some people make mistakes, you can clearly see that every startup needs mentorship. Business owners lead teams, so it is important that they have people to guide them, so they don’t mess up.
Ann-Marie: Have you worked with any mentors before, and how was that experience like for you and the organization if yes?
Derick: For Tech Era, mentorship helped us realize that we could not be sustained as an NGO. Mentorship has helped us build a stronger team. It has helped us to understand the importance of regulation and taxes. It has helped us to become more focused and has really encouraged us as an organization because when you are not mentored, you feel like you are not doing anything beneficial. But you will realise that a lot of businesses do not make money in their first three years so when you are not mentored you start to feel the pressure and can easily give up. So, I think that mentorship helps to give you a picture of what you’ve not seen yet.
Ann-Marie: You also mentioned that some business owners don’t know the importance of mentorship. How do you think that problem can be solved, or how do you find the right mentor to guide you?
Derick: I think the reason why people don’t get mentors comes from the thinking that you have the best idea and you don’t want anybody to steal it. There are a lot of people who think like that and make that mistake. The fact that you expose and open up yourself to a mentor doesn’t mean that the mentor will steal your idea. We have good mentors. Good mentors are people who are not shy to tell you what it is. Good mentors are people who can really commit resources to your business and with resources, I don’t mean only money but time too. Good mentors can connect you to other people who might be helpful to your business. Good mentors are people who could give you advice on some important decisions and strategies to take. Good mentors are people who will make you accountable. So, think about all these things and ask yourself, who can I find to fill these roles for me? It might be two or three people. Some mentors will think about your personal life, your personal health, your personal development. There are some mentors who will think about your business operations. There are some mentors who will think about accountability. You need people to help you figure that out because these people will share experiences with you on how to be successful or the steps that they took to be successful. There are some mentors that will connect you to the right people so the things that will take you 10 years to figure out, they can help you use one week to do that. So that’s how to identify a good mentor.
Ann-Marie: So a misconception about mentorship is that mentors steal ideas?
Derick: Yes. Mentors steal ideas, that’s one. Secondly, it’s a time-wasting experience. Mentorship is like one of the greatest resources you can ever so that’s clearly not true. And three, some business owners think they know it all. You really don’t know it all when you start something new so you should always be willing to learn from people. There might be other reasons but these are the basic reasons I can identify.
Ann-Marie: So if you look back at how you have mentored people and how people have mentored you, if you had the chance to do something differently, what do you think that will be?
Derick: I don’t think I’ll do anything differently. I think that every mentorship experience comes in its own unique way. Every mentor is unique, and every mentee is unique. For me, I think that I have struggled to identify which areas I need help with. I think that I can be a better mentee by being able to freely express or easily identify the gaps that exist in my personal leadership life or the gaps that exist in my business, right. I think that if I had been more open about it I would have gotten faster and better help than I’m getting now.
Ann-Marie: When you say open what do you mean by that? Do you mean being open-minded?
Derick: I mean being able to open up and tell my mentors what my issues are: telling them the truth and telling them what’s on my mind. Sometimes it’s not that you can’t tell them; it’s just that you don’t think whatever you’re facing is a problem but you should be able to think beyond the present to see how things will play out. You won’t always have your mentors around because they also have lives outside your relationship with them. You could just meet them once and then that’s it.
Ann-Marie: What are some challenges you have faced with your mentors, or you being a mentor?
Derick: One of the things I’ve not done well is to keep mentors. It is very very important. For me, I’ve had many brilliant and highly-skilled mentors but I’ve only been able to embrace them sparingly. I’ve also had some mentors for the past five years but there are other people I’ve lost because I’ve not kept up with them.. One of the things I’m trying to do is to try to reach out and try to connect back. It’s something that I didn’t do well and hoping that I can improve.
Ann-Marie: This is the last thing for you. From your whole experience, starting Tech Era, how it has changed over time using mentors and being a mentor yourself, what have you learnt from the entire experience and for someone who is starting a business or who has started, what advice would you give to them?
Derick: I think what’s important is to acknowledge that you don’t know. Nobody knows. And that is the fact you need to learn really fast. When you realise that you don’t know, you need to be open to learning and looking up to asking questions. A lot of young people find it difficult to ask questions. When you are in university and you’ve started getting awards, for example, you feel on top of the world. It’s a misconception and it is a real danger. When you identify that you don’t know you’re always willing to learn and ask questions. Running a business is not necessarily about making money; it is learning about yourself and trying to fill a certain gap. We don’t run a business to make money; we run a business to solve a problem. You need to be able to leverage on all the resources around you and identify how to smartly solve your problems, of which mentorship is a part.