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Q&A: Citi employee shares insights into being a business mentor

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Based in the Netherlands, Qredits is one of nine Youth Business International (YBI) members in the Youth Business Europe initiative, a regional programme supporting young people to start, grow and sustain their businesses, supported by the Citi Foundation. The partnership is part of their Pathways to Progress initiative, which aims to equip urban youth with the tools to thrive in today’s economy. As part of this, Citi is committed to engaging its employees through volunteerism including mentoring for young entrepreneurs.

With access to a large supply of well-qualified business advisers through the connection with Citi, Qredits matches many of their entrepreneurs with mentors as they recognise the positive impact mentoring relationships can have.

Barry van Kooij has worked for Citi for almost 13 years, first as an account manager and now in cash management sales, a role he has held for the last four years. We recently spoke to Barry and asked him about his experiences of being a mentor.

Why did you decide to become a mentor?

About three years ago, Qredits gave a presentation to our office promoting the mentorship program. I was already working with a lot of large, well-established, multinational clients, but my contributions focused primarily on improving them - I wasn’t involved in consulting on any of their new initiatives. I felt it would refreshing to work with young entrepreneurs starting their own companies from the ground up. My experience made me feel prepared to add some value by bringing a new perspective and highlighting the bigger picture for these ambitious entrepreneurs. Additionally, I felt comfortable providing advice about business planning during the process of scaling.

How would you describe the job of a mentor?

Mentoring is about being able to listen and understand the needs of the person being coached. It is not dissimilar from a sales process where you’re listening to the clients’ needs, seeing what direction they want to go in, and giving them the necessary tools. With my mentees, I do my best to act as a sounding board, letting them bounce ideas off me. Every now and then, I’ll offer a provoking thought just to help them think about things they may not have considered. This approach seems to work quite well. I don’t give my mentees targeted advice on a specific service they provide, because that’s what they’re good at. I tend to be a resource for brainstorming and giving a sense of direction as young entrepreneurs usually don’t have experience of scaling a business.

Tell us about the mentees you have worked with.

The first entrepreneur I worked with set up a very interesting company that benefits from the health food trend combined with a desire for an active lifestyle, ease, and convenience. He makes healthy microwavable ready meals and sells the boxes online or directly to fitness centres. He took the concept and used it to create a link to a wider health community. My second mentee started a catering company with Indonesian sandwiches and my newest mentee runs an eSports café - his dream is to expand to every city in the Netherlands and possibly even abroad. I suggested that he might want to move to a larger location in his current city before considering franchises and helped him to reconsider the ways in which he could grow his business.

What are the main ways a mentor can support a young entrepreneur?

The two most important resources that I provide as a mentor are being a sounding board and also a confidence boost to reassure my mentees that they’re not alone and things aren’t as bad as they might think. If you’re an entrepreneur, you sometimes get so stuck in the day to day and when you see a lot of money flowing out and not enough coming in, you can feel anxious. I help my mentees to gain perspective, remind them to remain tenacious and tell them that everything will be okay in the long run.

How do you benefit personally or professionally from your relationship with a mentee?

It has helped me to learn more about the coaching process - what works and what doesn’t. I also achieved what I set out to do: get a glimpse into how people start their companies. I’ve been able to be close to the process and build relationships with the entrepreneurs which has been really rewarding. It’s so nice to see people achieving their dreams and making a business out of doing what they love on a daily basis.

What advice would you give other mentors who are about to start working with a mentee?

It’s crucial to enter each mentoring relationship with an open mind; accept the other person for who they are and what they want to achieve and let them decide their own journey. One of my personal mentors, a 80-year-old man who has done all kinds of soul searching throughout his lifetime, has taught me what it means to be an effective mentor and coach. He has showed me that mentoring is not about telling the other person what to do, it is about setting your own judgements and preconceptions aside. If you can do that and avoid pushing your views on others, then the real potential of the mentee will naturally come out.

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