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Mentoring is Fundamental

Kay Koplovitz, Founder and Former Chairman and CEO, USA Networks

Back in the 1970s, when there were three broadcasting networks and no more than a smattering of independents, I was working for the founder of the pioneering cable network, UA-Columbia Cablevision. It was my dream at the time — just a few years out of graduate school — to be a founder myself of a company in this enticing new medium.

In no small way, it was this individual for whom I was working — Bob Rosencrans — who helped me realize that dream. He provided the financing for the Madison Square Garden sports programming venture, which became, three years later, USA Network, the first basic cable to span the country.

Over the years, Bob Rosencrans has given me more than funding. Indeed, his has been the type of counsel that I've sought time and again in my career. In negotiations, for example, his philosophy is to drive the best deal, of course, but always to leave something on the table for the other guy. Rather than trouncing the opponent with all that you've got, he recommends that you allow that individual to be a winner, too. In business, what goes around comes around, and you never know when you'll again meet up with that "other guy" or under what circumstances.

In short, you might say that my former boss has been a mentor to me throughout my quarter century in business, both in cable television and even as I've moved on to found Springboard 2000, a nonprofit group which matches women entrepreneurs with sources of equity funding.

An Extraordinary Asset

You might also say, considering my experience and despite a radically altered environment for women in business, that a mentor such as mine is an extraordinary asset for women company founders. The relationship itself, which amounts to a give and take between a senior and junior professional, goes beyond tactical task coaching to become a lasting emotional bond. Indeed, mentoring is fundamental.

Mentoring is fundamental for everyone in business, and for all entrepreneurs, belying a lingering romantic fantasy about company builders being rugged individualists. Most critically, it is critical for company builders who happen to be women.

Even as the business landscape has changed in general for women, female entrepreneurs remain statistically at a considerable disadvantage. While women are starting companies at twice the rate of men — enterprises that generate a third of the national gross revenue and comprise 70 percent of the number of entities launched — they receive only 12 percent of the debt funding and an even slimmer 2 percent of the private equity funding. In short, women are succeeding at entrepreneurship despite a deck that is heavily stacked against them. They are succeeding under conditions of capital starvation.

Relationship Building

Until recently, very few women had attained senior leadership roles that allow an individual to offer up-and-comers the degree of counsel commensurate with mentoring. As for men in senior roles, they have had a predilection against extending the emotional bond inherent in mentoring to women — for remember that the relationship transcends tactical coaching — even as they eagerly utilize women's talents on a task-oriented level. Rather, men have tended to groom male protégés.

In the years ahead, it will be up to entrepreneurial women to seek out that necessary practical and emotional resource. It is daunting to be out there exposed and on one's own, so women entrepreneurs will need to take on the task of sourcing their own mentor and building on that relationship.

Women must work aggressively to determine whom they admire among the leaders in the field in which they hope to build a company. They must network astutely, choosing companies and positions early in their careers that enable contact with these leaders. Finally, they must take the lead in developing rapport with those individuals. A chance meeting in an elevator, a company outing, an off-site meeting — all are fraught with opportunities to begin building relationships.

As with so much about entrepreneurship, the onus is on the entrepreneur to pursue a mentoring relationship. With the stakes being so high for women company builders, the endeavor should rank as a priority on their entrepreneurial path to success.

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