The high school students Linda Berdine mentors may not immediately relate to her success as an entrepreneur who has built three successful information technology companies (and sold two of them for substantial returns). They do, however, relate to her personal struggle: an only child who spent the first year of her life in a German orphanage, Berdine was raised by a U.S. military family of modest means. Her adoptive parents later made their living by running a small business, setting an example that instilled the early seeds of entrepreneurship within her.

Patty Alper

Patty Alper

When I interviewed Berdine, a mentor in entrepreneurship classes at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia since 2011, she told me mentees always “take you back to your beginnings. I always pause and think, ‘How can I turn this answer into a lesson?’ I tell them my first job was picking strawberries in West Virginia, and that theirs might be cutting grass, but that could set the groundwork for them to become an entrepreneur.”

Over and over, I have also witnessed the lightbulbs being turned on in students – and the incredible impact it has on the mentors as well. Often, a mentee’s exposure to a mentor is the first time the student has considered a corporate career. The mentees soon see the mentor as a role model – someone they want to emulate. And the mentor, representing the corporation, creates a special liaison with the very students who will be future corporate leaders.

History provides important examples in every field of fruitful, even transformative, mentoring relationships: Socrates mentored Plato, Freud mentored Jung, Lorenzo de’ Medici mentored Michelangelo, Haydn mentored Beethoven, Hammerstein mentored Sondheim, Miles Davis mentored John Coltrane, and Steven Spielberg mentored Kathleen Kennedy.

A 1927 study, The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, found that mentors played a crucial role in the lives of one after another of the individuals considered geniuses in their field. More recently, in 1977, a review of Nobel laureates in the sciences found a similar pattern in Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States.

Project based mentoring, which is what I teach and discuss in Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, provides a unique opportunity for mentors to teach skills related to the corporate sector – and for mentors to witness those skills being enthusiastically adopted by students. Before long, the mentor’s stories of how he (or she) has solved problems in the industry will be more relevant than any book the students have in front of them.

Project based mentoring also provides the unique opportunity for the student to be in the driver seat. Each student chooses what project or problem needs to be addressed in his community. Each student, with the mentor’s guidance, is responsible for taking action, and for the success of the project. The student learns how to own the future of the project – a critical lesson for an eventual corporate career.

Yet there is still more to be gained from this relationship. The students learn another critical aspect of success: character. Tim Kautz and James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize–winning economist, did research on what they call non-cognitive skills, such as character, motivation, and goals, which are considered extremely valuable traits in the labor market. Their studies suggest that character is a skill, not a trait; that its development is a dynamic process that can be taught; and that non-cognitive skills (social skills) are as important as cognitive skills. Last, they concluded that successful educational interventions should emulate mentoring environments.

Finally, project based mentoring teaches perseverance and grit – additional skills critical for the workplace. The student forms plans and becomes a critical thinker, looking at the project dimensions and what is going to be fixed in the world. The mentor shows the student early examples of forecasting and timelines. And the student must be accountable, or risk an incomplete project. When that student perseveres through a difficult project or task, when the student learns to be a critical thinker, and then defends his work to the mentor and classmates, the reward is immeasurable.

These skill-building activities provide an opportunity for mentors to witness talented students, and the interactions meanwhile provide the students with important lessons that can be honed for use in the corporate world. Will the students remember the corporation for a lifetime? You bet. And many of the students will be submitting resumes within months. Will the mentor also have an illuminated insight as to the talents each student could bring to the corporation? Absolutely.  

Patty Alper is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a marketing and consulting company, and is a board member of both the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM careers. A trustee of the Alper Family Foundation for the last 18 years, Patty’s unique approach to philanthropic giving and entrepreneurial mentorship has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, TIME, and Philanthropy Magazine. Through her services on the national board of NFTE, Patty’s vision served as the groundwork for the Adopt-a-Class program she founded in 2001. Her new book is called Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America (Routledge).