Mentorship Transforms Entrepreneurs’ Work
If you were asked to think about mentors who have helped you become the person you are today, how would you describe them?
Some of the main qualities I think of for two of my own mentors, my older sister and my favorite math teacher from high school, are honest, dependable and passionate. My name is Sophia Sacchetti and I am a Junior at Duke passionate about social innovation after participating in Duke Engage in Durban, South Africa. Over the past few weeks, I have had the honor of meeting the amazing founders of two transformative social enterprises: Jamila of Smart Girls and Ian of Tai Tanzania.
In this piece we are going to explore the amazing characteristics of mentors who participated in the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, the importance of mentorship, and how mentors directly impact a social entrepreneur’s work. First, we will dive into a brief background of the social enterprises and then learn about 5 key takeaways I’ve gathered through my conversations with the founders and mentors.
Smart Girls Foundation Uganda is a social enterprise part of the Sanitation and Hygiene Cohort mentored by volunteer Michael Moscherosch, a dedicated social innovation and impact aficionado. Founded by Jamila Mayanja, Smart Girls aims to address the challenge of girls not participating in school because of menstruation management and other issues through the creation of the Smart Bag and Girls with Tools Program.
Mentor Michael Moscheroch with Jamila, Girls for Tools Program, and SmartBags
Tai Tanzania is a social enterprise part of the Menstrual Health and Hygiene Cohort mentored by volunteer Bolin Zhang, policy lead at Netflix. Founded by Ian Tarimo, Tai TZ uses animated videos and storytelling to break taboos and inspire young people to change their attitudes regarding menstruation and other social issues.
Ian Tarimo during school outreach and gathering data
Takeaway #1: Personal Experience and Realization Can Play a Critical Role in Innovation
Personal experience and realizations can help innovators identify unmet needs, gain unique insights into problems and develop targeted solutions. Both Jamila and Ian experienced challenges in their personal lives that inspired them to create their social enterprises. Jamila was only in primary school when she faced a lot of menstrual bullying due to her period starting early. Upon entering secondary education and University, she grew her self-esteem, learned about her period and taught peers about reproductive health in female-focused volunteer organizations. In 2013, through the creation of Smart Girls, Jamila pursued her passion by buying reusable pads and donating them in order to improve the menstrual hygiene of young women and grow their self-esteem. She continued to question and question, “Why are the young girls still staying out of school even with access to free, reusable pads”. Jamila discovered that the girls were stuck with their used pads, having nowhere to store them for the rest of the day, and created the Solar Smart Bag to combat this key problem. Ian had a unique opportunity as a child to hear stories about fulfilled adults making an impact in their communities through their careers. These adults were his own parents, a teacher and a nurse, eager to create a difference. In addition to studying Information Technology in University, Ian pursued his passion for volunteering with an organization called ISEC. By following what gives him a “burning fire”, Ian and a like-minded team decided to start Tai rather than following the typical path of entering an IT job.
Takeaway #2: Not Everything Will Go as Planned – The Importance of Adapting to New Circumstances
The journeys of Ian and Jamila prove that the ability to adapt to new circumstances is crucial for success. Ian initially started Tai to help teach kids about career guidance as he felt in his own personal experience that there were not enough resources available for him to decide his own career from a priest to a teacher to a doctor. When first visiting a classroom, he saw that many girls were missing school and realized “It is beyond career issues. There are more important issues on menstrual hygiene and teenage pregnancy”. After first appearing as “saviors who know all” when lecturing students at different schools, Ian adapted his approach to the issue by focusing on storytelling and animation. Ian described how Tai had to continuously adapt to community preferences by first sharing information through generators, then comic books and then radio stories since “If you don’t evolve and adapt, you die”. Similarly, Jamila constantly adapted to connect the missions of the Solar Smart Bag and Girls with Tools Program in order to produce and distribute the greatest number of Smart Bags while employing the greatest number of women. When women take on male-dominated roles in the Girls with Tools Program, many of them are trained to make the Solar Smart Bag that is then distributed through partnerships and host communities. Jamila highlights her passion for women empowerment when she states, “It has not been easy, but it has been fun. When you are passionate about something you persevere and be patient”.
Takeaway #3: The Importance of Mentorship to Our Entrepreneurs
Ian and Jamila couldn’t stop sharing their positive sentiment and excitement for the Accelerator and their wonderful mentors. Ian believes the Accelerator was very beneficial to Tai and is thankful for this strong relationship formed with his mentor, Bolin. Through the Accelerator and partnerships formed during it, Tai has been able to reach 4 schools in Kenya. By connecting with Bolin, Ian learned the business side of animation such as how to create a script and pitch deck necessary for Tai Plus. He describes how it was “Nice to talk and give motivation to someone else who understands” when explaining how Bolin and him experienced a tragic loss during COVID. Jamila thoroughly enjoyed coaching calls with the Duke team who kept checking in on her progress and guided her towards implementing new programs. She describes the friendships she has made from the accelerator as “a big family” and established new connections in Tanzania and Kenya. When asked about her mentor Dr. Michael, she admirably described how he mentally and emotionally guided her to become a better leader and worked with her to cut costs in order to produce a sustainable, quality product. In her own words, “Dr. Michael is still impacting my life, I even had a call with him yesterday…He is beyond a mentor, he understood my work so deeply and gave me advice to become a better leader.”
Takeaway #4: Mentor Expertise and Experiences Are Key to Helping Entrepreneurs
Michael and Bolin have incredible backgrounds and knowledge in their respective fields that have allowed them to excel as mentors. Michael has worked in product development within the consumer health sector for more than 10 years and gained a passion for serving underserved populations in 2015 after collaborating with a startup in Rwanda that made disposable sanitary napkins using locally sourced banana fibers as absorbent. He further explored his personal interest in African entrepreneurs and women’s health in 2016 by leading the Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge. Michael used his years of experience in product development within the consumer health sector to help Jamila maximize the number of Solar Smart Bags that are being produced and distributed. He helped enforce a stable cost structure by analyzing her cost of goods data. Bolin has experience in international development policy, international property law and entertainment and content policy at Netflix. Bolin felt very connected to Tai’s menstrual health focus as she grew up in China within a conservative society where everything surrounding menstruation was taboo. When mentoring Tai, Bolin considered herself “The go-to person to consult on the business/operations side”. She focused on establishing a channel for Tai to receive donations from the US or Europe and exploring the ownership and persona of the organization.
Takeaway #5: Mentor and Mentee Have Great Advice and Takeaways
Michael and Bolin have essential wisdom for potential founders centered upon overcoming failure and creating a strong team. Michael focused his advice on how “Innovators must recognize the importance of implementation since a business is 5% innovation and 95% implementation”. He encourages others to embrace failure and states, “The best and fastest way to learn something is to make mistakes and learn from them”. Bolin shares a similar sentiment and further focuses her advice to entrepreneurs by stating “Do you want to be a fox or a hedgehog”. She explains the importance of recognizing whether the goal of the nonprofit is to have a variety of skills or to be focused on one aspect done very well. In addition, to future entrepreneurs of the Accelerator, Ian wants you to know to ““Be serious, intentional and do your homework. The program is the key to gaining knowledge, but it is up to you to implement changes and improve your enterprise”. Likewise, Jamila encourages you to “Learn more about how to make an impact and then gain the necessary skills in order to do that”.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time speaking with the inspiring founders Ian and Jamila and transformative mentors Bolin and Michael. Overall, I hope we can all appreciate learning more about the innovative and life-changing work of Smart Girls Uganda and Tai Tanzania as well as the valuable mentorship provided throughout the Duke Innovation Accelerator.
– Written by Sophia Sacchetti, Duke University student and DUIA Research Assistant
To learn more about the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, visit www.dukeunicef.org