February 15, 2022

Why mentoring startups is the 'secret sauce' of corporate innovation

Eight tips on how to do this well from Siemens Energy Ventures

Illai Gescheit

7 min read

Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

A big part of what shaped me as a founder, entrepreneur and venture capitalist is my mentoring experiences; both as a mentor and a mentee. After mentoring many amazing founders — both as a mentor-in-residence at Techstars, a mentor in the Google Climate Program and other programs — mentoring became a part of my identity.

Mentoring is a great mechanism for both startups founders and corporate employees to build personal relationships and to explore how they can help each other. The startup ecosystem, after all, is built on networks of people that help each other out. Founders help other founders get customers, talent and raise capital, and investors share deals with other investors and make referrals. This is how you build your reputation and network. In the long run, these all convert into business value and impact.

This is why we’ve made mentoring part of our startup activities at Siemens Energy Ventures. It helps to bridge the many mental and operational gaps when startups and corporates work together.

Startups fear corporates will slow them down. Corporates fear that the startups will fail quickly

Some startups fear corporates will slow them down, won’t understand them and even fear that the corporate will steal their product idea. On the other hand, corporates fear that the startups will fail quickly, will be too scrappy and will not generate quick returns on their investment. Building trust between the two is the only way they can work together.

Our main principle is to add value to founders. So we’re encouraging Siemens Energy executives and employees to share their commercial and technology experiences. In return, they get exposed to the journey, challenges and technologies of startup founders. This allows our organisation to change mindsets and bring those perspectives back to the business to create a faster and more innovative organisation. It also allows us to build our reputation within the global startup ecosystems, not as takers, but as real partners to startups.

How do we mentor?

We’re building a Startup Mentoring Platform that includes two types of engagement with organisations. We can tailor a dedicated mentorship programme for strategic partners. A good example is our partnership with  Breakthrough Energy,  a network of initiatives founded by Bill Gates to help scale the technologies we need to achieve a path to net zero emissions by 2050. We partnered with their Fellows Program and found mentors at Siemens Energy that could help them commercialise and scale their climate businesses.

The other type is with ecosystem partners where we simply connect Siemens Energy employees with mentorship programs like at Techstars and Carbon 13 and help our mentors to join those existing mentorship opportunities.

Who are our mentors?

We have expert mentors who support founders for a specific topic such as hydrogen, cyber security or product management. Lead Mentors are mentors who are willing to invest a bit more time into relationships and will accompany a team or founders with no specific focus. They help them navigate challenges such as team building, business development and technology and mainly connect them with other relevant professional mentors.

We also have executive mentors — members of the senior Siemens Energy team — who provide founders with that top-level perspective. Executive support is one of the key drivers for successful venturing activities at corporates, and having our executives mentoring startup founders, accelerates and strengthens our ability to build and scale our venturing activities and develop our 3V’s Operating Model.

How mentoring fits into our operating model

Siemens Energy works with startups in three ways — we call this the 3V’s Model:

  • Venture building — building new energy and climate businesses for Siemens Energy
  • Venture clienting — identifying business challenges and piloting with startups to solve those challenges.
  • Venture capital — investing in decarbonisation and energy transition startups and helping them scale.

Mentoring fits into this model in various ways. Mentors can be the first step to a deeper engagement with founders. They get to understand the company and can see if it would fit into one of the three mechanisms. They can then refer them to the venture capital team for a strategic investment or to the venture client team for piloting opportunities.

In addition, mentors bring what they learn from engaging with the startup founders back into our internal venture builders. They can become internal coaches and mentors and help internal ventures to grow and scale.

8 mentoring principles

We developed a few principles that guide our employees to become better mentors to founders and startup teams:

1/ Don’t expect anything in return

Mentoring is one of the ways we add value first to founders and startups. We are not mentoring because we expect every engagement to lead to a new revenue stream or investment opportunity. We mentor because we want to help founders and innovators to succeed and by doing so energise society.


2/ Be conscious when to coach and when to advise

There’s a difference between coaching, advising and mentoring. I see mentoring as a combination of coaching and advising. The worst mentors I’ve seen are the ones that tell the founder what to do, or constantly criticising him or her that they would do it differently. A great mentor knows how to switch between advising and coaching. A mentor can advise a founder by telling his or her personal stories and experiences and offering help on how to make decisions. Really great mentors are coaches and ask guiding questions to help the founders get to the answer themselves.

3/ Be open to learn

Mentoring is a two-way street, and great mentors see mentoring as a growth and learning experience for themselves as well. Mentoring is not just how you help founders to become better, build better business and products, it’s also an opportunity to learn a new technology, business model and things about yourself as a professional and a leader.

4/ Support founders mentally as well

Being a founder of a startup is a real rollercoaster. It’s also one of the loneliest experiences in business. Mentoring a founder isn't just about directing someone on how to build a financial model or writing a better business plan, it’s also about supporting the founders in the highs and the lows of building a startup, being mindful about it and showing great empathy when needed.

5/ Ask a lot of guiding questions

Questions are a great mentoring tool. Usually, when I start mentoring a new startup, I know nothing about the founder, the business, the team and market. I use questions to learn about that business, and by doing so I help the founder clarify the business proposition, vision and help them form strong opinions on the market and product.

6/ Listen first, then be honest and clear. Don’t hide the truth from founders

As a founder I had many "pseudo-friendly mentors", who were not effective and even harmful. These mentors were not honest with me, and they were just… nice. They didn’t want to disappoint me so they told me what I wanted to hear and not what I needed to hear from them. They didn’t ask me hard questions or suggest I do things differently. You can be nice but still be honest!

7/ Share your own story

There is nothing more powerful than personal stories and experiences. Make yourself vulnerable as a mentor and share your personal stories. When you share them don’t just tell success stories, but also your failures. These stories are a way to connect on a deeper level with the founder and to show empathy. Your stories prompt curiosity and a different level of conversation that is super helpful for founders at any stage.

8/ Open your networks, connections and heart

I always say to mentors I work with that "one introduction could change multiple lives". Making introductions and helping founders to build their network is a core principle of being a mentor. I had the opportunity to see how a simple introduction between a founder and another contact of mine created great things, from helping to find a cofounder to closing a leading investor. Make intros with an optimistic mindset that something great could happen from that simple action!

Mentoring startups and founders transformed me as a founder, investor and as a person. I believe adding mentoring of startups and founders and having it as a core part of corporate innovation culture could also transform organisations and mindsets. It could be the key to getting corporates and startups working more effectively together.