Business mentor survey reveals some awkward truths » SMEInsider

Business mentor survey reveals some awkward truths

The majority of business decision makers would choose Richard Branson as a mentor over Mark Zuckerberg, JK Rowling or any of the three main political party leaders, according to a new survey by the digital lender Everline.

203 of the 500 SMEs polled chose the Virgin founder from the 11-strong list, with Zuckerberg, the second most popular option, racking up just 65 votes. Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg and ex-Spice Girl Mel B fared the worst, with only a tiny scattering of votes apiece, while Labour leader Ed Milliband was marginally edged into the third-from-worst spot by singer Cheryl Cole.

Across the board, the respondents appeared to favour mentors that most closely matched their age and experience. Although Branson was the clear favourite across all demographics, he was most popular among older male respondents. Zuckerberg, too, was the most commonly cited choice amongst 18-34 year old men.

This trend highlighted a major flaw of the poll: its notable lack of representation. While Branson was also the most common choice for female business owners, the vast majority said that they would not choose any of the options on the list. The three women proffered as (theoretical mentors) were JK Rowling, Mel B and Cheryl Cole – an author and two singers – none of whom, whilst all highly successful, are typically thought of as entrepreneurs.

Inadvertently, the Everline survey has hinted at an uncomfortable truth in the business world: a self-perpetuating lack of diversity. Even the inspired dreamers and ambitious entrepreneurs have their crises of confidence and, when they do, it’s often helpful to look up to people whose experiences and backgrounds reflect their own. Doing this not only reminds us that what we’re striving for can be done, but that it can be done by people like us.

What this means is that if, like Branson and Zuckerberg, you’re a white, middle-class, university-educated male, there is no shortage of success stories for you to mentally bank as inspiration. The further you get from this demographic, the harder you to have to work to find high profile examples of trailblazers that reflect your experience.

So, while polls like this one from Everline are, of course, designed to be frivolous, their implicit assumptions are actually part of a damaging trend. By excluding women who are famous primarily for being entrepreneurs, and by making the solitary non-white example Dr. Dre, an African-American rapper, they are insidiously intensifying unhelpful stereotypes.

Great entrepreneurship is all about fresh ideas and approaches, and so opening up the playing field to less conventional voices can only be a good thing. Where are the big name businesswomen like Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington on this list of business influencers? And where are the Aneel Bhusris, Sara Blakelys, Jerry Wangs, Padmasree Warriors, Margaret Chans and Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudis – individuals who have done exceptional things in their fields, many of them raking in billions of pounds in the process, but whom we so rarely hear about?

Self-made billionaires like JK Rowling and Dr. Dre have achieved incredible things in their careers, but they are people who were recognised, first and foremost, for their exceptional talents as artists or entertainers. These are rare, specific talents that bear little relation to the daily realities of entrepreneurship and, in the public imagination, conflate business acumen with the idea of celebrity. Meanwhile, celebrating the achievements of business successes can be a great way to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, but too close a focus on the Bransons and Zuckerbergs of the world can throw cold water over the ambitions of those that don’t see these figures as relevant mentor-figures for them. The whole idea of what makes a great business mentor, it seems, needs some serious shaking up.