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Mentorship in digital age can be blend of old, new

Denise Young / Innovation Trail

Sarah Bowman Davila never thought she’d own her own business.

A licensed clinical social worker, she had always worked for agencies, providing counseling to teenagers, women and people with chemical dependencies, among others.

But an opportunity — and someone who would prove to be a caring guide in her life — changed her career path.

“Four years ago now,” Davila said, “when I started doing some independent contract work with a small private group, I had hoped that I would become more of a part business owner with that particular group or at least learn more about the business.”

With such a big move came a lot of questions about what that would involve. So she took a course offered by the local chapter of SCORE, a nationwide agency where volunteers provide mentoring and workshops.

Credit Denise Young / Innovation Trail
Sarah Bowman Davila.

At the course, she met Bob Zinnecker, who’s been volunteering for SCORE for 25 years and has mentored more than 100 people.

She initially wanted Zinnecker to help her review the contract to make sure she was protecting herself.

But then opportunity knocked again. A colleague had an office to rent, giving Davila the chance to open her own practice.

“So I was torn, and one of the key things that Bob said to me at some point was, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you see yourself as an employee or a small-business woman?’ And I liked the ring of the second one.”

Davila decided to take the plunge, and she opened her own therapy practice, Joy Full Living Center on Titus Avenue in Irondequoit, three years ago.

“I never dreamed that I would be doing that, when I first went to SCORE and first met with Bob, but his encouragement and support just made that very clear that that’s where I wanted to move into,” Davila said.

As Davila’s mentor, Zinnecker takes pride in her success — and even shares it a bit.

Credit Denise Young / Innovation Trail
Bob Zinnecker

“I can look at Sarah and I can say, ‘If she’s helped somebody, then I’ve helped somebody indirectly, right?’ Because I helped her, and she’s helped somebody else, and I think that’s kind of what makes the world go round.”

Mentorship has been a key factor for many successful businesspeople who credit their accomplishments to having someone who served as a guide as they progressed in their careers.

“Mentoring would be something where an individual has a deep expertise in a particular field,” said Richard DeMartino, director of the Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a professor in the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“And you would come in and ask them for advice and get insights from them, and they would listen to you and give you guidance.”

At the Simone Center, he said, mentorship is considered so important that students are linked with industry leaders who help them navigate the challenging world of entrepreneurship.

Credit Denise Young / Innovation Trail
Richard DeMartino, director of the Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a professor in the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“And they don’t do it for me, and they don’t do it for RIT,” DeMartino said. “They do it to give back to the students because they want to help. They want to help! They want to help guide young, promising people in promising directions. So we truly realize that as part of the educational process, but really part of the human development process.”

But not everybody has access to such advantages. What happens to the people who have big dreams —but little support?

Kevin Walker knows what that feels like. While he has had a successful career as a high-level executive in the energy industry, he knows that his life could have been dramatically different.

“I grew up a child of a single mom; she had me when she was 16,” said Walker, a Honeoye Falls resident. “I had great love in my family. A lot of my relatives — cousins, aunts and uncles — all lived in the same area, sometimes in the same house, so I was not lacking for that at all.”

What was lacking, Walker said, were people who could guide him on larger worldview experiences, like attending college or serving in the military.

“So from the medium to the large type of decisions that you make throughout your life that could potentially change your life … I didn’t have that network close by,” he said.

Mentorship, he said, changed the course his life would take.

Credit Denise Young / Innovation Trail
Kevin Walker, co-founder of TurtleWise, a mentoring app, said his personal life inspired him to create something that could help others.

“There were great people who stepped up to the table who didn’t have to, didn’t know me necessarily, but they felt like they wanted to give back, and here was a person who was willing to listen,” Walker said. “And so, if it hadn’t been for those folks outside my network who were willing to mentor, coach and advise, I would have had a very different trajectory in my life.”

He went on to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and earn an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and he continually advanced in the energy industry until he left to focus on a new venture.

Walker said his personal life inspired him to create and co-found TurtleWise, an app that launched in March at South by Southwest, a large tech conference in Austin, Texas.

Think of TurtleWise, Walker said, as “the Match.com of advice-seeking.” There are advice-seekers called “explorers” and advice-givers called “gurus.”

“The idea about the app is to try to mimic the natural world,” Walker said. “So you come in, you sign up, you put in your profile, you talk about characteristics, traits, aspirations that you have about yourself so that people can see who you are, and you can see who other people are.

“We have a technology in the background that as you ask your question, and you decide who your ideal adviser is, we go through our algorithm and we match you with that person.”

Walker believes TurtleWise will provide essential guidance to an audience that may not be able to find it elsewhere.

“What we’re trying to do at TurtleWise is to create that kind of venue and opportunity for I think the thousands — or hundreds of thousands — who are in that same situation that I was and to try to level the playing field,” he said. “Our tagline says, ‘A better life through better decisions,’ and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

DeMartino agreed that there’s a large population that may miss out on mentoring opportunities.

“One of the things that the research has demonstrated is that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — particularly disadvantaged family backgrounds — don’t have the social networks of someone that’s middle-class or higher,” he said.

DeMartino still considers face-to-face mentoring relationships to be the best, but he sees benefits to digital offerings, especially since the one-time traditional mentorship model found in large companies has been largely lost. He said in the last 30 years, as those large companies have downsized and people have started to work for smaller firms, there have been fewer mentoring programs.

But that hasn’t erased the need for mentorship.

“I think what we’re seeing now is you’re beginning to see efforts to find that over the Internet, over communities, digital communities,” DeMartino said. “That has opportunities, and that has challenges, too, because you don’t have that face-to-face.”

The most important thing, he said, is for someone seeking that guidance to get it.

“I think almost everybody has a mentor; they just don’t realize it. And if they don’t have a mentor and a role model, then I feel sad for them because that’s so important.

“That’s how you learn life.”