Having a mentor who has walked your path before can be a great boost to early stage entrepreneurs. Meet Solveiga Pakstaite, and her mentor Jurga, who talk about how their relationship helps them both.
Business background & overcoming challenges
• Tell us about your businesses. What was the inspiration and how did you get the business off the ground/ how did you get the business from ideation to activation?
Solveiga: I am the founder of Mimica, an innovation which reduces food waste by more accurately tracking food decay. I originally started the idea off as a University project and since then it has really exploded. Fortunately, I’ve enjoyed a good amount of success when it comes to grant funding, having won the James Dyson Scholarship back in 2014 and then the Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Award in 2015. As a result, the business reached a point where we could accelerate the rate of our R&D. Following this, I focused on securing angel investment and managed to acquire £150,000 worth of investment, which has allowed me to bring someone new on board who has added a lot to the company, as well as using it for lab testing and filing new patents.
Jurga: I am the founder and CEO of Today Translations, a specialist language company. We are based in the City of London and we drive bi-lateral trade between the UK and rest of the world. Originally I started off as a serial entrepreneur, but when I set up my language company it grew organically year-on-year through continuous self-funding and grant based programmes. Winning funding from the Shell LiveWIRE programme in 2003 was a key point in the success of Today’s Translations. Shell LiveWIRE does much more than help you build up the skills you need as an entrepreneur, it embeds you within a dynamic network that can help propel your business forward.
• In your experience, are there particular challenges for women in taking a business start-up to scale-up? [Both]
Solveiga: My projects have been very technical and science-based. People don’t expect a young woman to walk into a room and be able talk about proteins and food decay. In my first few meetings with blue chip companies, I found myself sitting across from middle-aged men that were possibly less willing to listen to what I had to say from the start, but who soon warmed to me and my business idea as the meeting progressed.
Jurga: Confidence. Business has traditionally developed around male psychology and style. As a result, it can be tricky for women trying to break into business. I think the structure itself needs to change or experience some kind of evolution to provide confidence building points for women. The industry could set up more corporate councils for women in commerce, which I have been a big advocate for. I have been running my company for 15 years and, now that I’m in my forties, can see my confidence has finally become really strong. I can really relate to women who aren’t confident enough to start a business, and hesitate when it comes to decision-making and presenting their business ideas. When you’re running a good organisation, you have to learn to be ruthless in your decision-making.
• How important is/ was mentoring to your business success? Are there programmes/ opportunities to help identify and develop female entrepreneurial talent?
Solveiga: Absolutely vital. Having a mentor who has ‘been there and done it’ saves you from making silly mistakes. Mentors can help you avoid painful scenarios, for example, when I first started speaking to investors I had no idea what should go into a business plan.
Jurga: Very important! I was very lucky to have good advisors throughout my career. It was not something I actively looked for but I would describe my advisors as mentors. Looking back, they were wonderful. I didn’t look at it as a formal mentoring program. I experienced a kind of informal mentoring, but this later made me realise the importance of formal mentoring. You need a structure and you need to know the right questions to ask. Mentors are becoming more attainable and more acceptable with all the different programmes out there.
• What is the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?
Solveiga: Once you’ve got hold of grant money, you need to spend it – which I was really scared to do in the beginning. My mentors gave me excellent advice about how to spend to accelerate development. Utilising funding well will transfer it into value and will build momentum for your business.
Jurga: Ask for help – that transformed my vision and mentality. Also, remember that if something goes wrong it’s not always your fault. Sometimes people think ‘I should have seen that coming’ and you go through a vicious cycle of criticising yourself instead of dealing with the issue. I used to feel that asking for help was declaring defeat but, really, asking for help is what transformed my life, my vision and how I run my business.
Relationship Background - How you and Jurga work together
Solveiga: I met Jurga because she was one of the early stage judges for the Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Awards. Immediately I was drawn to her as she was also Lithuanian. She urged me to join a networking club for Lithuanian businesses in the UK to meet other really successful entrepreneurs.
Jurga: My relationship with Solveiga was based around providing feedback and advice during the judging process. I advised her to really focus on her technology, as it was one area she really needed to protect when it came to the negotiation process with potential customers and partners.
• How does the mentee-mentor relationship work in practice? What’s the typical format of a mentor-mentee relationship?
Solveiga: I have received a mixture of formal and informal pieces of advice from mentors. Sometimes you need a cheerleader on your side, especially if something has not gone to plan. Other times you need more hands-on experience – especially when putting together your first proposal. Finding a mentor is an important step to take when launching a business. I met my mentors in a variety of different situations. Some came through the various programmes I was enrolled in and others at networking events. I met my most engaging mentor at a party and invited him to be the first member of my advisory board. My advice to entrepreneurs just starting out would be to have the confidence to ask for advice. Go to networking parties and your network will grow exponentially. If I am a little bit of uncomfortable making a decision, I will always ask one of my mentors.
Jurga: It’s a journey – you never know where and how quickly it’s going to lead somewhere. You have to be quite open-minded, you have to have a loose structure in terms of what your desired outcome is. You start talking about something different to what you originally planned and then you have a whole new idea. When you come up with new ideas, you have to capitalise on them. Being open to suggestions and listening – really listening – to advice is what is important because people mean well. I see that a lot - when I meet some people I have mentored; I can see they hear my advice but not really listening to it. So listen to the wise owl – I did and it worked wonders.
• Which aspects do you focus on? – e.g. leadership, strategy, employee headaches, funding, personal development / softer skills, operational improvements
Solveiga: I have focused mainly on aspects like ‘who should be my first hire and how should I choose them’. It’s a massive decision. I was so worried about my first hire – I got a mentor to come and interview them. It’s also important to focus your resource. You often have to ask yourself whether going on a conference trip is really value for money. I have been in many situations where I want to fund some lab work but simply can’t due to a lack of funding.
Jurga: Strategy. Strategy. Strategy – the rest is tactics and how you will deliver your strategy. The most important thing is to treat yourself as an individual and not to have a blanket approach. Really identify what you’re not good at and leave the rest to others.
• What do you get out of the relationship? Why do you devote time to it?
Solveiga: The advice and guidance you get from mentors is invaluable to any business. My mentors have been particularly useful in helping to build my team around me. It’s a tricky thing to do, and you really need to surround yourself with right people with the right attitude.
Jurga: I think it gives me a current view of what’s happening in the world, within a particular sector or demographic area. It makes my knowledge a little more current. It helps me to learn things. There are some areas in business I have never even thought of as being an issue or a barrier, but mentoring has opened my eyes somewhat. By going through issues or difficulties together, I have been able to identify my own personal or business weaknesses. Mentoring has allowed me to look at myself in the mirror. After all, no one is perfect.
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