A bright MBA finds invaluable aid from a dedicated VC who not only understands where he needs to go professionally, but where he’s coming from culturally
By PEPI SAPPAL, WSJ Career Journal
An essay JC Mountainbear wrote in applying for a business-school fellowship described whom he’d choose for a “personal board of directors.”
“I saw my mentor as my guiding light in business and finance,” says Mountainbear, a Cherokee from the New York Bronx. Specifically, he was looking for someone who could show him the ropes in the venture-capital business.
Bill Lyman, general partner at Alliance Technology Ventures, an Atlanta venture-capital firm, fit the bill perfectly.
Lyman, 40, had once had a mentor himself, arranged through a Kauffman Fellowship from the Center for Venture Education in 1999. His mentor had helped him break into the venture-capital field, and so he had an appreciation of the value of mentors.
His relationship with Mountainbear became a case study in the positive difference a mentor can make in a young professional’s future. In hour-long phone calls once a month over the course of two years, he helped the 25-year-old M.B.A. candidate find his footing in his career in finance.
They spoke for the first time in 2002. Mountainbear was set on a career in venture capital and studying at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Lyman was assigned to him through a mentoring program as part of a fellowship from The Robert A. Toigo Foundation, which provides financial support and guidance to minority graduate business students in finance.
During that first year, Lyman helped him identify skills gaps and helped him prepare for job interviews. He recommended books on venture capital and private equity and opened doors to contacts in the venture-capital industry.
“If I happened to be in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles or any other state or city I was visiting, he’d give me details of his contacts there,” Mountainbear says. In all, he conducted 100 information interviews.
Among the skills Lyman coached him on was communication. “JC was very warm, friendly and laid back. He wasn’t very assertive or aggressive…and that came across over the phone. He needed to sound more confident and drive the conversation,” says Lyman.
Lyman also helped him to develop a long-term career strategy. Mountainbear had impressive employers on his resume: Intel and Salomon Smith Barney, but his roles were too junior to inspire the confidence of VC recruiters. Moreover, he lacked experience at a start-up company. A meeting with one of Lyman’s contacts in San Diego resulted in a summer internship at Gynoptix Inc, a venture-backed developer of optical technology for cellular analysis.
Lyman continued to coach him through his internship. “I encouraged him to be privy to things like internal memos and documents and attend meetings, to help him get as much as he could out of the experience and accelerate his development,” says Lyman. Mountainbear used his time well, and his communication skills improved. “He successfully learned to balance humility with assertiveness,” he says.
After the internship, Mountainbear sought guidance on his career path. “Through Bill and other VC contacts, I realized that I was still lacking operational experience to go into venture capital straight after business school,” says Mountainbear.
Entering the field became a long-term goal, and with Lyman he explored his options. He decided to stay in investment banking and focus on private equity. After completing his M.B.A., he was offered a position as an associate with Deutsche Bank in Sydney, Australia. Before accepting, he sought Lyman’s counsel about how U.S. employers would view his resume when he eventually returned home. His advice: Stay at least three years to gain solid experience in mergers and acquisitions and working abroad. After weighing up the pros and cons with Lyman, Mountainbear accepted the role, and he recently moved to Sydney.
Closing the Distance
Much of the mentoring was done over the phone. They met for the first time in August 2003 when Lyman and his wife, Joan O. Lyman, joined Mountainbear for dinner in San Diego. Until then, Mountainbear didn’t know that Ms. Lyman, an entrepreneur who had started several companies, was also Native American. She became a source of inspiration to Mountainbear, he says, and her heritage probably explains why he and Lyman got along so well.
“There are so few Native Americans in the U.S., let alone the business world, so I knew there was no point in asking for a Native American mentor in venture capital. But having someone who knows where you’re coming from culturally certainly helps,” says Mountainbear. “And although nothing was said, Bill undoubtedly had more of an insight into my culture and background than he let on.”
In fact, Lyman felt he had a lot in common with Mountainbear. He knew what it felt like to be an outsider. “When I first entered venture capital, I, too, felt like an outsider because I wasn’t a Harvard graduate like most of the others,” he says. (He earned an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago and an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Marquette University, a Catholic Jesuit university in Milwaukee, Wis.)
“Much like JC, I wasn’t really prepared for the pressures that business school had in store for me,” says Lyman. “When you’re at business school, you need to hit the ground running. In the first year, you’re frantically interviewing for internships and doing career prep on top of study for classes. Then in the second year, you’re competing for a job, as well as concentrating on finishing your studies. Some people come to an M.B.A. program knowing that, and others, like myself and JC don’t, and so are unprepared, which can set you back.”
Over the course of their relationship, Lyman shared many personal stories, including one about founding a business that failed. “The moral of that story was you learn most from your failures, and it helped me, because I am less likely to fear failure now,” says Mountainbear. “Without Bill’s stories and advice, I may have made some wrong choices. As a mentor he was invaluable. He was a great coach and sounding board with fantastic contacts.”
The mentoring relationship was successful for two reasons: the protégé made his goals for the relationship clear, and he was willing to act on his mentor’s advice. Lyman says of Mountainbear: “His biggest strength was that he was very coachable, open-minded and not stubborn. He was genuinely willing to do whatever it took and was open to positive criticism,” he says. And that’s why Mountainbear will continue to seek Lyman’s advice as he pursues his career.
— Ms. Sappal, the former editor of GlobalHR magazine, is a free-lance writer in London.