Jill Finlayson is Singularity University’s Mentor Program Director. Jill is an accomplished leader and mentor who has worked globally to amplify voices, advance entrepreneurship, and promote economic opportunities for all. Her passion for social impact and leveraging innovation and technology to foster inclusion brought her to SU in 2016. And—full disclosure—Jill has also been one of my closest friends for nearly 20 years.
Wow, we will have to find a clever way to commemorate our 20th “friendversary” next year! Where does the time go?
Yes, it has been a while since we first crossed paths in the early days at eBay, which was certainly exponential tech for its time and a company that made systemic change by promoting equity and leveling the playing field for small businesses to compete online. Since then we have had many adventures, and most were aligned with the Singularity University mission of impact and inclusion!
Seriously, thanks for taking some time to chat with us, Jill. You’ve had a busy year, building up the SU Mentor program. Why should founders invest their limited and valuable time in talking to mentors?
The mentorship program brings a personalized aspect to the SU startup programs—making insights learned directly applicable to the specific startup’s challenges. It allows founders to chat with startup veterans who have been there to avoid mistakes and test their assumptions, to gain insights from experts in exponential tech, and leverage a sounding board from a variety of perspectives.
When we put together temporary boards of advisors for our startups, founders get a powerhouse of expertise laser-focused on their top priorities and areas where they would benefit from seasoned expertise, such as funding, product development, scaling, and business development. Even the process of preparing for these board meetings helps founders gain greater clarity!
As a long-time mentor yourself, you know the power of a mentor-mentee connection. What do you look for when finding mentors to guide SU’s portfolio companies? What makes a good mentor?
At Singularity University we look for mentors who have deep expertise in at least one if not all three areas we focus on: startup experience, exponential technology expertise, and a passion for impact in one or more of the global grand challenges. We also look at the mentoring experience and motivation.
Our mentors are impressive professionals who are looking to give back, share their expertise, and be inspired by the founders and the difficult challenges they face. After hours of mentoring, they often leave more energized and excited about the future. They love being part of the cutting edge and continually learning from our amazing founders. It is truly intrinsic motivation we seek, and our mentors often feel they gain as much from the experience as they give.
And for people interested in applying to SU’s mentor program, what advice can you offer?
People who feel a connection with the Singularity University mission and have the skills and expertise and passion for mentoring can apply at su.org/mentors. We will be launching a new mentor application in January that will help suggest mentor-mentee matches automatically. Each application is reviewed and if accepted into the expert pool, potential mentors will have the opportunity to join mentoring events and assist founders virtually. Those that demonstrate their mentoring chops can then become mentors and be eligible for temporary boards and longer-term mentoring opportunities with our founders.
You’re also quite active with TechWomen. How has that experience shaped you and how you approach mentorship in Silicon Valley?
TechWomen is a program based on mentorship that connects emerging women leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and Pakistan with mentors at Silicon Valley tech companies. The strength of the connections made and the power of role models has shown me the transformative power of mentorship.
It also impressed upon me the importance of ensuring that we are intentional in building a mentoring pool that is diverse so that founders have the benefit of multiple perspectives. There is data to support that companies with diverse leadership and boards have a higher ROI, so it is to everyone’s benefit to strive for diversity.
TechWomen has also demonstrated the power of mentorship to support diverse global founders. Incredibly accomplished and busy leaders will take time out of their schedules to help others along the path to success. These relationships often last long after the “official” mentoring engagement ends.
What motivates and inspires you about working at SU?
Like the mentors we work with, SU attracts a self-selected community of startup leaders who are powerfully motivated to take on the world’s most difficult challenges. Where “standard” approaches fail, our startups find another and innovative way to achieve impact. They are persistent, passionate, and visionary. The chance to work with these inspiring individuals, and the chance to believe in what is possible, is why I enjoy working with our founders and connecting them with equally inspiring and dedicated mentors.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Mentoring is something everyone can do. Just look for the person who is “one rung” below you on your career path, or a student, or a peer. Mentoring is a fulfilling way to not just support talent and help people and startups achieve their potential, it is also the best way for you to continuously learn.
SU has an incredibly diverse, talented team and extended family. Many shine on stages around the world. Some lead key departments and initiatives to keep SU moving forward fast. And others work behind the scenes in fascinating roles that we’ll also explore. In this “Catching Up With…” blog post series, we meet members of the SU ecosystem, learn about their roles and what motivates and inspires them, and give our readers rare behind-the-scenes access to Singularity University.