One of the most distinctive characteristics of the INCubatoredu experience is the connection between a districts’ students and community—the volunteer coaches and mentors and others made along the way as teams get feedback from ‘customers’, seek advice from subject-matter-experts, build prototypes and pitch.
These connections are valuable and can be called ‘social capital.’ They can open doors, broaden knowledge and perspectives, provide access to resources, and create strong personal and professional relationships to draw on for a lifetime.
What better way to understand this than to hear from an INCubatoredu alum who experienced (and continues to benefit from!) the power of this social capital.
Introducing Ryan Morrow, INCubatoredu alum
As a sophomore at The University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, my academic focus spans entrepreneurial management, business analytics, and information systems. Yet, just a few years ago, I found myself navigating the challenges of the 2020–2021 school year as a high school student. This period was marked by the implementation of social distancing measures and three different school-day formats within a single year. Amidst this chaos, I also ventured into entrepreneurship, thanks to my participation in Uncharted Learning’s INCubatoredu high school entrepreneurship program at Naperville North High School.
‘The mentorship experience bent the rules of classroom learning.’
In the dynamic landscape of this program, my team was paired with a mentor named Amir Azarbad. Amir, a co-founder and chief growth officer of a local boutique consulting firm, became pivotal in our entrepreneurial journey. Initially skeptical about the concept of mentorship, I quickly realized that our mentors genuinely wanted to be an integral part of our venture. Our weekly Zoom meetings with Amir provided a unique perspective, unbound by the constraints of typical high school curriculum. Amir didn't sugarcoat feedback; instead, he offered valuable insights, guiding us when needed and candidly pointed out areas for improvement. There were many times when Amir’s feedback caused us to change how we looked at our business completely. This unique opportunity to receive unfiltered feedback from a business professional challenged my team and me to grow in ways we couldn’t have from textbook learning alone. Having a mentor helped us stay focused on the practical aspects of running a business. This invaluable guidance taught me the ropes of conducting myself professionally in the business world.
‘We built skills like communication and accountability through my mentor.’
Amir held us accountable in the realm of business communication. Weekly, we would update Amir on the status of the business via email. In doing so, we strengthened our business email skills and the ability to report progress to stakeholders. Amir also taught me how to balance when to follow up and when to give customers/resources more time. These soft skills have given me a huge head start on my business career as they have become muscle memory while many of my peers in college struggle to communicate professionally.
Amir's external perspective brought a refreshing and practical approach to how we learned. These interactions became a vital complement to the INCubatoredu entrepreneurship curriculum lessons and resources.
‘He was invested in seeing us succeed.’
As we approached the mid-year pitch to the class’s advisory council, Amir's commitment to our success became even more apparent. Recognizing the power of visual representation, we decided to include a demo video of our service in our presentation. Amir swiftly mobilized his network, connecting us with the owner and coach of a local basketball gym. This facilitated the creation of an impactful demo video and was just one example of Amir's ongoing support.
Throughout the two years of our mentorship, Amir emerged as a guiding force and a reliable sounding board for our entrepreneurial endeavors. He discussed with us the importance of staying lean and seeking creative solutions. His commitment exceeded the scheduled meetings—he connected us with his personal network, resulting in some of the most beneficial experiences of my high school career.
While these connections occasionally resulted in tangible benefits like increased sales, the real value lay in the learning opportunities they offered. One memorable instance was a sales meeting with his firm's CEO in downtown Chicago. We were nervous but prepared, and the meeting expanded our perspective. Moreover, it served as a vivid illustration of the potential opportunities and social capital that could arise from effective networking.
'I realize the substantial social equity that has resulted from my mentor.'
Now, as I navigate college-level classes, I reflect (and smile) on the ‘assignment’ in INCubatoredu to create a LinkedIn account, having no idea of its value at the time. I look at the 700+ connections I have now, and realize the substantial social equity that has resulted from mentorship. Those initial business connections laid the foundation for a robust professional network that continues to expand. I find myself still in contact with connections I made—several every month. These are connections and businesspeople that I would never have met if my mentor hadn’t introduced me.
My connection with Amir remains strong after transitioning from high school to college. He continues to be a source of knowledge and advice as I navigate the complexities of planning for and evaluating career paths. The mentorship that began in high school has evolved into a lasting professional relationship that continues to shape my decisions and perspectives.
Jumping to the other side of the “mentorship” table
After two years, I've returned to Uncharted Learning’s programs, this time as a mentor at various schools nationwide. One highlight was co-mentoring a team with Amir last year—a full-circle experience! Engaging with young entrepreneurs who sit where I did four years ago has been rewarding, as it allows me to share and ‘pay back’ the insights gained from my journey. It also allows me to reflect amid a fast-paced and competitive life on personal progress.
Now positioned on the other side of the mentor-mentee relationship, I strive to enrich each high school student's experience, just as Amir did for me. Connecting students with professionals in my network has become a consistent priority. Every semester, I bring my teams together to practice their pitches in front of business leaders and professors, providing them invaluable face-to-face time with experts in their respective fields.
Over the past two years, I've had the opportunity to mentor four teams and 14 young entrepreneurs across diverse locations, ranging from suburban Illinois to rural Missouri to urban San Antonio, Texas. Each day spent mentoring reveals new insights as I witness these students problem-solve and discover the entrepreneurial spirit within them. Despite the varied structures and businesses each team works on, they all share a common thread—the learning of how to start a lean business and the importance of learning through iteration and failure.
Conclusion: Mentorship is beneficial to all involved
While many might perceive mentorship as a one-sided endeavor benefiting only the students, my experiences as both a mentee and a mentor have taught me otherwise. As I progress further into my post-high school journey, I observe the diverse ways students think and solve problems. Mentorship not only propelled my business career forward during its inception, providing experiences and connections, but it also continues to broaden my approach to problem-solving as I mentor more students.
I can confidently assert that I would not be the person I am today—whether as a man, a student, or a business professional—if it weren't for the mentorship I received through INCubatoredu. The experiences and connections provided a launching pad for my business career, while the ongoing mentorship contributed to a continuous process of self-improvement. Giving back as a mentor to future cohorts of students allows me to contribute to the transformative power of mentorship, shaping individuals and their journeys in profound ways.