Last semester, HackCville launched its first alumni-student mentorship program. The program design was simple: after filling out a survey, we hand-selected U.Va. alumni mentors for each one of our students. We then introduced them over email, and then asked that they speak at least twice throughout the semester. (You can read more of the details here, if you’re interested.)
For a first run, we were very satisfied with the outcome of the program. We had way more alumni sign up to be mentors than we had students to pair them with. And at the end of the semester, 76% of students said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the program, and about half intended to continue speaking with their mentor.
Our team came into 2016 armed with data and ready to make the program even better. Based off of these challenges and the feedback from last semester, we made a few specific changes to the program for the spring:
- Specific outreach to find more female mentors
- A few tweaks to the alumni and student surveys
- Moving the mentor introduction to after students started their HackCville projects
- Email reminders for students and alumni to connect
Below I detail the changes we made throughout the program and the effect they had on the outcomes. Let’s dive in.
Alumni and Student Signups
As of this last semester, HackCville has 3 programs that students can sign up for: The Hustle Class, The Pioneer, and Rethink. Each has a different focus – startup careers, media production, and education innovation, respectively. After students complete one of these programs, they become a HackCville member.
One of our team’s biggest challenges this semester was providing mentors for The Pioneer and Rethink – we didn’t do this last semester. This meant we had to source a lot of mentors that worked in media and education, which isn’t the core base of the Wahoowa Network right now.
We tried tackling this problem in two different ways. For The Pioneer, our team compiled an extensive list of U.Va. alumni who worked in media through hours of LinkedIn searching. After reaching out to about 30 alumni, we had 11 alumni sign up to participate. For Rethink, we used the extensive personal network of our student program manager Keaton Wadzinski. He confirmed about 20 people who worked in education to participate in our program. These people were not alumni of U.Va. This was done out of necessity (we were crunched for time to find mentors) and to test if students cared if their mentors weren’t affiliated with U.Va. (More on this later, but in short, they didn’t!)
To find mentors for the other HackCville students, we sent out an email to the Wahoowa Network asking for signups. Just like last semester, the response was overwhelming. But there was a problem – 74% (59 people) of the signups were male. This was a worse ratio than last semester. Gender isn’t the only criteria that we make matches based on, but a 74/26 split was too big of a divide, especially since our students are about 50/50. So, one of my team members sent out a personalized email to the 350+ women in Wahoowa. Here’s an excerpt of that email:
This semester, we had significantly more male mentors sign up than female mentors. More often than not, matches are made without consideration for gender, as our matching is based on a variety of criteria. However, many of our female students have specifically expressed interest in being matched with women, as female mentors can provide helpful advice to female students given the particular challenges that women can face working in startups and tech.
That’s why I’m emailing you today. If you’re interested in mentoring a female student, we’d appreciate you signing up below. You have an opportunity to make a big impact on a current UVA student with very low commitment. Given your professional experience, we think one of our students could learn a lot from you about navigating the business/startup world and its challenges.
In 24 hours we got 45 signups. This flipped the ratio. 53% of our signups were now women (66 people), and 47% were men. I don’t know why we had fewer women sign up in the first place, but our team learned an important (though perhaps obvious) lesson: personal outreach works.
The downside of all the signups is we ended up with more than 50 alumni that we had no students for. Our student participation grew 18% while our alumni signups grew 30%. It’s no fun for anyone when we have to email dozens of alumni who want to help students and tell them no. I will say – if you are one of those alumni – please do consider signing up again next semester. HackCville is nearly doubling the number of programs it runs this fall, so we’ll need a lot more mentors!
Matching Alumni to Students
We made a few very simple tweaks to the student survey. After every question, we asked how important it was that we used that criteria to find them a mentor. For example, after asking what cities they were interested in moving to after graduation, we also asked how important it was that we found a mentor from one of those cities. While 40% of students considered it somewhat important, 11% of students listed it as one of the top criteria for making a match.
This extra data made the matching process dramatically easier for our team. It also revealed a simple insight – if students had their internships or full-time jobs confirmed already, they usually wanted a mentor who’d be in the city they were working in. Pairings like this resulted in some of the strongest relationships throughout the semester.
Our team grew this semester, so even though we had to match more students (71 instead of 60) we were able to spend more time on each match.
Student Training Session
Just like last semester, we required all students to participate in a 90-minute workshop on how to manage a mentorship relationship. We worked in extra time in the presentation for past participants of the HackCville program to share their experiences.
We also changed the timing of the workshop so that it came one week after students started their HackCville projects. Our goal was to given students and alumni more to talk about. While it worked in a few cases, their projects usually weren’t far enough along to make a difference. And there was another downside, too.
I would love to have mentors earlier in the semester. I feel like I am just getting to know my mentor well and I would have loved that connection from the beginning. – Student Participant
The timing challenge is something we’ll have to keep playing around with. On one hand, if we push it too early, students won’t have started their projects and our team won’t have enough time to find and match mentors. But if we start too late, there’s not enough time for students and alumni to form meaningful relationships. I think we can find a happy medium, but it’s going to take more work.
One simple thing that we did throughout the rest of the semester was send regular reminders to students asking them to check in with their mentors. We had a number of students recommend this last semester after many forgot to regularly check in.
There are a few key metrics we consider to judge the success of the program. First is the quality of the match, both professionally and personally.
The graphs above show that our average rating across all programs (out of 10) is very similar to last semester. However, The Pioneer seemed to have the lowest quality matches. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the alumni weren’t helpful – it just means that we didn’t match our students to the right alumni.
Next, we consider the average satisfaction rating from the students. Last semester we had 76% of students satisfied or very satisfied with the program. And this semester was…the exact same. But again, we see that The Pioneer students were the least satisfied with the program.
Finally, we look at how likely students and alumni think they’ll keep up the relationship after this semester. (We don’t require anything beyond this semester, but of course we hope that all of our matches keep up conversations.) This is where we saw the biggest improvement. On average, students said they were 72% likely to continue speaking with their mentor after this semester, and alumni said they were 76% likely. This is a big jump from 57% last semester.
But yet again, we see that The Pioneer students are on the fence about whether they will continue their relationship or not, while the other students were much more confident their relationship would continue. We’re not exactly sure why The Pioneer students didn’t enjoy the program as much, but we’re planning to talk with those students in detail this summer to better understand why and what changes we need to make.
We received a lot of excellent feedback from both students and alumni. Here are a few excerpts of what we received. I selected feedback that was either uniquely insightful or reflective of what many other people said.
In a strange way, it was like talking to my younger self. Because we were such a great match, I was able to share a lot of (possibly unsolicited) advice about what is a tough, unchartered journey into social entrepreneurship. It’s amazing to connect with someone at the beginning of their journey and I hope I can continue to be helpful along the way. – Alumni Participant
Our first conversation was around 2 hours long. It was one of the most insightful chats I have had in a long time. – Student Participant
[I liked that the program was] lightweight. I was connected to the mentee. We grabbed coffee. I chatted a bit more with him via email. I suggested a summer internship. He applied for the job and got it. We’re going to get coffee again. Nice and easy! – Alumni Participant
[Mentor Name] and I met over Skype. What really stood out to me is that [she] has many experiences in hiring people so there were times in our conversation she would say, “That’s something you definitely want to share with an employer” and “I like the way you detail your story.” In simply an hour I learned so much about how to best present myself to an employer, and about her role as a product manager. – Student Participant
Of all UVA mentorship programs, I honestly think HackCville is the only one that did it right. The process was very personable, so there’s nothing much I would say that needs to be changed! – Student Participant
One suggestion I have is to give us a concrete list of questions to ask or topics to talk about. While my mentor and I are very similar and have a fair bit to talk about, at times it was difficult to know what kinds of questions to ask (especially in the beginning of our relationship). – Student Participant
A bit more structure, possibly from a needs assessment with the mentee. If I knew more about what she was looking for and wanted to learn, then I could be more targeted in the time we spent together. – Alumni Participant
Clearly, it is on US to make sure we stay in contact with our mentor, but I still think I would’ve gotten more out of it if I was reminded/pushed more often to reach out to my mentor for advice. Maybe in the future have mentees keep a journal (e-journal) about things they learned/gained throughout the semester from their mentor to hold them more accountable to maintaining the relationship. – Student Participant
Perhaps a way for mentors to connect with one another (rather than solely connecting w/ their mentee). Mentor brunch? – Alumni Participant
It would be cool if mentors and mentees were required to collaborate on a small assignment (e.g. a mini design thinking exercise with a particular topic of interest) so that they can better learn from each other’s ideas! – Student Participant
Looking to next semester
At the time of this writing, I’m a 4th Year at U.Va., meaning that I’m graduating this weekend. The mentorship program is in excellent hands, though – my right-hand-man Sam Coppel will be taking over the program for next year. He’s been working with me for the past year developing the program.
I see a few key areas for Sam and his team to focus on moving forward, based off of what we’ve learned over the last year:
- Improve the Pioneer matching process
- Provide more structure for the mentees and mentors while keeping the program lightweight
- Adjust the timing of the introductions to give relationships more time to develop
I wanted to say thank you to all of the alumni and students for their continued participation, feedback, and support. We believe we’re building something really special, and it wouldn’t be possible without your help.