Mentors Make The Difference

 Mentors Make The Difference

The mentorship magic supporting entrepreneur Janice Omadeke helped her create a history-making tech exit in Austin.

When Janice Omadeke first came to Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2017, the city and its business community made an impression on her that would bring her back permanently. SXSW introduced her to her first enterprise customer for her emerging company, The Mentor Method, and her dreams of building it into something bigger came via an application to the MassChallenge accelerator a year after that initial visit. 

For MassChallenge, “I was only supposed to be here for four months,” Omadeke says, “but the mentors and leaders and connections that I made were so strong that five years later, here we are, and this is home.”

Before launching The Mentor Method, Omadeke began her professional career as a graphic designer, but in her personal experience with corporate America she saw inequities in access to mentorship in the corporate setting that left her out of opportunities where she felt she was more than qualified, she says. “I wanted to disrupt those systems for other people to make it easier for us to change the statistics around leadership representation across women, people of color, LGBTQIA people, military veterans, and more.”

Omadeke saw mentorship as a powerful tool to not only advance a career but advance a community and transfer that knowledge to others. She not only saw the magic in traditional corporate and educational mentorship, she says, but also the power of peer mentorship and community mentorship that happens when people are willing to share their experiences with others and those individuals are willing to receive that information to improve their quality of life.

“I’ve always been a problem solver, and in my corporate career, I knew that pairing my creativity with a strategic business mindset would make me an asset and help me explore additional career opportunities,” Omadeke says. She obtained a graduate certification in entrepreneurship from MIT and another in strategic management from Harvard. She gained those skills anticipating a long-term corporate career. The vehicle to Omadeke’s calling, The Mentor Method, was not on her radar at the time. When the idea materialized while she was working for a Big 4 management consulting firm, she went back to the coursework and followed the blueprint that would help her create the concept that would change her trajectory.

In late 2022, Omadeke’s entrepreneurial exit made her vision complete when The Mentor Method was acquired by The Cru, another Black-woman-led business. Omadeke is among the fewer than 100 Black women founders to lead a startup and raise more than $1 million in venture capital funding, according to a press release about the transaction. She is also the first Black woman to lead a tech exit in Austin.

“This acquisition is exactly what we wanted,” Omadeke said in the release. “The Cru is a Black-woman-led business with a visionary founder with a strong culture, where I know my team will continue to thrive, and I know that our mission to create a more equitable workforce will proceed. I am really happy that The Cru is changing mentorship from being a chance encounter to a fundamental right for employees wherever they work.”

Omadeke is still involved in the mentorship and talent-retention space. “The last five years was a journey that I hadn’t anticipated,” she says. “I stayed open to every new opportunity and learned so much on a daily basis, and I’m enjoying sharing the last five years of experience through consulting as a general partner at The Fund Texas, meeting entrepreneurs that remind me of myself and my entrepreneur friends who started their businesses around the same timeframe.”

Did you always see The Mentor Method as being a software tool or did it have any other iterations? 

With every innovative solution, you go through several pivots based on the customer experience, market response, trends in the market, and how to incorporate yourself into the lives of those that are both your customers and your end users. So, we started as a B2C consumer model matching women to mentors outside of where they worked and quickly realized that corporations should be responsible for supporting the advancement of their underrepresented professionals, which would include purchasing a license to The Mentor Method to provide that top-tier service at scale, and pivoted into the enterprise space. That was the best decision we could have made.

My previous experience at a Big 4 consulting firm was fully virtual for four years across our entire marketing
and sales team. So while I was based in the DC metro area,
I had team members in Boston, Chicago, and North Carolina and had a strong understanding of how to build virtual teams, how to maintain virtual team morale, camaraderie, and productivity, which became a strong competitive advantage in 2020 when a lot of our enterprise customers and a lot of the enterprise space was starting to learn how to transition to a virtual setting for the first time in the 70-plus years in which they’d been operating. So that was strong positioning for us because I had lived it; several of my team members had lived that virtual workforce experience before it was either necessary or preferred, and we incorporated that
into our model
as well.

In your time at The Mentor Method, how did you see the service that you provided affect the trajectory of employees and staff that had relationships through the platform?

We were able to reduce attrition significantly, which then puts tens to hundreds of millions of dollars back into our customers’ bottom line. We were able to see people go from junior-level positions to getting promoted six times faster than their counterparts who weren’t benefiting from engaging in a mentorship program within The Mentor Method software. We saw the advancement of the underrepresented professional population, especially in the junior mid-level range where oftentimes there’s a significant drop in retention for corporations. We were able to help them increase retention of that talent base. 

Our reverse mentorship model was also a highly sought-after resource within the software because we were then able to match executives to mentors in earlier stages of their careers and have those younger or less experienced employees mentor executives to help them understand the future of work and how Gen Z-ers relate to work. How do younger millennials relate to work, and what tools are they using? How are they increasing their productivity? How do they think about work-life balance, even though that doesn’t exist? That was very eye-opening because the executives could then take that input and create change because they are the influencers. They are the key decision makers, and sometimes they wouldn’t have that access to people outside of their peer group except for maybe a networking event or a 10-minute round table.

You’re so passionate about mentorship and have had such a successful past few years. Was making the exit part of the plan or was it an unexpected gift? 

When I participated in the MassChallenge accelerator, one of my first sessions was with Mike Millard, who was then the managing director of the Texas program. He told us that we needed to decide the path of our company. Would this be a lifestyle business? Would this be something that files for IPO in the future, or is this an acquirable business? Because the way in which you build your business, build your team, everything around the business changes depending on the anticipated end destination. 

I knew that The Mentor Method was something that, in the hands of a larger company, could exponentially increase the impact and the number of individuals served, but I always focused on delivering value to the customer and delivering value to the end user first. And, the opportunity presented itself. 

We had received multiple offers and chose Tiffany Dufu and The Cru because of the strong values and mission alignment. 

Did you know her prior to the acquisition?

I knew of her. There are very few Black women in the HR tech space, let alone tech entrepreneurship space. 

As we were exploring acquisition opportunities, I had a phenomenal conversation with Chris Hyams, the CEO of Indeed. Indeed is a core reason why I moved to Austin as well. What Rony Kahan and Chris have built at Indeed is incredible, and they showed that Austin is the city to build HR tech companies in. I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

So, the opportunity to be in close proximity to a company that was so inspiring and so motivational when I would be up at one in the morning putting together a new website or trying to think through a tough business problem as a solo founder in the very, very early days of The Mentor Method. It meant a lot to have a conversation with him about his entrepreneurial journey before joining Indeed. That conversation was very enlightening, and I used his guidance in navigating our own acquisition landscape—just tying it back to mentorship and how impactful it can be not just in a corporate setting but in the most critical decisions of your life.

You said it was enlightening to you. In what way? 

His candor and vulnerability and the permission he gave me to be a human first. I don’t think entrepreneurs get enough safe spaces to do that. We’re inundated with the TechCrunch articles of billion-dollar valuations and these rare cases of moonshots that are then translated into becoming the norm even though that’s not the case. His story and his ability to empathize and help me think through some options were extremely helpful.

Also, learning from one of your heroes—he’s like the LeBron to my Steph Curry. 

Who or what has had the biggest influence on your personal leadership style?

Joseph Kopser [former chief growth officer at The Mentor Method]—I learned a lot from him in terms of team building, communication, fundraising, scaling, fostering relationships. He leads so naturally that it was effortless for me to watch how he would mentor me. He inspired me to want to be the same type of leader.

Gwen Houston and Kimberly Strong are also two leaders that I would not have been able to grow The Mentor Method without. Kimberly was in the audience of one of my three pitch competitions in 2018 during South by Southwest. We happened to have a mutual connection who introduced us, and at the time, she was the head of DEI for Target Corporation; she has since retired and is doing consulting. But she had over 20 years of HR and DEI experience, and she saw something in The Mentor Method. Her expertise was invaluable in the way that we built the product, marketed the product, and understood our customer segment of the HR DEI professional who’s responsible for mentoring hundreds of thousands of employees and retaining hundreds of thousands of employees. We also have a very strong personal relationship where I’ll call her, she’ll call me, and we’re not talking about business. I’m talking about her two boys, and she’s asking me about my family back in DC. That means a lot to me, to be able to be a complete person.

That’s the common denominator across all three people that I listed. I feel like I have the space to be a complete person around them. 

Gwen Houston is so effortless in her communication and her advice. She sees me. She understands it and is able to be both nurturing and strategic in a way that I’ve never experienced. She was the former head of DEI for all of Microsoft and is a visionary when it comes to the future of work and the way corporations need to be thinking about their talent retention and diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Entrepreneurship is such a lonely journey at times that I’m grateful that I had those relationships because not everybody does, and I’m grateful that those relationships have continued after The Mentor Method was acquired. We’re now forming a different type of relationship that goes beyond the last company.

What’s your best advice for someone, perhaps a woman or a member of a minority group, who’s looking to make their way into a leadership role like president or CEO?

Define your competitive advantage and what makes you indispensable in your current role with a pathway to becoming indispensable in the role that you’re seeking. I did that. That’s why I studied entrepreneurship at MIT and strategic management at Harvard because, as a corporate graphic designer, I knew that I would stand out from my peers if I could not only focus on the aesthetics of whatever collateral, trade show exhibit, website, or product I was creating but also understand the connection to the company’s success and growth. 

Speak at a peer level with partners and leaders on the company’s expansion; understand the financial projections if they are included in a proposal. 

Let’s say I was working on a multimillion-dollar proposal for a client in Japan, understanding what value winning said proposal will do for a Big 4 consulting company, that then helped me make myself indispensable. I also found it fascinating and very interesting, but it helped me stand out against my peers. I would recommend people think about their own competitive advantages, their natural strengths, and curiosities,
and leverage those to create a very niche and highly impactful experience for their leadership in order to get promoted and stand out. 

What is the biggest existing shortcoming that you see in large companies looking to close the equity gap, and how can they address that issue to balance their workforce better?

The shortcoming is siloing the responsibility of creating a more equitable workforce to just HR or DEI leaders. It is a company-wide engagement. If you are losing talent at a rapid pace that is impacting your bottom line, it’s impacting the way in which your customers are able to see themselves reflected in your product. You are losing diversity of thought, which increases your competitive advantage. They’re not thinking entrepreneurially about it. 

But if a large company was hemorrhaging engineers or losing customers at a rapid rate, it wouldn’t matter what department it was; they would have the best and brightest minds solving that issue immediately.

Yet when it comes to talent retention and especially underrepresented talent retention, that same vigor and passion behind problem solving disappears, and it’s delegated to teams with minimal budgets and oftentimes overworked without the support that they need, which creates that cycle of increased attrition and the issues that we’re still seeing today.

So, steps to address it –What would you recommend?

Budgeting is a big one, but also the social capital, having your CEO be involved in DEI initiatives (not just sending a newsletter but actually involved), connecting diverse team representation and promotions to hiring managers’ bonuses, creating multiple incentives outside of altruism to motivate leaders across the entire organization to take diversity, equity, 

and inclusion 

as seriously as they do other performance metrics.

What’s on the horizon for you? 

The last five years were a journey I hadn’t anticipated. I stayed open to every new opportunity and learned so much, and I’m enjoying sharing the last five years of experience through consulting as a general partner at The Fund, meeting entrepreneurs that remind me of myself and my entrepreneur friends that started their businesses around the same timeframe. 

Speaking engagements have been very fulfilling to share my story in order to inspire and motivate the next generation of 

women and Black women entrepreneurs that just need a few key strategic points to give them the guidance and direction they need. 

Outside of that, I’m enjoying reintroducing myself to Austin. I met the city through one lens of The Mentor Method. This is home, so I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with investors, advisors, mentors, and colleagues
outside of my last company.

Lightning Round

Who is your most admired fellow Texas CEO?

Brené Brown.

What quote summarizes your personal approach
to leadership?

It’s not one that someone else created, but: Remember that you’re not perfect and will need grace, so extend that to everybody you come in contact with because you don’t know what they’re experiencing.

What’s something you’re afraid of?

Something I’m afraid of is the long-term diversity and inclusion in Austin. Whether it’s women’s reproductive rights, affordable housing, or access to healthcare, I’d like to see more work being done to make this a more equitable place for all and what I know Austin can become.

What’s your can’t-live-without-it technology?

The timer on my phone. Two minutes before a meeting, I always have a timer set. I hate being late, so I live by my timer and my calendar.

What’s your favorite Texas product(s)?

Siete gluten-free products, Juniper’s fine dining experience (their cacio e pepe is to die for),and Renée Rouleau’s skincare line.

Rebecca French Smith

Rebecca French Smith is the publisher of Texas CEO Magazine.

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