In early 2020, Jay Parker found himself inundated with emails from former employees asking for advice on their own careers. Over lunches that turned into 30-minute virtual meetings once the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the Chapel Hill-based Parker—who had retired from an executive role at Lenovo in late 2019—mentored former colleagues.
From helping mentees navigate newfound challenges due to the pandemic to helping them decide when the time was right to move on to a new company, Parker enjoyed his newfound role as an independent sounding board for young professionals. But it soon became something much more—the impetus for his mentorship-for-the-masses startup, Chapel Hill-based Mentorforce.
“When you’re working in the corporate world and you’re leading a team, mentoring is one of the most enjoyable things you do,” Parker said. ”But you really don’t have much time to do that. And I had time, so I did it. And so that was the first spark, thinking ‘why are all these people calling me now that I’ve left wanting to talk about their careers?’ That’s when I started reflecting back on the time that I had spent in that world.”
Often, Parker said, companies with limited career development resources choose to focus only on a few promising executives (or future executives) while leaving a large portion of their workforce on their own. For the few, there are week-long leadership seminars, one-on-one coaching sessions, opportunities for extra work and personalized mentorship. But for the many, there are little to no resources.
“If you’re not in that less than 1%, then you have your manager, your annual performance review, and your own wits,” Parker said. “So I started thinking, Is there a way that we could capture this knowledge of people that have been through the battles and the wars of corporate life, that have led organizations and businesses, and tap that knowledge and expertise? Can we make it available to a much wider group of employees or people in an affordable way?”
While 90% of employees wish they had more career development opportunities, Parker said, 75% of managers say they don’t have more time to give.
Parker realized a cohort of mentors with executive experience like his own—a “Mentor Force,” if you will—could fill gaps in corporate career development while providing purpose for former executives.
So in 2021, he sat down, started developing a platform, reached out to other former executives in his network and asked: would you be interested in getting paid to share your expertise with up-and-coming business leaders working their way up the corporate ladder? Overwhelmingly, the response was “yes.”
“I started out with people I knew, but then it expanded to people I had never met before,” Parker said. “They were interested in the idea of, ‘I don’t need to really prepare, my career was my preparation. I can work as little or as much as I want, I can charge whatever I want. I can do something that I enjoy—the part of my job that I enjoyed the most.’”
Mentorforce offers a variety of career development services tailored to the needs of a company or individual. These include one-on-one mentoring sessions, as well as high-production-value master classes developed by mentors on topics that include career management, leadership or functional subject matter.
As a changing Covid environment has allowed for more in-person events, companies have even arranged face-to-face learning sessions with Mentorforce, which allows for small cohorts to interact with mentors and ask them questions instead of just viewing static presentations.
Companies opt into a quarterly subscription combining a balance of Mentorforce’s three main offerings—one-on-one mentoring sessions, live events and master classes. Since Mentorforce began selling the subscription service a few months ago, five large companies representing different locales and industries have bought into the program.
Parker sees Mentorforce as having a role in companies’ growing demand for progress in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). By providing access to connections that may have otherwise been limited by an employee’s alma mater or socio-economic background, Mentorforce can help underrepresented and minority employees have more equitable access to career growth opportunities and advice.
“Some people have more access to ‘Dad’s friend’ that can give you career advice, or to someone else in your community, or your school, or your university; some people are really connected,” Parker said. “A lot of people don’t have any of those connections, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not smart, ambitious, and hardworking, and have a lot to offer. If we can provide ready-made connections for someone that didn’t organically have access to them, that could at least indirectly help with diversity of the workforce through equity of opportunities, access to the right information and to the right guidance.”
Mentorforce’s low relative cost and high returns makes it attractive for employers even during a challenging economic environment today and beyond, Parker said, and provides incentives for employees to stay on at companies that are investing in their career path during the so-called Great Resignation.
After a year-long evolution from a one-on-one coaching service to a suite of products, Parker is confident that 2023 will be a year of rapid growth for Mentorforce.
“We are at the point that we really feel like we’ve been able to prove the concept, which was important to me before we started to try to accelerate this, because I wanted to make sure it was the right offering and that we were able to adapt,” Parker said. “I think we’re looking for 2023 to be our acceleration from a business and sales perspective.”