In this era of the Internet, will face-to-face mentoring of entrepreneurs by successful investors or business experts go the way of the fax machine?

Business schools, consulting firms and nonprofits provide free or fee-based online mentoring that reaches around the world. But Jerome Smith, co-director of the Venture Mentoring Service at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, defends the importance of face-to-face meetings.

Mentoring — business advice and guidance provided by an experienced businessperson — Smith said, requires building trust between a mentor and a mentee. This is difficult to do online, where interactions are spontaneous and ever-changing, he said. But once a relationship is built, the Internet is a great tool to sustain it.

In 2000, the school launched its mentoring service for students, faculty and alumni. Through the service, volunteer mentors have advised 2,500 entrepreneurs.

Mentoring the mentors

Want to set up a similar program? You can benefit from the Venture Mentoring Service track record by absorbing these lessons:

  • Mentors should be recruited from a range of fields: Include entrepreneurs, corporate executives, lawyers and other professionals.
  • Give a mentee a team of mentors rather than one-on-one mentoring. A team’s power is in its ability to offer expertise in many areas.
  • Mentors need to follow strict ethical standards.
  • Encourage sustained relationships, which are more beneficial than those bound by time limits.
Coaching an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley (Courtesy of Michael Alvarez-Pereyre)

In response to interest from abroad, the service launched an outreach program. Smith is now connected to it and helps set up mentoring in other communities and countries.

Once people train at the Venture Mentoring Service Outreach Project in Boston, they better understand who makes the best mentors, Smith said. “They don’t have any problems finding and recruiting them.” The program has helped start mentoring at 40 universities and innovation hubs in 12 countries, including in Colombia, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Some sister programs report that mentoring has saved entrepreneurs up to three years in development time.

More places for startups to turn

Budding entrepreneurs can find advice on how to find and work with potential mentors in magazines such as Forbes and Inc. Multilateral development banks, government agencies and Endeavor Global offer mentoring. The U.S. government supports programs such as the worldwide E-Mentor Corps, which facilitates mentoring  on LinkedInImagineNations GroupNing and TechWadi, directed at the Arab world.