For entrepreneur and reality TV star Arlene Dickinson, mentorship began at home.
"My father was my first mentor," said Ms. Dickinson, who recently helped to launch the Harry G. Schaefer mentorship program at Calgary's Mount Royal University. "He was an entrepreneur himself, so it was always a learning moment for me with him."
For Ms. Dickinson, that's exactly what mentorship boils down to: learning from other people's life experiences – both good and bad – and using those insights to shape one's own path.
"Mentorship is a big word and I think people often shy away from it because they associate it with a very formal responsibility – something very structured," Ms. Dickinson said. "In some cases, like in this program, there is a structure to it, but mentorship to me is about helping anybody, at any time, in any situation, and teaching them what you've learned along the way."
Best known for her remarkable ability to pick businesses on the rise as one of the "dragons" on the CBC reality series Dragons' Den, Ms. Dickinson is also the chief executive and owner of Calgary-based Venture Communications, one of Canada's top independent marketing communications firms. Ms. Dickinson joined Venture in 1988 and exactly 10 years later was the sole owner, winning both accolades and the respect of the Canadian business community along the way.
Though she was never part of a formal mentorship program like Mount Royal's, which pairs students with relevant mentors, Ms. Dickinson credits much of her career success to the relationships she had with various mentors over the years. "Throughout the course of my life and my career, I've always learned from other people. I've always been unafraid to ask questions and, as a result, I've had lots and lots of mentors."
A firm believer that mentorship is an essential ingredient in any successful business, Ms. Dickinson launched the website YouInc.com, an entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur mentorship program, in October of last year to help address some of the unique challenges faced by owners of small businesses. In Ms. Dickinson's view, entrepreneurs learn best from other entrepreneurs because they are the only ones who really experience and understand what they're up against.
"When you're an entrepreneur, it's very lonely, very scary and you don't often have a lot of support," she said. "For these reasons, mentorship is critical for entrepreneurs, though there aren't a lot of official programs geared towards them."
Given her own experiences, Ms. Dickinson is a strong proponent of Mount Royal's mentorship pilot project. After a launch last year with 30 students across all faculties, Mount Royal's mentorship program now pairs 80 third- and fourth-year students from all faculties with professionals in their fields of interest, with the aim of making their transition from university life to the workplace a smooth one.
The project takes a four-pronged approach, using one-to-one relationships, small groups, a speaker series focused on personal and professional development and information sharing through the program's online community.
Launching alongside the Harry G. Schaefer mentorship program is a interdisciplinary research project exploring the significance of mentorship, not just to students about to leave university, but also to the mentors providing guidance to them.
"There is a big gap in the existing research out there around mentorship when it comes to the effects it has on the mentors," explained Leah Hamilton, an assistant professor at Mount Royal's Bissett School of Business. "We're really interested in whether this program and their relationships with their [protégés] will rejuvenate the mentor's own work or have any positive benefits in their personal lives or career."
Ms. Hamilton, along with fellow researchers Paul Varella and Jennifer Boman, are taking 18 months to gather data about whether the students who participated in the mentorship program had an easier time finding jobs in their desired fields than those in the control group.
"Instead of just asking participants, 'Do you think you benefited from this experience?' as much of the current research out there does, we are going to be looking at some objective labour market outcomes," Ms. Boman said.
The researchers hope that if they can demonstrate that the protégés found jobs commensurate with their skills – and found them faster and more easily than students who went without mentors – other institutions and workplaces will be motivated to implement mentorship initiatives of their own. It's something Ms. Dickinson strongly believes the Canadian business sphere needs more of, both formally and informally.
"I think of mentorship as a dialogue, encouragement and caring about your community and fellow human beings," she said. "Canada needs more people who are engaged with each other. That is what is at the heart of mentorship after all: learning, teaching, caring and giving. You can't have too much of that in the world."