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Our Voices

Helping Leaders Flourish Through Mentorship

Image of white woman in her 50's with blonde/grey curly hair leaning against a wall
Christy Pettit, founder of Pollinate. Photo by Britney Townsend Photography.

Christy Pettit thinks of bees pollinating a field of flowers when she thinks about the name of her company. 

“Pollen does not rampantly go everywhere,” she explained during a Zoom call. “There’s a strategy.”

Launched in 2008, the Guelph, Ontario based Pollinate Networks doesn’t match bees and flowers but mentors and mentees. Its technology predicts a high degree of compatibility among people, and their online education resources ensure mentees and mentors get the most out of their time together.

Mentorship Benefits Employees and Enterprise Leaders

Pettit has experienced first-hand the difference mentorship can make. “[Mentors] have really enhanced my knowledge and saved me a ton of heartache by having the expertise at a moment when I needed it,” she said. An early mentor helped her appreciate how she could make a more positive impression when working with clients and executives. 

“It wasn’t clear to me how much my tone and demeanor and approach affected the whole soup,” Pettit said.

Pettit said it makes business sense for business leaders, founders and owners to invest in mentorship tools, as external market research has found significantly higher retention rates, productivity, and job satisfaction for those in mentoring programs compared to those who were not. After all, employees today are seeking more individualized attention and learning. 

Moreover, Pettit said the pandemic has heightened interest in mentorship programs, as the interpersonal moments mentorship provides are more valuable in hybrid and virtual work arrangements.

Proprietary Software Makes the Best Matches Possible

What sets Pollinate Networks apart from its competitors is the rigor of its matching algorithms, Pettit said. Although there are around 300 large companies globally which offer mentor-mentee matching services, the information Pollinate collects from mentors and mentees with its proprietary software predicts better matches than most. 

“It’s not just throwing people together and hoping that it works,” she said. 

Pollinate works by collecting a myriad of detailed information to help mentees find their ideal mentors. Mentees start by identifying their career goals and the skills they want to develop, which might include things like strategic thinking, business awareness, or stepping outside their comfort zone. Likewise, mentors provide information including their work history and expertise. Pollinate also assesses the collaboration styles of mentors and mentees to ensure interpersonal dynamics are positive and productive, and then determines matches based on what the algorithm determines is the best fit for their needs and personality.   

While being a mentor is often unpaid work, these mentors volunteer their time because they don’t want“ all the hard-won knowledge and experience they have to go to waste,” Pettit said. 

Mentoring Can Support Diversity Goals

While the company’s strong suit lies in the power of its matching algorithms, Pollinate also offers online educational videos intended to help mentors and mentees to get the most from their mentorships. Topics include things like the role of mentors and mentees, Socratic questioning, and overcoming unconscious bias. Pettit said everyone has unconscious bias, and helping mentors discover their own biases and expand their understanding of the role of privilege, concept of intersectionality, and value of lived experience makes them better mentors. 

Mentoring programs can also help women and other underrepresented groups by expanding their networks and gaining access to more experienced or senior people who can support their career growth. 

Pettit said there is a “legitimate hunger” in organizations to achieve greater diversity in leadership roles and other positions. 

“It’s not just political correctness anymore,” she said.

Doing it Right Takes Time

While many of the company’s clients are big companies like Manulife and BlackBerry, which license its software to benefit their own employees, Pollinate also works with not-for-profits and emerging companies to match mentors and mentees within a broader community. 

Pettit and the Pollinate team. Pictured left to right: Christy Pettit, CEO Renate Wiebe, Project Coordinator João Paulo Viel Vieira, Project Coordinator Amy Strachan, Executive Assistant, Richard Bain Photography

For example, Pollinate partners with the Guelph-Wellington Business Center to match local entrepreneurs with advisors who offer support around pandemic recovery, and Project Learning Tree uses Pollinate to help pair mentors with youth looking to pursue careers in forestry. The company’s platform is also matching entrepreneurs in the food and agriculture industry with mentors to explore ways to address rising food costs and global food supply chain issues.

With more and more enterprises and organizations embracing the possibilities of mentorship, Pettit said Pollinate is “growing at a good pace right now and moving our way up, revenue-wise.”

While the company’s eventual goal is to focus solely on mentorship, Pollinate’s mentorship-pairing services currently represent between 70 to 80 percent of its income. The remaining revenue comes from things like engagement surveys, professional services, and grants, which Pollinate uses to fund ongoing improvements to its mentorship software.

Developing an computer based intelligent algorithm like the one Pollinate uses takes time and money; while the company could have easily designed a more generic mentor-matching program much more quickly, Pollinate has benefitted from taking extra time to develop its unique algorithm for maximum compatibility. Pettit maintains that the power of their well-honed matching system makes mentorship more meaningful and improves outcomes for all involved.

“I wanted to do this the right way,” Pettit said.

Publishers Note: Pollinate participated in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media and commerce sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level

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Our Voices

Slow Growth, or How to sleep at night when you’re building your business


Here are three true stories about my early business experiences.

It was 1981. The Ontario Government had been offering a loan guarantee program to publishers since 1973. It was an attempt to address the financial crisis that the nascent Canadian-owned publishing industry was facing. I met with the bureaucrat who ran the program to talk about applying. Our sales revenue and cultural grants had a 2:1 ratio, for a total of $65,000. I didn’t have a penny to put into the business myself, so selling books was the only way we could grow, a reasonable proposition. But we had to produce the books before we could sell them, and that required money.

The bureaucrat, who I’ll call Brutto (it happens to be Italian for nasty), was arrogant and dismissive. Not only was he discouraging, he basically told me not to waste his time. He completed his put-down by saying, in effect, “Don’t you know that even the smallest mom-and-pop corner store has revenues in excess of $100,000?” What he didn’t say but inferred was, “You’re a joke.”

The second story took place a few years later. By now, the company’s annual sales revenues alone exceeded $500,000, which for Canadian publishing was not bad. I was asked to speak to a group of women entrepreneurs alongside a female executive from one of the big banks. She was clearly on the rise. What she shared with us had tremendous resonance for me. She told us that women tend to run businesses for five to 10 years before applying for their first line of credit. They show the bank how they’ve made money year over year. They usually don’t pay themselves much and instead, plow all their profits back into the business. They grow, they build up staff, and they want to get to the next level but can’t on the current cash flow. That’s when they think about getting a $25,000 line of credit. The amount they ask for is usually small, often too small. When they get approved, they look surprised and may even act as if the bank is doing them a favour.

By comparison, the bank executive said, men come in and present a business plan for an idea. They talk about it, share their enthusiasm and conviction that the idea will work, and ask for $75,000 to finance it. With the money that the bank gives them, they put $30,000 into the business and $45,000 toward a BMW. They’ve just told the world they’re a success. But their rate of business success is actually less than the rate of women.

The third story took place in 1993. At this point the business was bringing in several million dollars in sales revenue and had $1 million dollars in retained earnings. I went to the bank we had been dealing with from the beginning and asked for a loan to finance the purchase of a building. The building would cost just more than $1 million. The bank told me to bring my husband in to guarantee the loan. My husband had nothing to do with the business. I wrote a very nasty letter to the banker and everyone up the chain, then found a new banker who said that whatever happened, she would not insult me and she would do the best she could to help. In the end, she could not give us the amount we asked for. Because we had effectively been acting as our own banker with the retained capital and were in a very good position, she explained why she thought the amount she was offering was enough. She said ultimately we had to be comfortable with the decision we made. In the end we accepted her loan offer and she was right—it was enough. Our growth was so rapid that we easily handled the mortgage expense and loan. Within 18 months, our cash flow was sufficient to rebuild retained earnings.

What lessons am I trying to share with these stories? While my experiences date back 35 years, statistics still show that women entrepreneurs start smaller and grow more slowly, they don’t get as big, they underestimate themselves and/or their business along the way, and will avoid risk to the point of underfinancing. Any entrepreneur can grow too slowly and be risk-averse, but it happens more with women in part because banks have historically not been keen to support women’s initiatives, take them seriously, and help them learn. Not being taken seriously diminishes the potential of any business. While growing slowly might mean you probably sleep better at night, which is not a bad thing, it’s not possible to be an entrepreneur and avoid risks altogether. It’s possible to run at a different pace of growth and still progress, but it’s essential that you are controlling the pace of growth. If you’re not, growing too slow can be a sign of challenges ahead.

Finding advisors you trust and who understand both you and your business is key. I moved all our business to a banker who didn’t patronize me. She helped me understand her analysis and that it wasn’t in her interest to set me up to fail. She also respected me and my decision-making process, which increased my confidence in her and also myself. She loaned me enough money—and not more—so that the business could continue to succeed. I learned to be less fiscally conservative and to crow about our successes more. She became a friend and remains one to this day. What she taught me beyond the mechanics of the analysis was to trust my knowledge and my instinct. She brought a layer of analytics to the review that I didn’t have. She never suggested that her analysis was more important than my knowledge about the business and the marketplace. By listening closely to me and learning about the history of the company, she recognized I had what it took to continue building on the success we had achieved to that point.

So what’s the take-away? Trust yourself. There is a lot of noise out there; everyone has an opinion and loves to give advice. Don’t be intimidated or bullied into questioning your judgment, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the value of what people have to say. There are nuggets of wisdom everywhere. Remain curious. A Dragons’ Den mentality is not required to succeed, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it is.


Our Voices

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