Why our thinking about mentoring is all wrong

September 25, 2012: 10:43 AM ET

Organizations have simplified a complex term -- "mentorship" -- into a generic synonym for giving advice. Here's how we can break that cycle.

By Scott Gerber

FORTUNE -- When it comes to mentoring the next generation of business owners and startup founders, leaders of entrepreneurship organizations have made a huge mistake. We have simplified a complex term -- "mentorship" -- into a generic synonym for dishing out advice.

I'm guilty of it myself. It's all too easy to say to young people, "Oh, you want to succeed? Get a mentor." We mean well, and offering advice is a vital aspect of mentorship, but it is not a zero-sum game, and its benefits are not guaranteed (and often not measured at all).

Frankly, we can't keep touting mentorship as a means to spur business and job creation without understanding what it should look like. Mentorship is about taking the wisdom and brainpower of others and imparting it to those who need it most. Solid mentors are part sounding board and part guide. They are the critical background players in many a success story.

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But if we really want mentorship to prepare American workers for an increasingly complex economy, then it must undergo a shift from a generic concept to a highly individualized experience that can be scaled to serve tens of millions of people. Here are five ways we can do exactly that:

1. Connect those who know with those who do

I sat down for dinner recently with Naveen Jain, who founded startups Moon Express, inome, and InfoSpace. As a trustee at the X PRIZE Foundation and Singularity University, he's at the forefront of what's being called "entrepreneurial philanthropy." From 3D printing to advanced genetics, what I learned in that hour with Jain was extraordinary. Information like this shouldn't be a privilege of the few.

Yet entrepreneurs are rarely exposed to scientific innovation at this level. Instead, many are only encouraged to get mentorship from other entrepreneurs, enticed by a brand of tech entrepreneurship characterized by short-term wins and big payouts.

We need to start connecting those with knowledge -- scientists, researchers, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals, and philanthropists -- to aspiring and active entrepreneurs.

2. Think globally, but enhance indirect mentorship locally 

The rising cost of living and other macroeconomic forces are shifting many entrepreneurs' focus to local communities. Vocational schools and community colleges can help connect mentees to the local community. But we must also teach entrepreneurship with public-private partnerships. We need the next generation of entrepreneurs to create jobs in their hometowns. Entrepreneurship programs, educators, government organizations, and developers will need to band together to attract and keep talented workers. The nonprofit Idea Village has done this with great success in New Orleans.

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Programs like General Assembly connect a broad spectrum of disconnected groups -- city governments, entrepreneurs, hackers -- to provide indirect mentorship through exposure and collaboration.

3. Recognize the value of peer relationships

A fantastic mentor doesn't necessarily have to be older than their mentee. Indeed, peer-to-peer learning is one of the most effective tools we have for leadership development. So why aren't we making a bigger effort to use it in all of our mentorship initiatives?

4. Personalize pairings, measure outcomes, and increase access

While one-on-one mentorship is valuable, relying on in-person, business-to-business relationships alone is not realistic. As a result, many organizations, like Junior Achievement and Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), are shifting to an increasingly digital model. Likewise, my organization launched a program called #StartupLab with Citi so we could build a social layer on top of existing organizations (including JA and NFTE).

By supplementing traditional models with next-generation technology and user feedback, organizations can work together to personalize mentorship, measure outcomes, and, ideally, make a positive impact faster. The more targeted we can be when we connect mentees to mentors (e.g., offering precise mentoring that directly fits the needs of an African-American female 30-something retail entrepreneur expanding to a second location in Seattle), the more effective mentorship programs will become.

5. Start early

As student loan debt mounts and post-college employment outcomes remain dismal -- 63 percent of Millennials are working low-skill retail jobs, pocketing under $30,000 annually -- Gen Y and their younger siblings are painfully aware that their parent's linear path to success is disappearing.

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This is why exposure to entrepreneurial thinking -- even as early as kindergarten – is critical. Not because we expect our nation's five-year olds to go out and build the next big business, but because that same student a decade later will be better equipped to handle the future workplace if he or she has a sense of what's coming.

The earlier we provide mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs, students, and future CEOs, the better chance we have at putting an end to the chronic cycle of underemployment, joblessness, and low-wage work dogging many Americans today.

Scott Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and co-founder of Gen Y Capital Partners. He is also the author of Never Get a "Real" Job

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