Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Regnier Institute, but was independently produced by Startland News.
If ego runs the show, a founder won’t succeed, Jene’ Hong said as she cracked jokes laced with straightforward advice.
“If we have a big ego, we can’t listen to other people and that’s what gets us in trouble,” said Hong, serial entrepreneur and Entrepreneurship Scholars mentor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Such sentiments are but a portion of what drives Hong’s mentorship style, she noted, explaining students in the E-Scholars program should lead their emerging companies with a keen sense of who they’re surrounding themselves with and be receptive to advice from those who’ve been in similar positions.
“Just let it go and listen,” Hong said of power that comes from embracing mentorship and finding value in the experience. “[Then] trust but verify. You always need to verify the sources — even if it’s your best friend, even if it’s your sibling, even if it’s your child or your parent … verify. You’d be surprised what people have done to each other [in business].”
Unlike some in startup circles, Hong doesn’t speak just to hear herself talk, she quipped. Instead, her advice comes rooted in experience — lessons learned in a more-than-30-year career as an entrepreneur and business leader, having held positions with such companies as O’Keeffe and O’Malley Inc., PharmD Live, BioStar Renewables, and as founder of HealthWealth Inc. — a strategic consulting firm which helps new and existing companies chart a course to success and increased profitability.
“I really have been involved … not just from teaching, [but] finding answers … because I’ve been CEO and president and chief cook and bottle washer, I really talk to everybody about what it takes to run a company and what it really looks like,” Hong said of attributes that caught the eye of UMKC leaders who invited her to join the program at its start in spring 2011.
“The program has changed a lot,” she added. “It keeps getting better every year.”
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Not a single idea has filtered through the E-Scholars program that hasn’t grabbed Hong’s attention, she said, referencing an impressive and growing pool of emerging business talent in the Kansas City area.
“I see something and I’m like, ‘Wow, how did somebody come up with that idea?’ and I’m just amazed. It’s all types of things, like, how did somebody come up with this for a car or this for a barbecue or this to protect heads?” she said. “It’s just amazing because I’m not the one that usually comes up with a brilliant new idea for a product or service. I’m the one that comes up with how you can make a lot of money through it.”
Harnessing the power of her own success into a platform that elevates budding entrepreneurs hasn’t come without benefits to Hong herself, she added.
“Probably the most rewarding experience was when one of the companies that I worked with came back around and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about selling our company. Can you talk to us about what it’s valued at?’” she recalled.
More than a moment in time, mentorship has the ability to become a lifelong connection, Hong detailed.
“I encourage [E-Scholars students] to stay in contact with the mentors because we still want to know what they’re doing,” she said. “There are several people who went through the program four or five years ago … one gal, her name’s Anya, she was in the program and I was invited to her wedding, to her baby shower. I’ve been up to see her in Minneapolis — held her baby. It’s really rewarding to keep those relationships going, even if they’re not in the same business that they started in the entrepreneurship program.”
Although rewarding, finding a mentor can be a struggle for some founders. But that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t worth a shot, Hong was quick to point out.
“I’ve heard a lot of times people say, ‘find a mentor that is the same sex as you,’ and I don’t really think that’s important because I was one of the first women to do a lot of the things I was doing. So I really couldn’t find one,” she said.
A hunger to know what she’d done well and where she could perform better drove Hong’s desire for mentorship — a quality she hopes is being instilled in the E-Scholars she’s been given an opportunity to mentor, she said.
“At the beginning, when you’re starting a business or you’re starting a career, if you’ve got a big ego, you won’t listen to anybody. Kind of like a kid, doesn’t listen to their parents — and let’s be honest, it goes the other way too,” Hong reiterated. “Just take it out of the way, listen to others and you’ll be much better off.”