Why Mentorship Matters:
Q&A with Jill Willett

10 questions with Jill Willett, director of Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Adams Apprenticeship

January not only kicks off the new year. It’s also National Mentoring Month. Across the Innovate Carolina Network at UNC-Chapel Hill, there are many ways for students, faculty and alumni to get involved with mentorship. Our Innovate Carolina team caught up with Jill Willett, director of the Adams Apprenticeship, to learn how this leading entrepreneurship program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School develops high-potential students into transformative entrepreneurs helping them build relationships with mentors who are successful Carolina alumni.​

Q & A

Why does mentorship matter in the lives and future careers of students? And why does the Adams Apprenticeship focus so heavily on it?    

How to harness the power, knowledge and deep experience of UNC advisors was the impetus creating the Adams Apprenticeship five years ago. Our alumni have a deep desire to give back to younger generations, so it was about creating a structure that channels this energy into some of UNC’s most promising entrepreneurial students. Finding the right mentors is a little bit like finding love… you’ve got to go on a lot of first dates to find the people who you connect with, have the things you want and need most, and who are excited about being your champions. But when you do find great mentors, you unlock a whole set of new opportunities and even the smallest interactions can have the biggest impact for the students. It’s why we do what we do.

Can you think of examples of when mentors accelerated students’ career trajectories? What did mentorship make possible?

This is a wide spectrum! As a result of their interactions with mentors, students have chosen different career paths. For instance, some have gone to work for someone else, while others have started their own ventures after graduating. We’ve also had students who have gained funding for their businesses, been hired to work for their mentors, started companies together with their mentors, and so much more. Some of our apprentices are still in contact monthly with the mentors who’ve had the most impact. Some of them only need to talk once or twice with someone and make one small tweak to have a really big ripple effect on their entrepreneurial journeys.

  1. What are some of the different ways that Adams Apprenticeship students experience mentorship?


Creating a board of advisors is one of the most valuable parts of the program for students. The apprentices meet with tons of would-be advisors in the first half of the program and assemble their advisor board in the fall semester. This is a group of three to five mentors who are unique to each apprentice and serve as guides long after the program ends. These become an apprentice’s most trusted group of advisors. We use a DIY methodwhere apprentices reach out directly to meet with mentors and advisors who they think could be most helpful. This could be phone calls, video calls, coffee chats, etc.

Our focus on one-on-one executive coaching was new in 2019 and quickly has become one of the most transformational aspects of the program. Apprentices get to meet individually several times with highly trained executive coaches who help them with their personal and professional development. They’re not giving business advice like our advisor network does. Instead, they’re helping the students examine how their own patterns, behaviors and mindsets either help or hinder them on their entrepreneurial journey.

Can you give examples of how Adams Apprenticeship students experience mentorship in the classroom and out in the world? 

The Entrepreneurs Lab course is a great example of combining classroom learning with practical experience and is a required class for Adams Apprentices. Dr. Ted Zoller brings in highly successful entrepreneurs, authors who have published on entrepreneurship and local practitioners to illustrate certain aspects about what it means to be an entrepreneur. We also offer 10 to 15 treks and events during the year. Our main intention is to have apprentices and mentors spend maximum quality time together. Whether it’s entrepreneur visits in San Francisco, a panel or conversation with multiple mentors at a local event, or one of our daylong conferences, our goal is to create the space and structure where apprentices and advisors connect around meaningful topics.

What do strong mentors teach students that they can’t learn in the classroom? 

Mentors can often provide the real-world experience about what it means to be an entrepreneur that transforms a theoretical concept to something that is relatable and digestible for the students. Some of the most impactful lessons apprentices have learned have been as a result of hearing their personal stories from their mentors, visiting their companies or having a small dinner in a mentor’s home. Combining the mentor experience with what they learn in the classroom has been a powerful combo.

Mentorship is important in all types of careers. Why is it particularly valuable for aspiring entrepreneurs? 

There is no roadmap for entrepreneurship. Some of our apprentices want to start businesses, and they will create things that don’t exist today. And with that comes a lot of unknowns, so they seek out guidance from those who have gone before them as they’re launching and growing their ventures. We also have a lot of students who embody the entrepreneurial mindset who will choose to work for someone else – a large company, organization or a startup. Mentorship is critical for them as they create their place in those environments, maintain their entrepreneurial spirit and make big life transitions. 

How do good mentors prepare students to successfully handle the “big breaks” that mark productive entrepreneurial careers?

A big part of taking advantage of “big breaks” is having the confidence, courage and the ability to act when you see opportunities. It’s common for apprentices early in the program to have reservations about reaching out to mentors to ask for help. But as they do this 20, 30 or 40 times throughout the year, we’ve seen them gain momentum, and their confidence skyrockets. 

What makes someone a good mentor?

This is a great question. Our mentors are typically people who’ve experienced the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship, have a very strong give-back mentality and have an intrinsic desire to apply the lessons they’ve learned for someone else’s benefit. Some of our mentors have had decades of experience and some have only a few years, but all have valuable insights that they want to share.

What can students bring to a mentor relationship that makes it more valuable? 

We’ve discovered that one of the barriers to mentor relationships is the assumed power dynamic or the discomfort in “asking for favors” from people who are more experienced. Students constantly underestimate what they bring to the table that could be of great benefit to a mentor. They have a younger generational lens that they look through, whole communities that they’re a part of that a mentor doesn’t have access to, and energy and enthusiasm for specific topics. The perceived power dynamic begins to balance out once the student realizes they have a lot to offer in the relationship. And there is nothing a mentor craves more than an eager student. They get energized as they begin to see the impact they have on them.

What makes the Adams Apprenticeship a unique mentorship opportunity – what will students find here that they can’t elsewhere?

One of the biggest differentiators of the Adams Apprenticeship is that we’re entirely focused on developing the individual, not building a venture. What students learn during their time as apprentices will serve them throughout their careers, through many ventures and throughout their lives. And our mentors are incredible. They not only make an impact by sharing their own experiences, but they provide access to their own networks and open a ton of doors for the apprentices. Some of our students’ big breaks have come directly from the actions of their Adams mentor.

Learn more about the 2020 apprentices.

 If you’re a student who’s interested in applying to the Adams Apprenticeship, or someone who would like to serve as a mentor, contact the Adams Apprenticeship team.