Great Mentors Change Lives (And You Can Too!)

Published On: April 12, 2023Categories: Community Impact, Founder 2 Founder

Become a mentor with the MFF Internship Program. Learn more & sign up here by April 28.

Article by Sarah Craft

Last year, Caylinn Higgins saw a listing through her school, University of Michigan Dearborn, for a startup internship. She considered herself a leader, entrepreneurially minded, but had never even considered a job in the tech industry. As she learned more about the state’s startup ecosystem, she was hooked. 

What Caylinn saw was a listing for the MFF Internship Program, which helps Michigan students who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), women, gender nonconforming, and/or PELL-eligible get paid internships, professional development, mentorship, and networking opportunities in the startup ecosystem. Over the last two years, 28 students have gotten internships with 17 companies across Michigan – 98 percent of whom identify as BIPOC, 58 percent identify as female, and 43 percent are PELL-eligible. 

2022 MFF Intern Caylinn Higgins networking (Photo: Leisa Thompson Photography)


As Caylinn started to work on the 2022 application, she felt like her brain was going in a thousand different directions. She scheduled some time with one of her mentors, Austin, who works at UM-Dearborn’s Student Support Services. She had met Austin the year prior and their relationship transitioned from a somewhat transactional advisor/advisee relationship, to a full mentor, sponsor, and almost friend. 

“When I came to him, I had so many ideas of how I could answer one of the questions and I was all over the place,” Caylinn said. “He was able to slow me down and help me pick out the pieces of what I wanted to say. I submitted, got into the program, and the rest is history!” 

Caylin’s history is still in the making. She landed an internship with Nutshell last summer, built relationships with colleagues, grew her professional skills, and used her network to keep momentum going. During a coffee meeting she scheduled with me last summer, I told her about Venture For America and introduced her to a few Detroit Fellows. This month, she’s not only graduating from UM-Dearborn, she’s starting with VFA, which has a roughly 10 percent acceptance rate. Caylinn now has a two-year plan with her fellowship and will be surrounded by other entrepreneurial young people working at startups. It feels very likely that Caylinn will one day be part of MFF – not as an intern, but as a founder.

What would have happened if her mentor never gave her an hour of their time to help her think through the application? Caylinn is smart, hardworking, creative, and curious and I would never undermine her individual effort for getting herself where she is today. But, like all great leaders, Caylinn is well aware of all of the people – mentors, sponsors, and peers – who opened doors, showcased opportunities, and took an extra few minutes to give her support or feedback or an introductory email.

“There needs to be mentors in the startup space – the world is so complex!” Caylinn said. “If you’re someone new to the startup world, you definitely need guidance. You’re going to need help, you’re going to fail. You’re going to need a mentor that can help you figure it out and support you as you get through it.”

Great Founders Need Great Mentors

Mentorship isn’t just for early career talent. It’s for all of us. If we want to be successful in our mission at MFF – that Michigan is the most successful, inclusive, and community-minded ecosystem in the country for high-growth founders, reflective of the demographics of the state – we all need to grab that cup of coffee, respond to that email, give that feedback, and make that introduction.

David Corcoran is a successful, serial entrepreneur and, most recently, founded Censys in Ann Arbor. David has been mentoring since his first exit in 2010 and has supported nearly 100 early-stage founders since then, often helping them secure their first round of funding. David almost always says yes to a first meeting with founders and regularly supports 3-5 startups on a continual basis. Not surprisingly, David was recognized as MFF’s Top Mentor last year. 

For David, a great mentor is like having a co-pilot to help you make decisions and to help you feel like you’re not alone. This is especially true for first time founders.

“Many first time founders/CEOs will describe that experience as one of the loneliest ever, especially if they have no co-founders,” David said. “Everything is new to you and the decisions you make can have tremendous effects on other people’s lives. I remember the first time I hired an employee and they decided to start a family. We were responsible for this person’s income and healthcare. That’s a sobering thought that keeps you up at night.”

When David thinks about the first time he founded a startup, he remembers how hard it was. He sometimes came home and started to cry because of the weight of decisions he had to make alone. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel that way. “Just having some people you can trust and pick up the phone and ask their opinion makes this job so much less lonely.”

It takes trust, vulnerability, and great listening skills to be a great mentor. It takes someone who is willing to lean in, give feedback, and open doors – using their own reputation and network to advance the efforts of their mentee. The outcomes of these types of relationships can be life altering. 

Once, David mentored a founder who was bootstrapping off of credit cards because the founder struggled to frame the company’s story for investors. David worked with the team to formulate their story and made introductions to venture capitalists in his network. With David’s support, the company raised a seed round and is still going strong.

Another time, David worked with a founder whose company was in financial distress. The founder struggled to sleep, eat, and their mental health was suffering. David dug into the company and discovered the financial duress was imminent and too far from a milestone to get a quick raise or bridge funding. With the trust David had built with the founder, they were able to put the company on hold and the founder took a month off to rest and recover.

Another time, David worked with a fintech company that had an absentee co-founder who owned half the company. The CEO wanted to take the company in a very bold direction but couldn’t get the absentee co-founder on board. David was able to facilitate an introduction to an attorney who ended up crafting a buyout agreement. That company had a nine-figure exit a few years later.

The stories just keep coming. 

David loves serving in this way and wants more startup leaders to support others as mentors, sponsors, and advisors. “There isn’t a business owner out there that didn’t get help from someone else that helped lead them to their success.”

Become A Mentor

Next month, we’ll onboard an incredible group of college students into the 2023 MFF Internship Program. We need leaders from Michigan’s startup ecosystem (founders, startup employees, investors, etc.) to serve as mentors and supporters of the new interns – to listen to, learn from, problem-solve with, and leverage their own network and resources to help open doors for interns. Mentors can expect to:

  • Mentor a student from late May – August, with a mentor-mentee kick-off on Monday, May 22 from 4:30 – 5:30 pm over Zoom;
  • Meet once or twice a month with your intern, virtually or in person (estimated about 2 hours per month).



If you’re interested, learn more here and submit this mentor interest form by April 28 so we can match interns with best-fit mentors by early May. We’re also hosting an info session on April 20th at noon – register here.

We’re excited to see where Caylinn’s path leads her in the coming years and we look forward to continuing to make introductions, open doors, and problem-solve all along the way.

And, if you have a mentorship story to share, send us a note at [email protected] so we can get more pictures, quotes, advice, and experiences from founders across the network.

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