In The Odyssey, a character named Mentor advises the young, directionless Telemachus in his quest to find his father. Along the way, Mentor is more than just helpful. He is the embodiment of wisdom (Athena literally inhabits his body) and a conduit for menos – the Greek word for strength and spirit.
From these epic etymological roots stems our modern understanding of the word “mentor,” a term that connotes more than teacher, advisor, counselor, or coach. When we think about mentorship, we think long-term. We think life-changing.
Reilly Davis ’08 hopes that PeopleGrove, the mentoring network he co-founded, will be just that. Launched in 2014, the online platform is already yielding meaningful results. With an annual revenue of $1.5 million, PeopleGrove connects student and alumni mentors and mentees at 120 educational institutions, including such prestigious universities as Stanford, Georgetown, and Columbia.
“I think that higher education, traditionally, has been very slow moving and more focused on academics and grades than networking and careers,” says Reilly. But that’s changing – fast. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue study found that well-being and job satisfaction after graduation were more closely tied to quality relationships experienced in school than to other factors typically touted in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
Supportive interpersonal relationships are equally important in K-12 education – a fact that The Potomac School has recognized since its founding. In a 2017 Independent School Magazine article on postmodern education, Renee Owen posits, “Just as the Modern Era dehumanized people, the new era will connect people. ...Those who will be successful in the new business world will be emotionally and socially skilled...and those who watch out for others will find more happiness and success in life.”
As a Potomac student, Reilly Davis was as enterprising as you might expect a future entrepreneur to be. During the demolition of the old Upper School, the opportunistic high schooler hoisted himself into dumpsters on campus to salvage outdated textbooks and technology, which he would then try to sell on eBay. “A lot of it didn’t end up selling, but some of it was worth more than you’d think.” He laughs, “My mom wasn’t enthusiastic about me housing all of this dumpster stuff in my room.”
As a college student at Georgetown, Reilly majored in finance and accounting and sold used textbooks on eBay and Amazon as a side project. “I started a warehouse under my bed,” he told the students at his keynote address for Potomac’s 2017 Career Day. This dorm-
room operation grew into a legitimate business with proprietary software that calculated a book’s fair price. His brand, Buyback Brothers, gained enough name recognition that it was eventually bought by a competitor. The competitor still uses Reilly’s software today.
Reilly reflects, “In college, I was the kind of student who thought, ‘I don’t need much mentorship. I’ll figure everything out by myself.’” When one of his professors tried to open a door for him at a prestigious finance firm in New York by setting up an informational interview with a senior executive, Reilly didn’t take the meeting very seriously. He says, “I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I didn’t ask the right questions. That’s a relationship I should have picked up and tried to maintain. That guy is now the CFO for Airbnb and has amazing connections. I could have learned a lot from him, and I’m sure he could have helped me along the way if I had invested the effort to really connect with him.”
After college, Reilly secured a position as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse. It turned out to be the wrong job for him – but the right place to meet his friend and future PeopleGrove co-founder, Adam Saven.
Adam and Reilly soon left Credit Suisse and went to work for Google. They lived together in a double-wide trailer in an area surrounded on three sides by the company’s headquarters. The physical proximity and Google’s culture made it easy for work to become all-consuming. Once again, Reilly felt that the fit wasn’t right: “Working at Google gave me a pretty comfortable lifestyle, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It wasn’t where I really wanted to direct my energy.” So by day, Reilly fought spam and abuse at Google; and by night, he and Adam toiled away developing the software that would become PeopleGrove – and their ticket to running their own business.
“When we started out, we were really just a mentorship network,” says Reilly. “We were a few years out of school, and we realized how much we had learned and how happy we would be to share that knowledge and help guide others going through the same thing. And we wondered where those connections were happening.”
The year Reilly graduated from Potomac was the same year Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Job prospects were scarce, and student debt loomed large. “In the early and mid-2000s, you saw new college graduates being channeled into traditional careers like finance or consulting," says Reilly. “But suddenly those jobs were drying up, and people started wondering, ‘What did we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition for?’”
At the same time, the Internet was making it easier and easier to access content. A motivated person could learn just about anything online. Reilly himself studied business at Georgetown but learned to write code with the help of online resources and friends.
In a study of U.S. college graduates published in 2014, the year PeopleGrove was launched, Gallup-Purdue found that only half of alumni strongly agreed that their education was worth the cost. The same study identified six critical elements linked to college graduates’ long-term success; one of these was having a mentor to guide them in pursuing their dreams. Executive Director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed concluded in an analysis of the study, “It’s time for colleges to make sure that every student has a mentor.”
Reilly firmly believes that mentorship is a vital element for both career success and personal satisfaction in today’s world. He notes, “Millennials have a different expectation of work. To help people succeed in college and career, you can’t just throw them a few professional connections and hope for the best.”
Cue the reinvention of college career centers, which Reilly says are shifting their focus from job placement to career exploration and the formation of professional communities. Reilly’s software, which schools can customize and rebrand to suit their needs, gives students and alumni access to a user-friendly visual directory of mentors and mentees looking to help or be helped. PeopleGrove also facilitates formal and speed mentoring sessions and uses an algorithm to recommend mentoring matches based on users’ detailed profile information. Built-in video chat, calendar integration, discussion forums, and other features make the platform a robust and convenient response to an urgent need.
“Career isn’t the only place where we think we can have an impact,” Reilly stresses. “I think it’s detrimental to be exclusively career-focused, because a lot of the problems that young people experience are prerequisite to even thinking about a career.” He adds, “One of the most valuable ways a mentor can support a mentee is by encouraging that person to discover, and then follow, his or her passion. We waste an awful lot of time and energy doing what we think is expected of us, versus finding out what we really want to do, where we really fit. Figuring that out takes courage, and the person undertaking that journey can benefit from the information and encouragement that a good mentor provides.”
Although most of PeopleGrove's clients are colleges and universities, the company also works with schools like Potomac.
“We have alumni of all ages who reach out to us and want help in making a connection,” says Director of Alumni Relations Laura Miller, who worked with Reilly to launch the school’s version of PeopleGrove, called Potomac Connect, last July. Laura explains, “I was looking for software that would provide a place where our alumni could self-serve, where they could communicate with others in the Potomac community to develop either short- or long-term mentoring relationships.” Currently, Potomac Connect is only open to alums; discussion is under way about matching interested Upper School students with alumni mentors in the future.
Alumni who have already joined Potomac Connect range in age from the Class of 1965 to the Class of 2017. They work in industries as diverse as biotech, fashion, and public administration. But why would professionals need mentoring relationships? Laura observes, “In life, change is the only constant. We continue to grow and seek out new opportunities. So everybody can benefit from the support that strong professional relationships provide.”
She adds, “Some people don’t like going to networking events. If you are a person who is a little more introverted, or your schedule or location prohibits you from attending one of our events, this portal could open up a lot of possibilities for you.”
Making mentoring and networking more equitable is one of PeopleGrove’s loftier, and most important, goals. Traditional networking privileges people from well-connected families, extroverts, and anyone who wants to follow in mom or dad’s footsteps.
Reilly notes, “PeopleGrove does not exist primarily to help the 10 percent of individuals who are super networkers. It’s all the others. First-generation college students, for example – put yourself in those shoes. At different stages, those people may have questions about how to select a college or a major, how to secure an internship, or how to prepare for a job interview. A mentor can answer a lot of those questions, or at least point the person in some helpful directions.”
Reilly and Laura agree about the value of leveraging one’s school network. “When you go to Potomac, you’re part of a community,” Laura says. “I have found that the people connected to this school are usually willing to take some time out of their day to listen, help, and advise. Sometimes, they can offer an internship opportunity or leverage their network to help someone find a job. We’ve had great success making career connections, and this new self-serve platform should enable us to help a lot more people.”
She adds, “It’s important to realize that both mentees and mentors can benefit. Mentoring relationships give people opportunities to teach, to learn, to do business, and to form meaningful personal and professional connections.”
Reilly points out, "As more and more of our lives happen online, we risk losing touch with the human element. Our vision at PeopleGrove is to be a hub for personalized connections.”
Alumni are invited to join Potomac Connect – an online mentoring platform powered by PeopleGrove. You can use the site to access job and internship postings, discussion boards, a detailed directory of Potomac alumni in a wide range of professional fields, and other helpful tools and information. We hope to see you there!