It’s no secret that mentors can help a project succeed. But having great mentors might be even more important than anyone thought. According to TechCrunch, having great mentors is possibly the single biggest factor in a project’s or startup’s success. TechCrunch’s study found that startup founders in New York City who had strong mentorship relationships were over three times as likely to become top performers. 

That’s why fostering mentorship relationships is a top priority for incubators and accelerators the world over – and UNDP’s Digital X Scale Accelerator is no exception. As part of the five month program, Digital X provided ten ambitious projects with funding, workshops, and critical mentorship to unblock traditional challenges and help them ratchet up their impact.  

To add value to each project, UNDP’s Digital X team carefully paired mentors with projects to provide custom support where they were needed most. “It was super cool,” says mentor Oscar Malaspina, who parlayed his experience working with telehealth platforms in Peru to a project in the Dominican Republic, “how intentional the matchmaking process was. The precision of the process meant we had a lot of value to add.”

Here, we’ll explore three mentorship relationships. The teams – from UNDP country offices in Somalia, the Dominican Republic, and Kyrgyzstan – certainly benefited from the wealth of experience their mentors had to offer. But equally, the mentors gained valuable learnings, experience, and inspiration. “Digital X taught me that we have the power to provide assistance to many,” says Nur Karadeniz, who worked with the BalaTech project from UNDP Kyrgyzstan. “It was amazing to see how hungry people are for change.”

Alis Cambol | UNDP Somalia’s job matchmaking platform

Wireframes Alis Cambol made based on the Somalia team’s vision (Courtesy of Alis Cambol)

Alis Cambol was well into her career as a digital services and product designer when she had a realization. After years of working in a traditional corporate setting with major technology brands, “I made a decision to work with more purpose-driven organizations. It felt like a really good way to get involved with things that mattered.”

Cambol traces a direct line between that decision to her ongoing involvement with Digital X and UNDP Somalia’s job matchmaking platform and training portal for Somali young people, aimed at ameliorating a shockingly high youth unemployment rate in the East African nation. The Somalia digital job platform was inspired by a similar UNDP-funded jobs matching and training portal, the NISE2 platform in Bangladesh, which has already trained more than 32,000 job seekers. 

When she started working with the team in May, she was impressed by their “great technical skills and great hunches.” Her value-add, she thought, could be in helping the team take their vision and turn it into a platform Somali job seekers would be easily able – and maybe even happy – to use. The team's research revealed perceptual challenges such as trust and verifiability when it came to websites in Somalia and this is why making it a valuable and well designed experience mattered even more. “I hope what I was helping them to do,” Cambol says, “was make things more human centered. Thinking about when people land on this page, what do they expect to see and how do they expect to use the platform to find their next job. And how to deliver that in a way that feels intuitive.”

Over the years, designing in the development sector has helped her become a better designer, Cambol says. “I enjoy challenging myself and learning to design with different cultures and contexts, especially in examining biases you might have as a designer for what you think people might need,” she says.

But her main takeaway from the Digital X experience has been a reminder of the importance of listening, especially as a mentor. “Your first role as a mentor is not to assume but to listen. It’s through listening and understanding their perspective that you can best understand how to help them.”

Kevin Armstrong & Oscar Malaspina | eHospital

 Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Armstrong and Oscar Malaspina

When UX designer Kevin Armstrong and user research strategist Oscar Malaspina first started working with eHospital – an online medical consultation platform working with UNDP’s Dominican Republic Country Office – they were impressed. “The telemedicine platform they already had was pretty complete,” says Armstrong from his base in Lima, Peru. “There were things that could be improved but it seemed pretty stable.”

But if eHospital was going to scale to operate in rural areas, the two thought, the team would need to take a step back and refocus on the big questions. In the process of understanding the problem that eHospital was trying to solve, as well as who exactly the end users were, Armstrong and Malaspina helped create critical strategic alignment between team members. Quite simply, says Malaspina, “one of the most valuable contributions we made was asking the right questions.”

“What I’ve learned from this mentorship,” echoes Armstrong, “is that without zooming out and creating that strategic alignment everything that happens later won’t be as valuable.”

The mentors also believe they had an impact on the team’s working culture. Even without formal experience with agile methodology, says Armstrong, “the way they were downloading and synthesizing their interviews, it felt like they were actively trying to take a more user-centered, design approach. I think that’s a great achievement.”

For Malaspina, the mentorship experience with eHospital has proved that the work he’s done designing telemedicine platforms in Peru can help people all over Latin America – and potentially the world. “At first, I had my doubts. We know how to do this in Peru, but how is that going to help an international team,” he recalled. “I’m personally very happy to see that what we’ve learned in Peru were relevant and valuable for other contexts.”

Nur Karadeniz | BalaTech

Photo: Courtesy of UNDP Kyrgyz Republic and BalaTech

When business mentor and executive design leader Nur Karadeniz first met her mentee team, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to help. BalaTech was a gamified digital skills learning platform incepted by UNDP Kyrgyzstan aimed at decreasing the digital divide between rural and urban students. So far, the platform had already reached 15,000 school-age children across five countries.

It was definitely a project she wanted to be involved with. But the BalaTech team had over 60 challenges they needed to address for the second phase of the project – way more than she could attend to given her time availability. What they really needed, she thought, was more hands on deck. 

So that’s what she delivered. Working with the student services office at City University of London, she recruited a group of students to come on board. “I realized this requires group thinking, the learnings we get from collaborative genius, when we collect people together and ideate. That’s usually where the magic happens,” Karadeniz says. 

Karadeniz and her students organized a hackathon with the BalaTech team and senior UX experts. The goal was for attendees to collectively come up with solutions to as many of the 60 challenges as possible. It was a success: “the ideas populated in a week’s time, it was crazy,” says Karadeniz. “At the end we had a big session where everyone presented, and together we prioritized which features should go into the backlog” for the team to ultimately incorporate onto the platform. Among other features, the team added a main character – or ‘hero’ – to the game to accompany students as they overcome each level’s challenges. 

“It was such an inspirational experience to see how our organized element could make such a difference in a short period,” says Karadeniz. Her students were similarly enthusiastic: “they’ve followed up multiple times asking if there is anything else they can help with!”