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Last week, I attended the Ignite Clean Energy Cleantech Open's Northeast Academy, essentially a cleantech startup bootcamp (in wildly overgeneralized terms). The Northeast's best and brightest startups were selected to become a part of a mentorship program where the first step was identifying areas of strength and weakness. For example, a startup might have a strong technological background but might not know where to start in terms of intellectual property strategy. They'd then be assigned an IP attorney as one of their one-to-one mentors.

One startup owner brought up a valid question - how do I know that my mentor is really here to help me, rather than having some kind of vested interest in getting my business? When it comes to free advice, who can you trust?

Glass-half-empty answer: Everyone in business who helps you for free should have to define their intentions with a Quid pro quo asterisk. Whether that means a referral to someone else who has money to pay them for their services, or a paid engagement down the line when your company becomes successful, you're expected to return the favor at some point. Nothing in business is free, even if that seems to be the case.

Glass-half-full answer: There are people in this world who volunteer to help others with no strings attached. These people are looking for the satisfaction of seeing that their expertise has been used to advance a cause or something they believe in. The meaning of mentorship is not lost on them - they're in it for the sole purpose of serving as a sounding board, and perhaps the selfish motivation for them is the feeling they get from helping. Call it their own form of selfish giving.

The real answer is probably a combination of both of these. In my opinion it's ok to give selflessly up front and expect that down the road (if a bond is formed and a good relationship is built off of that initial giving) the favor is returned out of good will. In the for-profit world is that so wrong?