Traditional career advice follows that mentorship is crucial for success, but many people manage to do just fine without a formal mentor relationship. Here, Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork, explains how his career has thrived without a mentor relationship.
I never had a traditional mentor. I know people who have been successful with a mentor but I’ve never understood why I should limit myself to the knowledge and expertise of one person.
I believe not having one mentor has worked in my favor. Before WeWork, I had a baby clothing company. When I started out, I had no real contacts in the garment business and no mentor to guide me on how things worked. I just had an idea to put pads on the baby clothes on to protect the baby’s knees. As the business started growing, I very quickly found multiple people that I could turn to for advice. One knew a lot about shipping, one knew a lot about manufacturing, another knew about trade shows. There was no one person who advised me.
We did a lot of things that were unorthodox. For example, we didn’t know that new small businesses are unable to get credit. But we convinced the Chinese manufacturers to give us credit. Had I had a mentor guiding me through the process, he might have told me that credit was not possible. So I think a lack of mentorship helped find my own way.
In May 2008, in DUMBO, my cofounder Miguel McKelvey and I had an idea to build a shared office space that would make starting a business easier. Then, we didn’t have the community and we didn’t have the digital product. But even then, it was such a different way of looking at traditional work and space and collaboration–we didn’t have any mentors, we just built what we thought was best. It was just Miguel and myself sitting in a room, talking about how we think things should be and what a small business needs. And by doing that, we had no limitations.
There’s no one person that can provide all the insights I need to run the business. There are so many aspects to WeWork: Digital, real estate, operations, space and design. I pick and choose people who can help in each aspect. Since starting five years ago, and growing from one employee to over 300 in multiple locations on both coasts, I’ve had five to seven unofficial “advisors” that I speak to about different things, each one is a star in his own industry.
One example of this is Benchmark Capital, one of our investors. It’s a very successful VC firm, that works with companies like Uber, Snapchat, and Instagram. The partner that brought me in, Bruce Dunlevie, one of the original founders, is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Immediately after I met him, he became one of my five to seven close “advisors” that I asked a lot of both business and personal questions.
My wife is absolutely one of my key advisors, she comes from a background that’s very different than mine. When we met seven years ago, when I was in the baby clothing business, she was the one who looked at me and said, “I think you’re in the wrong business. I see the way you walk around, looking at buildings and thinking about people. You should do something with taking spaces and redefining them and using them to empower people to be more successful.” The next day, I started talking to my landlord in Brooklyn who had an empty building.
She also taught me that doing the right thing isn’t always the longest path. Coming from Israel, we like to take a lot of short cuts. She explained to me that taking the short cut is essentially the long way of doing things. She taught me that if I’m intent on changing the world, that the money will follow.
That said, I believe I would have benefitted from a mentor when I was a kid. An adult could have offered me perspective and pointed out that all the tough experiences I was having, moving from place to place, would eventually make me a stronger person. Because I moved around so much I don’t think I was able to build a relationship like that. That’s why now, I believe in showing children where the future can take them and to let them know that the challenges that are in front of them are not their fault. It would have been helpful to have someone show me the bigger picture.
I learned from an early age how to leverage community, and gain knowledge from the peers around me. I take a lot of pride in the fact that we listen to our employees all the time. I’ll listen to a 17-year-old if he or she has something to teach me. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received has been from taxi and Uber drivers. You never know will give you an amazing insight that will change the way you look at things.