Meet Harvard Entrepreneur: Dayoung Lee, co-founder of Mentor Me India

Women’s iLab celebrates Harvard University, Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School for being leaders in education for developing female founders and gender-equal companies through our Harvard Entrepreneur column. 

Dayoung Lee, MPP/MBA'15, co-founder of Mentor Me India.

Dayoung Lee, MPP/MBA’15, co-founder of Mentor Me India.

Dayoung Lee is currently a MPP/MBA joint degree candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School (Class of 2015). Prior to graduate school, she was a management consultant with The Parthenon Group and Dalberg Global Development Advisors. During her first year at Harvard, she co-founded Mentor Me India (MMI), a non-profit mentoring organization based in Mumbai. She currently serves as the Executive Director for MMI, leveraging insights into India’s education and youth development landscape, and managerial lessons from consulting and her graduate education.

WiLab: What is MMI’s overall mission?
Dayoung Lee: Our organization hopes to empower children in low-income communities to grow to their full potential by supporting enduring one-to-one relationships with strong role models. The MMI program is inspired by the internationally proven model of Big Brothers Big Sisters in the U.S. but carefully tailored to the Indian context. MMI provides intensive training and parental engagement, an induction phase to facilitate relationship building, group mentoring sessions and extensive monitoring and support structures. While mentoring is well established in the U.S., it is in nascent stages in India. We hope to grow as India’s first national mentoring organization.

WiLab: How did you come up with the idea for the company, and how did you make it come to life?
Dayoung Lee: Mentor Me India was inspired by the numerous beautiful children I met in India volunteering at a center for street children and going around the country to find effective programs to educate out-of-school children as a development consultant. While they have many dreams, they often do not have a champion with time and resources to help them realize them. When I returned to the US for graduate school, I realized that mentoring can potentially be an extremely powerful solution. Children from low-income communities can greatly benefit from a strong one-to-one relationship with a caring adult role model. Along with friends from the Harvard community and education professionals in India, we assembled the building blocks of a mentoring organization in urban India. In its early days, the organization was incubated at Harvard. MMI entered the HBS New Venture Competition and made it to the semi-finals in the Social Enterprise track.

WiLab:  How do you envision the future of the company?
Dayoung Lee: In the US, there are many bridges to bring together committed, passionate individuals who want to make a difference through mentoring, and children who can benefit from such support. This is not the case in most countries. My vision is that MMI grows to become the bridge for such relationships in all of India, and in other countries that lack such structure. As we establish a strong model, and identify what is replicable and what needs to be tweaked according to the local context, I see enormous potential beyond India as well.

The team from Mentor Me India.

The team from Mentor Me India.

WiLab: How does Harvard encourage students who want to found non-profits?
Dayoung Lee: Several courses at HKS and HBS provided me with an important foundation for founding nonprofits. Harvard also offers funding opportunities that allow students to take risks and start high impact ventures even if they are not lucrative. HBS’ Social Enterprise Initiative summer fellowship grants and the New Venture Competition Social Enterprise track provided critical seed funding. HBS’ growing investment in entrepreneurial programs and emphasis in fostering leaders who make a difference in the world, not just in their own lives, also provides resources and an environment conducive to founding social enterprises.

WiLab: Why did you decide to go for the MPP/MBA joint program? Do you think formal education helped you be a better founder?
Dayoung Lee: To tackle world’s largest challenges, I believe it takes moving all three sectors – public, private and nonprofit. The joint degree offered the opportunity to gain skills in and open up my worldview in all of them. I was especially interested in exploring social entrepreneurship, as I had wanted to build and lead an impactful organization that changes the lives of children in least resourced backgrounds for the better. The joint degree experience was critical to getting a step closer to this dream. HKS was extremely inspiring. HBS provided a lot of practical tools. Overall, graduate school provided the time, the theoretical foundation, a like-minded, passionate team of co-founders and supporters, and a rich network of alumni and experts that all helped MMI get started.

WiLab: What advice do you have for someone looking to start their own company?
Dayoung Lee: Do something you love – it consumes you completely, so you want to make sure you enjoy every moment of it. Get great people onboard, and help them grow and feel the passion that you feel. There’s no way you can do everything by yourself so that’s the only way to grow successfully. Particularly for founders of non-profits– don’t be afraid to ask anyone and everyone for resources. Cast your net wide and look out for resources in unexpected venues.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: JULIA NEAGUme

I’m a PhD student @Harvard, trying to reconcile all the crazy things I want to do. I am broadly interested in collaboration — across fields and cultures.

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