Building a Mentor Platform to Boost Alumni Engagement

Cornell's School of Hotel Administration designs a mentor network that encourages deeper relationships between students and alums.
Business schools often turn to mentorship programs both to strengthen students’ skills and engage with alumni. The challenge: to design a sustainable program that supports long-term engagement, between mentors and mentees and between alumni and the school.

That was our goal for the Connect Entrepreneurial Hotelies (CEH) Network at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA) in Ithaca, New York. This mentorship program, launched in the spring of 2014, is open to any Cornell student interested in being mentored by an SHA alum. We created multiple opportunities for communication at each stage of the process:

Laying the foundation. The CEH is specifically offered through our school’s Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship (PIHE). To promote the CEH, we added a new page to the PIHE website and announced the CEH at the institute’s advisory board meeting and in entrepreneurship classes across campus. Our associate dean of academic affairs also sent an email blast to more than 500 alumni. At each point, we collected feedback from students and alumni about what they wanted from a mentor program.

Managing workflow. To manage applications, assign mentors, and monitor mentor-mentee relationships, we use OrgSync, Cornell’s online organization management system. The system also allows us to market to students across campus through the university’s database, set up a public-facing site and a private network, and set different levels of access for administrators, alumni, and students.

After someone submits an application, we set up a brief phone call to gauge his or her interest, keeping our notes in the OrgSync system—program coordinators use those notes to make selections and mentor matches. Whenever we send out welcome letters to accepted participants, we reiterate the commitment required. Each participant must be willing to devote at least 15 hours to CEH over the next calendar year.

Preparing participants. After learning they’ve been accepted, mentors and mentees take a mandatory online seminar via WebEx that goes over the program and use of the OrgSync platform. Paired mentors and mentees also can view one another’s applications on the platform, so they can understand why they’ve been paired.

Educating participants. We created a program guide for participants, which outlines the CEH’s objectives and participant responsibilities. It also defines good mentor-mentee relationships and presents the dimensions of student learning set out by “A model for student mentoring in business schools,” a 2012 article by Manju George and Sebastian Mampilly.

Monitoring progress. After each interaction, mentors and mentees must complete online mentor session summaries, which are reviewed by the PIHE team. The team then provides feedback to mentors and mentees to address any concerns they have raised, which minimizes the risk of problems arising.

With these elements in place, our next concern is managing growth. We currently can add only 20 new mentee-mentor pairs each semester, and we have a waiting list. We were able to start the program using existing resources, but we recently started a fundraising campaign so that we can hire additional staff and serve a greater number of students.

In addition, alumni from schools outside the SHA have expressed interest in mentoring. That means we must decide whether to expand the program to include non-alumni. We have to determine whether we can effectively link the experience of entrepreneurs from outside SHA with our students’ needs. Or is there a way to replicate the model elsewhere on campus to support entrepreneurship education on a larger scale?

We also were interested to read “Metrics & Mentors,” an article by Ernie Cadotte that appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of BizEd. Cadotte discusses how the University of Tennessee in Knoxville engages executive mentors in the student assessment process. As our mentor base grows, we too will look at ways they might contribute to documenting student learning.

Our goal for CEH was to support our entrepreneurial curriculum through the three tenets of the PIHE’s mission: education, engagement, and experience. As we look forward to “CEH Version 2.0,” one thing is certain. The CEH has provided us with the means to educate our students, engage with alumni, and offer an experience that we hope will drive innovation in hospitality for years to come.
Mona Anita K. Olsen is the associate academic director for the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Elizabeth Huston is a senior at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and helps coordinate the CEH program. For more information about the Connect Entrepreneurial Hotelies Network, visit