Finding, Attracting and Using a Sponsor (Results from Our Investigation)

handprints on burlap that look like a tree

We asked students enrolled in the Institute a question** about your experiences with sponsors, those individuals who take actions to “pull you along,” helping you in specific ways to reach your entrepreneurial goals, as distinct from mentors, who help guide you and advise you about your business.    The most common answer (30%) was either “I didn’t know about sponsors” or “I haven’t been able to attract sponsors.  To help those who have not yet benefited from sponsorship, we share here the ideas from the rest of the respondents about 1) how they found a sponsor, 2) how they positioned themselves for sponsorship, and 3) benefits they received from their sponsors.

How To Be a Great Protégé

The person seeking a sponsor is called a protégé.  Many women wrote about the important factors in becoming a protégé who is useful to the sponsor.  It is critical to think about the needs and issues facing the prospective sponsor, so that you can highlight the ways in which the relationship can be beneficial to both parties.  A sponsor seeks credible, talented protégés whose accomplishments will shine light on him/her. One respondent described this as “being value-creating.”  Respondents said that to be identified as a promising protégé, you must ask the right questions, which will lead you to better understand the context and needs of the other individual.  As one respondent put it, “your path and the potential sponsor’s path must be able to align.”   Another woman wrote about the importance of being intentional about building relationships before you need it, or as she said “make deposits before withdrawals.”  

On the topic of credibility, several wrote about the need for the entrepreneur to express with clarity their vision, mission, outcomes and needs/goals.  As one put it, you need to speak “in clear, concise, and simple language with authority and enthusiasm in a manner that carries conviction.” Many also focused on being oneself to convey authenticity so that you as a protégé come across as genuine. Sponsors look for signs that a prospective protégé has a strong work ethic, exhibits loyalty, has useful expertise and can be of reciprocal value. Reputation matters – as one person put it: “attitude will always impact your altitude.”  

Finally, several emphasized the importance of going out of your comfort zone and asking someone.  This can be difficult for women, if they have been socialized with the idea that asking for something for oneself is selfish, pushy, or as one woman called it “being a gold-digger.”  To make the ask more justifiable, one woman wrote: “one way to ensure I am attracting what I need is to make sure I am aware of what my top three needs are in the first place.”  Other entrepreneurs mentioned the gender issues as well, saying that, “when women are seeking help from men, there is this subtle attitude that women should be giving up something in return.”  The same respondent went on to say that in her experience, women in leadership roles were not as inclined to help her as a woman.  Another comment came from someone who thinks sponsorship is “an edge men have over women in the business space.”  She attributed this to the idea that women “see ourselves as competitors instead of collaborators.”

Where To Find Prospective Sponsors

The women who responded suggested a wide variety of options for finding a sponsor.  One said “start with a mentor,” as a sort of building block of support.  Another suggested joining business forums and networking events as the first step in identifying someone who one might develop as a sponsor.  Regional business incubators, small business/entrepreneurship organizations and business owner groups are other places to network for prospective sponsors.  

Another option is to look among your customers.  For example, one woman said that her success at providing high level service to her clients led to them opening doors to another set of clients that she otherwise could not access from a position external to their companies. 

Benefits of Sponsorship

If you conquer your hesitation, find the mutual alignment of goals and project credibility and capability, the rewards of sponsorship are many.  Benefits that were mentioned included:

  • Introductions and invitations to dinners or other events.
  • Providing access otherwise not available.
  • Nominations for roles (she would not have applied for).
  • Motivation when the sponsor holds the entrepreneur accountable.
  • Cross-promotion opportunities.
  • Deferred costs.
  • Free media coverage.
  • Help with a business plan and/or pitch.
  • Recommendation for bigger opportunities.
  • Introductions to new clients/customers.

In conclusion, here are some references to other resources that can be helpful. Dr. Streeter recommends the book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Although the book focuses more on corporate life, the concepts and strategies are equally applicable to entrepreneurs.  If you don’t have time to read, here’s quick video of Sylvia.

One respondent, Stacy Cassio, Founder and CEO of Pink Mentor, also shared a podcast called “Work-It, Girl!” where Stacy was interviewed on networking and sponsorship. You can hear it here.


**Question sent to Institute Participants: Does your network as an entrepreneur include both mentors and sponsors? The distinction is important.  Mentors can help guide you and advise you about your business but sponsors are those individuals who take actions to “pull you along,” helping you in specific ways to reach your entrepreneurial goals. 

In a recent article, Alison Koplar Wyatt, president of Girlboss was quoted saying “Women have a tendency to collect mentors….Men go after sponsors.”   In many entrepreneurial ecosystems, potential sponsors (those with the power to take action to help) are male (and white), so it can be challenging for female entrepreneurs to build a network with the right sponsorship power.  

Our questions to you:  

  1. What is your best strategy for attracting sponsors who are “above you” in your business ecosystem?  
  2. How have sponsors helped you in your entrepreneurial efforts?