Beyond Mentoring: The Power of our “Adoption” Approach
20 February 2024 - Huyly Hour

Beyond mentoring: The power of our "Adoption" approach

Discover how Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s immersive “adoption” approach reshapes the traditional norms of mentorship — fostering lasting relationships, offering tailored solutions, and setting a new bar for how we support our entrepreneurs.

Author: Impact Hub Phnom Penh

Late last month, Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Lyhour, Songhour, and Sopheary stood surrounded by rice fields in Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province with members of the Rumdoul Tan Kham Meanchey Agriculture Cooperative. The fields glowed green-golden, ready for harvest, almost as far as the eye could see.


Today, though, the group wasn’t there to harvest. They huddled around a smartphone — analyzing photos members of the cooperative had just taken, discussing the marketing potential of great images, sharing photography tips, and taking turns standing in front of and behind the camera.

Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Songour, at left, with members of an agriculture cooperative in Banteay Meanchey province.

Over the course of the week, our in-house mentors Lyhour, Songhour, Sopheary from Impact Hub Phnom Penh and the team from Rumdoul Tan Kham Meanchey Agriculture Cooperative would work together to edit the photos, revamp the Agriculture Cooperative’s digital presence, strategize new marketing approaches, and pinpoint challenges in their current operations. This hands-on mentoring was part of the “adoption” component of our Khmer Agriculture for the Future incubator program, implemented under the Nurture Project. The incubation program is co-funded by Khmer Enterprise, HEKS/EPER, and CARITAS Switzerland with funds from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

This is no typical mentoring effort, however.

Three Days, Three Nights

We know that individualized mentorship is key to helping entrepreneurs. A great mentor helps entrepreneurs identify their pain points and coaches them to find actionable solutions. A great mentor is a champion, but someone who can give “tough love” when needed. And yet, despite their potential, even great mentor-mentee relationships can sometimes feel one-sided and top-down. Too often, mentorship becomes about an expert sharing advice with an entrepreneur (advice that may or may not fit their precise needs), rather than a symbiotic two-way relationship.

That’s why, over the past few months, we’ve piloted a different approach to mentoring called “adoption.” The name explains it: each entrepreneur or team “adopts” a small team from Impact Hub Phnom Penh for three days and three nights.

A team of Impact Hub Phnom Penh staff — usually two to three people, representing different areas of expertise, like finance, branding and communications, operations, or HR — immerses themselves in the entrepreneur’s day-to-day life. Usually, this includes staying overnight at their host’s home and getting to know their family and colleagues. Ahead of the adoption stay, our mentors and the entrepreneurs collaboratively decide a few areas they would like to focus on. This usually takes place after the entrepreneurs have gone through a learning bootcamp or business self-diagnosis process. Then, during the stay, they can make the most of the time to troubleshoot specific challenges, with our mentors acting as both coaches and consultants to offer personalized advice, expertise, and training.

Changing the Traditional Norms of Mentoring

This immersive approach flips the power dynamics of mentoring. Sopheary, our in-house mentor who just spent 10 days with agriculture startups and agriculture cooperatives across northeast Cambodia, shares that “I taught and advised them a lot, but honestly, I’m the one that learned so much.” Our colleague Lyhour added: “Because we spent this time with them, we built a stronger bond and now have an easier time communicating. We understand their realities and there is more trust.”

We’ve learned one important thing working with over 470+ startups and entrepreneurs in the past nine years: every individual entrepreneur’s needs and context are unique. Adoption gives our team of mentors a close-up understanding of the entrepreneurs’ motivations and challenges. We directly see the context they operate in. Rather than make quick assumptions about how we can help, we truly listen and learn first — then we figure out how we can be most helpful.

A few of the entrepreneurs that Lyhour, Songhour, and Sopheary visited in January practicing taking product photos.

For instance, during our recent adoption visits supported by the Khmer Agriculture for the Future program, our team worked with an agriculture cooperative to assess gaps in their financial systems. By the end of the three days, our team had created a financial management template that was precisely suited to their business model and digital skills.

We obviously can’t address every pain point in such a short time, but through adoption, we’re able to resolve some of a small business’ most pressing needs. Our teams have redesigned a company’s logo and product labels, helped set up online marketplaces, optimize production timelines, and more. These are tasks that a mentor typically would just advise on. Through adoption, we actually get the job done. We co-design solutions or systems with the entrepreneurs and ensure that they have the skills and tools to continue using them.

“It only takes our team a few hours to make a good logo and social media templates for a company. That’s something they would normally spend months on, or something they would never do because they don’t have the resources to afford a consultant,” reflects Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Songhour. “We build the relationships with them, and we really get to know them, so we can actually work with them to solve problems. It feels so good to have this kind of immediate impact.”

Impact Hub Phnom Penh's Songhour, Lyhour and Sopheary taking selfie with Entrepreneur of an agriculture cooperative in Banteay Meanchey province.