MBA Guide 2015: A look inside UVic’s mentor program

Aidin Tavakkol | BCBusiness
Aidin Tavakkol (photographed near his home in Berkeley, CA) caught the attention of Paul Summerville at a UVic networking event

UVic’s Gustavson Executive Mentor Program pairs experienced professionals with MBA students to help parlay an education into business success

Winding up chief fundraiser and partner in an Internet startup wasn’t exactly what Paul Summerville had in mind when he turned up at a mentoring event for graduate students at the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business two and a half years ago. But then that’s the beauty of a program that’s been consistently ranked in student surveys as the school’s best-kept secret—it encourages the unexpected.

After leaving his post as head of TD’s Asia-Pacific region in Tokyo in 2004, Summerville settled in Victoria and soon got a call from Robin Dyke, head of the Gustavson Executive Mentor Program. For nearly a decade, the volunteer gig was the perfect fit for Summerville, who, at 47, had retired from investment banking and thought teaching was too much of a time commitment.

But by the fall of 2012, Summerville had joined Gustavson as an adjunct professor, in addition to his mentoring, and was ready for his next adventure in the business world.

He found it in Aidin Tavakkol, an Iranian MBA student who had joined Gustavson’s MBA program a month late due to visa issues and had shown up to the networking event looking a little lost.

“I could have easily turned and spoken to 15 other people,” recalls Summerville, now 57, whose international resumé includes a stint at Lehman Brothers, as chief economist with RBC, the TD gig and a turn with Wellington Asset Management in Boston. “In fact, there was kind of a line to talk to me.”

But there was something about Tavakkol—his authenticity, his maturity—that made Summerville reach out. “You know, I wouldn’t say it’s love at first sight, because I wouldn’t want to get that wrong,” he says with a chuckle from his home in Victoria.

Judging by the grin on Tavakkol—who’s sharing the split screen of a Skype conference call in December from his new home in Berkeley, California—the sentimental summary isn’t far off.

While their seamless rapport stems from mutual admiration, the relationship has grown beyond friendship to become a business partnership—one that they now believe is poised to make them millions. The company that they launched in early 2013, Limespot Solutions Inc., combines the profiling power of social media networks with the reach of e-commerce, allowing online retailers to create a customized shopping experience for their clients.

“Basically, we figure out the demographics of the person that is the target audience for that product,” explains Tavakkol, 33, a software engineer. “We also track user behaviours and their interest in particular products.” The end result is an online shopping experience that mimics real life in that shoppers can browse through only the items they’re likely to want instead of sifting through a store’s entire inventory of, say, shirts, the way customers are asked to do when clicking through conventional store websites.

A former investment banker, Paul Summerville took a call from UVic that led him down a different path: mentoring

After receiving initial support from UVic’s Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs, which connected the pair with free legal advice and helped refine the business plan, Summerville raised $750,000 from his personal contacts, and Limespot now has 40 retailers signed up for its customization software. The company has a staff of 12, and is headquartered in Victoria, with offices in Vancouver, the United Kingdom and Berkeley—where Tavakkol decamped shortly after graduating from UVic last summer in order to establish Limespot’s presence in Silicon Valley.

With a soon-to-be-announced deal with several “global brands,” Summerville, Tavakkol and their third partner, Majid Ghaffari, are predicting big things for their upstart.

“I’m confident we’re going to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” says Summerville, who now regularly flies between Victoria, Berkeley and London, where he’s been securing that forthcoming deal.

Of course, it isn’t necessarily the goal of Gustavson’s mentor program to create new businesses—although it has happened before, most notably in the case of grad Kyle Vucko, whose mentor Hannes Blum became an early investor in Vucko’s online menswear company Indochino. But it’s not a surprise when “wondrous things happen,” says UVic’s Dyke.

Gustavson’s voluntary program, available to both BCom and MBA students, is less structured than its counterparts at other schools; both UBC’s Sauder School of Business and SFU’s Beedie School of Business have more formal streams where students officially enrol. But keeping the program relatively casual has been key to allowing the right relationships to form, according to Dyke.

“The whole intention is to give the MBAs, in particular, a foot-up into the business community and provide some support from somebody who isn’t scripted by the school,” says Dyke, adding that it’s up to students and mentors to figure out how—and how often—to meet.

Victoria’s popularity with late-career or retired professionals, as well as its burgeoning status as a base for business people who work internationally but enjoy the capital’s relaxed atmosphere and mild climate, makes it a font of business acumen, according to Dyke, who has a roster of about 300 mentors and says he rarely gets turned down when looking for volunteers. That makes it easy to find the right blend of personality and skill in instances where he needs to be a more involved matchmaker: “I get a feel for the student. Does this student need their confidence built or does this student need to be challenged?”

With a range of experience in any given cohort—about 80 per cent of MBAs and 30 per cent of BComs will enter the mentoring program—students may need help with anything from English to resumé writing to figuring out if business school is even the right place for them.

Others, like Tavakkol, are much further along the spectrum. In his case, doing an MBA at Gustavson was less about learning business fundamentals than gaining international business experience. Having already headed his own company in Iran, and with a good chunk of what would become Limespot in development before arriving in North America, Tavakkol was looking for help in navigating the legalities of corporate Canada and the ear of “someone who knows how the world works.”

Without even trying, he found it in that first encounter. “Basically, Paul was that exact person.”