Entrepreneurs talk about mentors: Evan Rocheford of NutraMaize

One of the strongest business relationships entrepreneurs develop is with their mentors. We will spotlight some of these relationships in this and future blog posts.

Evan Rocheford is co-founder and CEO of NutraMaize. The company’s high-carotenoid orange corn was developed by co-founder Torbert Rocheford, the Patterson Endowed Chair for Translational Genomics in Crop Improvement in Purdue University’s College of Agriculture. The orange corn was originally developed as part of an ongoing effort to help alleviate severe malnutrition globally through nutritionally enhanced staple crops.

Evan Rocheford, co-founder and CEO, NutraMaize. Photo by GoDaddy.

One of Evan’s mentors is Emily Liggett of Liggett Advisors. Evan generously agreed to answer some questions about this business relationship.

Question: How did you make first contact with Emily Liggett?

Evan Rocheford: I first met Emily when I was participating in the Purdue Foundry’s Double Down Experiment pre-accelerator program. The Foundry arranged for some other founders and I to pitch to the Silicon Valley Boilermaker Innovation Group, which is a group of successful alums in Silicon Valley interested in mentoring Purdue-affiliated startups and entrepreneurs. It wasn’t a competition but I feel like gaining Emily as a mentor and friend was a much better prize than I’ve ever received at any actual pitch competition!

It was a great connection made through Purdue, the Foundry and SVBIG. Boilermakers love to support Boilermakers, which is something that I really appreciate and has contributed a lot to our success to date.

Emily Liggett of Liggett Advisors. Photo provided by Emily Liggett.

Question: What subjects do you and Emily Liggett discuss with one another?

Rocheford: Emily and I connect on a regular basis and discuss all the major facets of business. Emily has had a very successful career, having led, worked at or served on the board for many different companies, so she brings a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom to table.

Emily is part-executive coach, part-friend and mentor. It’s important to note that we don’t just talk about the business aspects of NutraMaize, we also discuss the emotional experience of being a startup CEO and organizational leader. We talk about how to navigate the dangerous waters, the ups and downs, and how to come out the other side a better and more effective leader.

One of the things that I don’t think is discussed enough is the personal-professional integration of being a startup founder. If my emotional well-being is better, I am a better leader. If I am a better leader, my organization is going to produce better outcomes. Learning how to cope with and respond to the challenges of business, not only from a technical standpoint but also an emotional and intellectual standpoint, is an extremely important part of the job.

Question: How did this connection with Emily Liggett benefit NutraMaize?

Rocheford: Connecting with Emily has provided a tremendous benefit to NutraMaize in a number of ways. Emily helps me to navigate challenges, to take different perspectives and to use different approaches to make better decisions for my company and myself. I think the most prominent benefit is that she has helped me develop as a leader and become a more effective CEO.

Question: What are your overall thoughts about mentoring? Would you become a mentor yourself?

Rocheford: Mentoring is extremely important. Outside of family, some of the most impactful relationships in my life have been with mentors.

It’s a special kind of relationship. Most of the people I consider mentors have also become friends. It’s different than your typical friendship because there is more structure and intention going into the relationship. It’s about exchanging ideas in a way that produces value for both participants.

I don’t believe that mentors engage because they’re totally selfless. Mentoring has to be rewarding for the mentor too. That’s really important — you don’t want any relationship to be a one-way street. I’m on the receiving end of most of the wisdom being shared, but I have to ask how I can contribute to this relationship to make sure the mentor knows that their time, effort and energy is making a difference and is appreciated, that they’re not wasting their time.

I’ve had a lot of different mentors who have impacted me and my development. Having great mentors has also helped build my confidence in my own abilities. Having someone whom you hold in high esteem respect you enough to give their time, energy and effort to help you grow and become better … that in itself is a confidence boost. If Emily didn’t believe in me and what we’re doing at NutraMaize, I don’t think she would be contributing her time and energy in the way that she is.

I think it’s also important to recognize that you don’t have to have 30 or 40 years of experience to provide value to somebody else as a mentor. I’ve run NutraMaize for six years now, which isn’t very long compared to someone like Emily, but it’s pretty substantial when compared to someone who has been running their business for just six months. Even in my short time, I’ve hit a lot of potholes that I can hopefully help someone else just starting out avoid.

It’s also important to recognize when considering becoming a mentor that you don’t have to have the answers. It’s not your job to solve the problems of the person or company you are mentoring. Your job is to ask the right questions rather than to have the right answers. A mentor’s job isn’t to make decisions for you, it’s to help you think more critically and make better decisions yourself. Mentors are more like magic mirrors than crystal balls.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to say about entrepreneur-mentor relationships?

Rocheford: Beyond providing guidance and friendship, I think mentors can also be a great source of inspiration. Interacting with Emily, seeing her success not only in business but in life, is an inspiration to me. Emily entered a very male-dominated engineering landscape in the 1970’s and worked her way to the top of her field, all while raising four children. She is a successful executive, parent and partner. There are a lot of people who are not able to successfully navigate all three of those roles at the same time. Emily’s story gives me confidence that I’m not going to have to sacrifice the relationships that are most important to me in order to succeed in business.

Professor Torbert’s Orange Corn line of premium milled products. Photo provided by NutraMaize.

Are you interested in mentoring a Purdue startup entrepreneur? Contact Baylee Neff, Purdue Foundry’s director of entrepreneurial talent, at bmneff@prf.org.

About Silicon Valley Boiler Innovation Group

SVBIG is an organization focused on mentoring student, faculty & recent grad entrepreneurs at Purdue University to advance their start-up idea/company. Engagement includes early ideas in the classroom through company formation and start-up to company liquidity event.

SVBIG comprises professionals with proven experience in entrepreneurship, and with diverse expertise in areas such as venture capital, angel investing, startup leadership, venture finance, and early go-to-market experience in product and channels.

SVBIG = “SV” for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial thinking origin and “BIG” for alignment with Purdue, the “Boilermaker Innovation Group.” In addition, “BIG” is the way we think.

About NutraMaize

NutraMaize is a Purdue-affiliated startup company on a mission of transform the United States’ largest staple crop — corn — into a platform for delivering better nutrition on a population-wide scale. NutraMaize’s innovation is a more nutritious, better-tasting variety of non-GMO Orange Corn originally developed to help alleviate malnutrition in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The orange color comes from significantly increased levels of carotenoids, the same kind of natural antioxidant pigments that give carrots their color and health-protecting reputation. Currently, NutraMaize is bringing the benefits of Orange Corn to Americans through a line of premium milled products marketed under the brand Professor Torbert’s Orange Corn.

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