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Sarah J. Haggard, founder and CEO of Tribute, a Seattle-based, digital mentorship platform startup.

Professional conferences and leadership gurus are always urging people, particularly women and underrepresented minorities, to find a mentor to help guide them and advance their careers. It’s great advice — but not necessarily easy to follow.

You have to find a mentor, hopefully someone who’s a good fit, persuade them to partner with you, and then figure out how to make the most of the relationship. For their part, mentors are sometimes (often?) frustrated by mentees who aren’t clear in their needs, offer little in return and seemingly select candidates for their title, rather than a suitable match.

A Seattle startup called Tribute wants to simplify and smooth these relationships with a platform its founder is dubbing “the Bumble of corporate mentorship.”

Sarah J. Haggard is a social scientist turned tech-product marketer who was at Microsoft for more than a decade. While there, she faced her own challenges in finding a mentor. She launched Tribute in January 2018.

“We are digitally transforming mentorship,” Haggard said. “There is so much demand, and so much need and so much benefit to having a mentorship program.”

Tribute is targeting Fortune 500 companies. Employees at participating businesses fill out their profiles, which include professional skills as well as personal experiences — a full range of expertise that Tribute calls a person’s “Shared Life Experiences.” The emphasis is not on titles or years at a company, but situations people have navigated, such as being the only woman in room, managing difficult bosses coworkers and handling microaggressions.

Participants on the app are potentially both mentor and mentee. When people get matched, their relationship is finite, set to last for 30 days. Companies can choose to give people the option of two 30-day extensions. The connections will often target a specific issue that someone needs mentoring help with, making it suitable for a limited engagement. They communicate through the platform.

Participants also receive coaching in how to be effective mentors and mentees. Tribute is partnering with the Center for Mentoring Excellence to help deliver that guidance.

Haggard set out to primarily target women and underrepresented minorities, but opted to make Tribute available to anyone at an enrolled company. She recognized the importance of including men, particularly given the reality that they hold many of the leadership roles.

“We see tremendous opportunity to help companies save time, money and effort by simplifying and scaling mentorship,” Haggard said, “while providing invaluable insights on employee motivation, behavior and values that can be used to create more diverse and inclusive workplace cultures.”

Tribute allows mentors and mentees to share personal experience, not just professional skills. (Tribute Image)

This week, Tribute is launching its service with Microsoft’s Diversity and Tech Community. The organization includes 5,000 IT professionals internationally.

There are many other digital options for managing mentoring programs, including MentorcliQ, Chronus and Almabase.

An annual subscription to Tribute’s service is $50,000. The price increases if a company wants customized features. Haggard is currently Tribute’s one full-time employee, and she works with several consultants and advisors.

Over the next year, Haggard is eager to hire a chief operating officer, is going to start pitching venture capitalists this fall and plans to add features to the app, including goal setting, calendars and task management tools. Within two years, she’d like to expand the platform to the general public.

We caught up with Haggard for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

What does your company do? Tribute is an HR tech company that provides a mobile-first, enterprise SaaS solution to help companies digitally transform mentorship for the modern workplace. Why? Because millennials and Gen Z employees work differently than generations before them. They expect their employer to help them find a mentor. We also know that 1:1 matching doesn’t scale and is often not effective.

Inspiration hit us when: We realized that we could use the ancient art of storytelling, together with modern technology, to create better connections for mentorship. Everyone wants a mentor today, but unfortunately many of us don’t know where to look.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: VC. Tribute aims to be the de facto Fortune 500 brand for mentoring software. We’ve bootstrapped through our own funds, as well as paying customers for the last 18 months, and have enjoyed organic growth. HR tech is a hot market with more players entering every day. With high ambitions, hyper-scalability and plans to expand into other HR functions, we know we’ll need to raise VC funds to capitalize on our first-mover advantage and break through in the market.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our focus on human-centered design through Shared Life Experiences. Today we see tech in almost every product, experience and service. What we don’t see enough of is technology that helps us enhance the human experience. At Tribute, we’ve designed our mentoring app for the way we naturally connect with others, using technology to make mentorship more accessible, efficient and effective.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Pre-selling our minimum viable product (MVP) before building it. This allowed us to find our product-market fit prior to spending any money or writing a line of code. We see a lot of companies that think that in order to sell their idea they need to have a feature-rich product first. That’s simply not true. You’ll inevitably build a better product alongside your paying customers if you’re following the customer development process. Our best advice: Find customers who love your idea and want to go on the journey of building it with you.

Similar to a dating app, Tribute allows users to screen and select mentor-mentee relationships. (Tribute Image)

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Being afraid to ask for what I want because I might be told “no.” I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted believing I had decisions, deals and agreements that I simply didn’t have. Part of the startup journey will always be a race against time. Find the courage to make clear and direct asks, even if that means you get an outright “no.” It’s a gift in that it saves you time, money and effort. It also moves you closer to the people and companies that DO want to support you.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Hands down, professor and self-help author Brené Brown. She gets it. She gets the art of human connection and why it’s so important, especially today. She sees how we’re failing our future leaders by not creating space for vulnerability in the workplace. She’s worked with thousands of leaders, students and researchers and understands that vulnerability drives innovation. And she speaks to the heart of our company culture when she says, “You’re going to know failure if you’re going to be brave with your life.” Truer words have never been spoken. Brené, if you’re reading this, please call us!

Our favorite team-building activity is: We have quarterly Tribute dinners where the focus is on community and conversation. We love having these dinners because it helps us get out of our formal roles, and into sharing and connecting in a comfortable environment. Never underestimate the power of being seen and heard. It can move mountains.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Alignment with our mission and values. Tribute is a purpose-driven company at every-level. Whether that is in how we deliver excellence in our product, customer service or with one another, we exist to create a more diverse and equitable world. And that begins with us.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Trust your vision. Find good mentors. You’re going to need them.

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