Business

Shirley Leung

Need help making it in Boston? Try some free advice on wheels

Eduardo Pujol simply wanted to hear stories about how people got to where they are, regardless of their fields.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Eduardo Pujol simply wanted to hear stories about how people got to where they are, regardless of their fields.

Seventeen mentors, 40 mentees, and 15 minutes of free advice in the back seat of an UberBlack.

If we’re looking for the secret to keeping the young and the talented in Boston, I think that #UberMentor might be onto something.

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It’s a simple concept: Get coaching, pitch an idea, or collect pearls of wisdom from a stranger in a car.

I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to be a mentor as part of HUBweek, an innovation-themed festival last week that was cosponsored by The Boston Globe. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how useful I could be. I tend to coach other women or writers. Maybe I could offer media advice to a startup.

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More curiously, who are these people who crave mentorship from someone they just met?

Turns out many of them are the twenty- and thirtysomethings we so desperately are trying to keep. They are the ones who come to Boston in droves to study. Then we hope and pray they stay and build their lives here.

So we roll out late-night T service and open Lawn on D in hopes of making our city more appealing. We vow to build more middle-class housing, because maybe that will make a difference.

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On some level, we need all of that. But here’s the dirty little secret: The young and the talented want the same thing every generation wants: some old-fashioned advice on how to make it in Boston.

In my black Chevrolet Suburban, driven by David, the first person we picked up was Eduardo Pujol, a 25-year-old from Venezuela who graduated with a master’s in marketing from Hult International Business School earlier this year. He now works as an analyst for refine + focus, a strategy and marketing consultancy in Boston.

Mentors and mentees were matched randomly, and I wasn’t sure if I could be much help on the marketing front. But that’s not why Pujol signed up. He simply wanted to build his network and hear stories of how people got to where they are, no matter what field they’re in.

My biggest piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to try something new. That’s the only way I could have become a columnist.

As Pujol later explained to me: “Wise people learn not only from their own experience, but from all people’s experiences.”

We dropped Pujol off in Kenmore Square, where we had picked him up, and then my car headed over to the Financial District to get Arie Halpern.

Arie Halpern aims to break into so-called fintech, a field that uses technology to shake up the traditional financial services industry. And he’ll soon attend a panel discussion on the subject, thanks to his UberMentor ride.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Arie Halpern aims to break into so-called fintech, a field that uses technology to shake up the traditional financial services industry. And he’ll soon attend a panel discussion on the subject, thanks to his UberMentor ride.

Halpern, 21, just graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in math and economics. The New Jersey native is finishing up a short-term contract at an investment bank. What he learned is that kind of work isn’t for him. Instead, Halpern wants to break into big data or so-called fintech, a field that uses technology to shake up the traditional financial services industry. Think innovative payment systems and investment analysis.

I told him he’s in the right city. Boston is the place for these two emerging sectors. I also told him he’s young — and it’s a great time to experiment. But most of all, he holds degrees in math and economics, and it would be very hard for him not to be successful in life. Employers covet grads with his background.

“Talking to you gave me a boost,” Halpern said.

I offered to do one more thing for him. I happen to be moderating a panel next month on the local fintech scene that will feature entrepreneurs, along with State Street CEO Jay Hooley and Putnam Investments CEO Bob Reynolds. Halpern could attend as my guest.

All kinds of connections like this were made during #UberMentor that took place on a Tuesday afternoon. My boss, Boston Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan, got his mentee, Johnny Fayad, an introductory meeting with a Boston venture capital firm.

Fayad, a 21-year-old student at Northeastern University, is cofounder of New Grounds Food , the maker of CoffeeBar, an energy bar that is made with a full cup of coffee. The product is already in 300 locations across the country.

Fayad, from Los Angeles, started the company in a dorm kitchen. He wanted to chat with a mentor in the hopes of making a good connection because “how much you put in is how much you get out.”

The Startup Institute, run by Diane Hessan, staffed a car for an entire afternoon, seeing everyone from a freshman from Emerson College to an unemployed graphic designer. A slew of mentors came from venture capital, including Freddie Martignettia, a partner at Suffolk Equity. His 25-year-old mentee wanted to know if he should go to business school or become an entrepreneur.

Martignetti, himself a Harvard Business School graduate, thought his mentee would be a great candidate for B-school — especially since he didn’t have an idea for a startup. “Don’t do something just for the sake of doing it,” he told his mentee.

So what was it about people who were willing to get tips from seemingly anyone?

Martignetti had a theory.

“Anonymity afforded some comfort,” he said.

The mentoring program on wheels was just a one-time experiment. But we don’t need Uber and HUBWeek to organize the next one. In that, any ride-sharing platform can become not only a means to get from one place to the next, but a way to connect people whose paths would not otherwise cross.

That’s something Boston needs if we want to keep our young.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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