Why this business owner hired a 68-year-old ‘mentern’ and thinks you should too

Nim di Swardt and Susan Davies

Nim di Swardt and Susan Davies. Source: supplied.

A fortuitous meeting at a lunch event has led to an unlikely partnership between serial entrepreneur Nim De Swardt and her new colleague, which she says holds important lessons for other entrepreneurs. 

De Swardt is the co-founder of carbon removal collective Tomorrow’s Air, and the founder of WIN|WIN, a consultancy specialising in helping older professionals share their life experiences and stories.

De Swardt is herself now experiencing this ‘wisdom’ first-hand, having recently hired Susan Davies — a veteran of the tech industry — as an intern. 

Discussing her new working relationship with Davies on LinkedIn in March, De Swardt said it is like the one featured in the film The Intern, as Davies is 68 years old and De Swardt is 35, only “better”. 

The founder uses the term ‘mentern’ to describe the relationship between the pair, as while Davies completes intern duties in the business, she is also somewhat of a mentor to De Swardt, who launched her latest business in January 2020. 

The mentern concept was developed by hospitality entrepreneur Chip Conley in his book Wisdom at Work, which draws on his experience working for, and mentoring, Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky.

De Swardt interned for Conley at his Modern Elder Academy and says his thoughts around the intergenerational transfer of knowledge has strongly influenced both her business and her working relationship with Davies. 

Davies is a retired Silicon Valley software engineer and, according to De Swardt, was looking for a part-time role where she could leverage her skills, as well as help others.

For De Swardt, her weekly sessions with her mentern are helping with everything from product development to learning the best ways to maintain a healthy mindset and energy levels. 

“Susan is the epitome of a curious, vibrant modern day elder — a lifelong learner, always growing and learning. She is intelligent, passionate, generous, and hilarious,” De Swardt said on LinkedIn. 

Mentern-ship is a ‘refreshing narrative’

De Swardt’s LinkedIn post has resonated with users on the platform, with the post generating more than 1000 likes and more than 130 comments. It has been seen by more than 29,000 people. 

Speaking to SmartCompany, she says it’s clear the message about intergenerational learning in the workplace is resonating. 

“It’s a really refreshing narrative from all of this generational shaming and blaming,” says De Swardt. 

“And I feel like ageism, especially in the workplace … is such a sensitive topic and all ages experience that at some stage.”

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, age discrimination is still occurring in Australian workplaces. In 2016-17, the majority (58%) of age discrimination complaints received by the commission were related to work. 

While more recent research from the commission and the Australian HR Institute has shown an increase in the number of organisations that no longer see obstacles to hiring older workers, the same 2018 survey found a third of employees believe their organisation has an age above which they are reluctant to hire workers. 

There are certain rules that govern how businesses can use interns, and De Swardt confirms Davies’ role is an unpaid one. However, she says she hopes it will turn into an ongoing employment arrangement as her business grows. 

While De Swardt says she understands some people may question the unpaid nature of the arrangement, she says the pair have an transparent relationship that is based on trust, and they regularly check in with each to make sure they are both comfortable with where things are at. 

It is also why the ‘mentor’ aspect of the ‘mentern’ concept is important, she says. 

“The term mentor instantly gives this feeling of service first,” she says, “rather than like a learning opportunity first as a traditional internship would.”

For business owners who would like to find their own ‘mentern’, De Swardt says it is essential to understand the two-way nature of the relationship. 

“You need to be mindful in the mentor-mentee relationships that there’s mutual benefit … [and] it’s grounded in value alignment and trust,” she says.

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