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Volunteer Mentors Drive Impact Through the Social Innovation Accelerator

Learn more about our Accelerator mentorship program, and hear from some of the business and philanthropy leaders who volunteer their time to make the initiative a success.

March 6, 2023

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, we encourage all North Texans to join our Live United movement by giving, advocating and volunteering. Each is a powerful way to contribute to our mission of improving access to education, income and health.

In this article, we’re highlighting just one of our volunteer programs that enable individuals to be part of the change right here at home: by serving as mentors for the United Way Social Innovation Accelerator. We’ll hear from several mentors about why they chose to volunteer and how the experience has impacted them, as well as how you can learn more about serving as a mentor with United Way.

The Role of Accelerator Mentors

The Social Innovation Accelerator is one of the ways in which we encourage and support novel solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than current solutions. The program provides entrepreneurs with critical resources—funding, mentorship and community connections—to accelerate the growth and stability of their innovative ventures.

For fellows who join the Social Innovation Accelerator, the experience includes three key components:

  • A bootcamp, powered by Santander
  • One-on-one professional mentorship
  • A chance for a spot at The Pitch powered by PNC, our live social innovation competition where finalists compete for additional seed funding

For the entrepreneurs who go through the Accelerator, mentoring is one of the most important and beneficial components of the program. Each fellow is paired with two to three professional mentors who provide one-on-one mentoring and coaching and offer connections and resources through the United Way network of partners, investors, contacts and more. Each year, our volunteer mentors provide more than 1,500 hours of mentoring and coaching to our Accelerator fellows.

PNC has partnered with the United Way to power the Accelerator mentorship program and its culminating event, The Pitch. Brendan McGuire, PNC regional president for North Texas, says it’s important for the broader North Texas business community to support social entrepreneurs who are working to make a difference.

“As a national main street bank, we understand that every community is unique and this understanding guides not only our business model but also how we look for ways to uplift the North Texas community,” he said. “United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator uplifts entrepreneurs who have developed innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our community and economy. We’re proud to support the Accelerator mentorship program, which connects social entrepreneurs with business and philanthropic leaders who can work alongside them to transform their ventures and benefit all North Texas.”

The business and philanthropy community has long recognized the importance of quality mentorship. According to Entrepreneur magazine, 92% of small business owners say mentors had a direct impact on the growth and success of their business.

Having professional guidance is extremely beneficial for Accelerator fellows—many of whom are new to entrepreneurship—enabling them to efficiently and effectively scale their ventures and expand their impact in North Texas. In fact, thanks to the support of their mentors, our Accelerator alumni have gone on to positively impact more than 150,000 of our neighbors during the nearly 10-year history of the program.

Who Are Our Mentors?

Our Accelerator mentors include corporate executives, entrepreneurs, social change-makers, leading philanthropists, public policy advocates, investors and more. They leverage their experience, knowledge and networks to advise and guide social entrepreneurs through the Accelerator program, ensuring that the fellows are set up to succeed as they work to create meaningful change in North Texas.

Of course, it’s not only the fellows who benefit from the mentor-mentee relationship. Our Accelerator mentors invest significant time to provide insights and guidance to entrepreneurs who are working to improve our community. As members of the Live United movement, these mentors are directly supporting social change in North Texas. Meanwhile, many wind up forming lifelong connections with their mentees and the work that they are doing in our community.

Hear from Our Mentors

Read on to hear from some of our Accelerator mentors about why they volunteered to be part of the program, how their efforts help to create real impact and some of their most memorable experiences so far.

Tolu Akinjayeju
Director, Business Controls and Risk Manager at Santander Consumer USA

Mentor for ESTe2M Builders and Reading to New Heights


Jamika Doakes
Senior Program Manager, Philanthropy at AT&T

Mentor for BT Foundry and Heart of Courage


Gwen Echols
Nonprofit Advisor/Board Member

Mentor for NTARUPT, Carson’s Village, Trusted World, Veritas Impact Partners,and March to the Polls


Renee George
Board Member/Community Volunteer

Mentor for Heart House, The Welman Project, The Artist Outreach and March to the Polls


Michael Martin
Solar Entrepreneur/Advisor

Mentor for Yoga N Da Hood, Habitat for Humanity of Collin County, To Be Like Me, FEED Oak Cliff and Cornerstone Crossroads Academy


William M. Smith
EVP, Commercial Banking Market Executive at PNC

Mentor for Empowering the Masses


Q: What inspired you to become an Accelerator mentor?

Tolu Akinjayeju: I chose to become an Accelerator mentor because of the opportunity to provide guidance to entrepreneurs who are creating innovative solutions to address the needs of North Texas communities in health, income and education. This is especially crucial in communities with disparities and inequities; access to these vital focus areas is critical to inclusion and equity.

William Smith: I recently relocated to Dallas from Charlotte, N.C., with PNC Bank’s acquisition of BBVA’s U.S. operations. It was important for me to quickly find an avenue where I could gain a greater appreciation for the fabric of the Dallas community. I was attracted by the Accelerator program’s unique approach that supports early-stage, innovative organizations that are tackling some of our biggest community challenges.

Michael Martin: I wanted for my experience in life and business to help those committed to local social impact, thus improving our community.

Gwen Echols: I’ve always been passionate about helping the community solve problems. The Accelerator had a fantastic track record and great leadership. Most of all, it offered the chance to draw from both my financial and business experience, as well as 25 years of nonprofit stewardship, to help organizations tackle their obstacles. It has been a great partnership.

Jamika Doakes: My colleague served as a mentor and recruited me to join, knowing I’ve always had a passion for helping to provide resources that could benefit causes and organizations. The Accelerator offers a unique opportunity for me to give to entrepreneurs making a difference in their community.

Renee George: When I was asked to become a mentor for the Accelerator, I jumped at the chance to be able to help innovative nonprofits realize their big ideas. I love working with the fellows. Their passion for improving the lives of North Texans is nothing but extraordinary. It gives me great hope for our world that there are so many incredible social entrepreneurs dedicating their lives to lifting up others.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a mentor?

Smith: In short, inspiration. I had the pleasure of working with Tammy Johnson, the founder of Empowering the Masses. Tammy’s passion and energy to drive change is infectious and gives me great inspiration and hope. She is a terrific reminder that embracing a growth mindset paired with grit is a recipe for driving impactful change. Second, the program has afforded me the opportunity to build my personal network and grow as a professional. My fellow mentors and mentees are incredibly talented and successful in their own careers. I come away from all our sessions having learned something that has stretched my personal growth. Mentoring can be just as exciting, educational and satisfying as being mentored!

Echols: The Accelerator is a culture of making connections for people. We are all there to help open doors and make introductions. The program is strong—but not due to just one individual. Rather, it is the collective effort of all the mentors. Every year it is satisfying to see how much our fellows accomplish through the combined efforts of our committee members.

Doakes: My favorite part of the Accelerator is learning about all the local nonprofit organizations doing such fantastic work for under-resourced communities. When you have someone leading an organization that is either from the community or has gone through lived experiences like their clients, the impact they have is more significant.

Akinjayeju: Giving back and learning are the best parts. I enjoy getting to know the mentees in the cohort and the other mentors. They are genuine change agents, and understanding the needs of the mentees I work with and helping them home in on strengthening those areas is very rewarding.

Martin: Meeting inspirational and innovative social impact entrepreneurs who I can (hopefully!) help…and from whom I can learn more about our local problems and ways to reduce or solve them. I also have new friends on the committee, which is an awesome side-benefit as the Accelerator committee and United Way staff are a top-shelf crew!

Q: Do you have a favorite anecdote from your time with your Accelerator mentee?

Echols: We have had some tremendous “wins,” post program. Recently, NTARUPT, my first mentoring assignment, successfully merged with two nonprofits to become a statewide powerhouse called Healthy Futures. The new organization is poised for great impact in Texas, and I was honored to join their board of directors this summer.

George: I had the opportunity to help in the early days of the Accelerator, when it was called GroundFloor. Along with a team of other business executives from YPO, we helped Daron Babcock from Bonton Farms prepare for the big stage at The Pitch, the Accelerator’s marquee event. I loved getting to know Daron at such an early stage in his organization, back when it was just a small urban farm in South Dallas. Daron’s big, innovative ideas for transforming his neighborhood across all aspects of health, housing, jobs and education from a shack with a tin roof were inspiring.

Martin: Doing yoga at the United Way office with YogaNDaHood or advising Habitat for Humanity Collin County with their solar project for the Cotton Groves townhomes in McKinney.

Akinjayeju: Last year, I mentored ESTe2m Builders, a team that provides STEM education through a creative approach. In addition to project-based learning activities in DNA collection and analysis, they also highlighted to the students an innovative pathway for comparing information from what they already understood about their heritage with their own scientific discoveries in genetic engineering in the classroom. One of my favorite experiences was when the students got to see the results of the DNA analysis and how science and culture are interconnected.

Q: What else stands out about your mentorship experience?

Echols: We want our fellows to feel valued and comfortable with “thinking big.” There are no wrong answers. The best mentoring relationships extend well beyond the Accelerator completion. That’s when you know mutual trust and respect has been built over the course of the year, and it’s very gratifying.

Doakes: As I think of the fellows’ work, I am reminded of a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never depend upon institutions or governments to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals.”

George: From a mentor standpoint, I enjoy the challenges that we are able to help them with, whether that be strategy, marketing, fundraising, board development or any other milestone they are working to achieve. Year after year, it is exciting and gratifying to see these organizations executing on the innovations we talked about while they went through the Accelerator.

Smith: The United Way’s Social Accelerator program is one of the most unique programs I’ve participated in. The program’s structure, resources, rigor and funding provide a multiplier effect on impact, creating more change by helping to strengthen bold new organizations that are tackling our greatest community challenges. I’m fortunate and proud to be part of this innovative and impactful program.

Akinjayeju: I feel grateful for this experience and that Santander partners with United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator to continue to bridge the gap in health, income and education disparities.


Volunteer with Us

Interested in dedicating your time and talents to positively impact North Texas? Volunteer with United Way and have a direct impact on education, income and health in our community.