Enterprising Mentor: Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma joined the IOEE’s Mentoring Programme in 2014 and has recently celebrated completing his 10th mentoring case – though reaching this milestone doesn’t mean slowing down for Sunil, and he has taken on another three mentees since the beginning of 2018. Sunil works for Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) and is united with his mentees by the IOEE’s Mentoring Manager, Paul Harper, who perfectly matches up mentors and mentees to create the strongest working relationships. This month we caught up with Sunil to talk about his business background, family inspiration, and the excitement that comes with each mentoring journey.

Sunil has worked in a number of different areas and departments of Lloyds Banking since 2003, transitioning into the Insurance and Wealth Division last year. He also has experience of running an independent business before his corporate banking career, but he explains that his business mindset was instilled in him all the way back in his childhood. Sunil says: “I’ve just been business all the way through; it’s always been there in the background. My father had three shops and so I grew up around him running his own business, and he used to tell me that it’s the way forward. When I went to college to do a BTEC in Business and Finance I also started to become more actively involved in my father’s shops, working evenings and weekends and learning the business side, such as sourcing products, marketing, accounting and finance. When people say it’s in your blood, that’s exactly the phrase I would use, and I’ve always tried to stick with that.”

Prior to joining LBG, Sunil set up his own family business, working alongside his sister, and he cites this as being the place where he really cut his teeth as a business owner and entrepreneur, and learnt many business lessons ‘the hard way’ – lessons that he is now able to pass on to his mentees, and enabling him to relate to the challenges they may be facing. Sunil says: “My sister trained as a holistic therapist and herbalist, offering treatments like reflexology and Indian head massage, and started to toy with the idea of selling aromatherapy products, but didn’t know where to start with the business side of things. We realised we’d be a great fit for a partnership – she had the product knowledge and I had the business knowledge – and so we joined forces to set up The Holistic Tree. I created a business structure and plan that helped us to secure a loan, and we went from making the products at the kitchen table into a full production unit, attending trade shows and securing big contracts with clients from The Daily Mail to Classic FM.

“I was involved with Holistic Tree for five years and took a step back only when I was about to get married. Running your own business is amazing, but completely consuming. I was working 24/7 and travelling for work, and I needed to slow down for a while – so when mentees are struggling with the intensity of running their own business and finding that work-life balance, then I know the feeling! My whole experience with The Holistic Tree is what grounds me in my mentoring role, as I’ve been in the position that my mentees are in. I’ve shared the same story, understand the headaches and hurdles in setting up a company, and know that when you’re so involved and invested in it that you often can’t see the wood for the trees. That’s what is so beneficial about mentoring – sometimes you need someone else to be able to look at your business objectively, someone you can bounce ideas off; someone who can see things differently.”

Since signing up to become a mentor Sunil has attended a number of IOEE workshops to support him through the process, particularly enjoying the practical hands-on sessions, such as discussing business ideas with members of the public and guiding them to places where they could take that idea to the next level. It is the excitement that people have for their new businesses that inspires Sunil, and he feels like that passion and ambition is contagious; they are excited to meet with Sunil and make share their ideas and plans, and Sunil is subsequently excited to meet with his mentees. However, Sunil says that this same excitement is also one of mentoring’s biggest challenges, and he explains how he tries to find a balance of being the practical voice or reason without dampening mentees’ enthusiasm.

Sunil says: “Trying to ground people when they’re running away with ideas is one of the most difficult parts of mentoring. And hey, if they want to do it, then they’ll do it – who am I to say their idea is rubbish, or that I wouldn’t risk it, or it’s not worth pursuing?! Of course, I don’t mean that’s the actual case – but often people are so full of boundless energy and excitement and want to do absolutely everything all at once, and you have to be the voice of reason that’s like, ‘okay, calm down, one step at a time, let’s get our practical thinking caps on and make some plans and time frames to make this happen!’.

Now that Sunil is an established mentor with over ten case studies under his belt, he reflects upon what makes him keep pushing forward with his mentoring role. Sunil says: “I think it is a very difficult thing to do, to be an entrepreneur. It requires a very specific skillset, and people aren’t always taught the things they need to know before they embark upon being an entrepreneur. And people have fantastic ideas, so I believe it’s important to support them if you can, and that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s amazing to be recognised for doing mentoring, but it really hinges on the mentees; not me. What I do wouldn’t be possible without these people coming forward with these exciting and innovative ideas and putting themselves out there – as long as people keep coming forward with the ideas and excitement, then I’ll keep on mentoring.”