CEI Mastermind Learning: What It Is & What We’ve Learned

Working with Phoenix startups everyday, we’ve seen the positive impact that a tight-knit community can have on a growing business.  We know that small businesses thrive when founders are surrounded by others who are also fighting to bring their respective products to market. And we recognize that it can be hard for entrepreneurs to speak openly about the problems they face, especially when they feel the weight of a growing company on their shoulders.

Even with experienced mentors and advisors to turn to, Arizona founders can still feel like they’re on this journey alone. Without a sanctioned space for vulnerability and open dialogue amongst peers, they have to rely on the expertise of their small inner-circle, and it’s up to them to put the puzzle pieces together to solve critical business problems. Because they lack peer-to-peer mentorship, they might internalize their issues, thinking that their startup is the only one that’s struggling to get by.

The reality is, businesses of all sizes and levels of success have problems. But when you’re trying to convince people to invest in and buy from your company, it can seem dangerous to admit your shortcomings to anyone — even those who resonate with your struggles.

To solve this peer-to-peer communication gap and better support Phoenix-area founders, we launched the CEI Mastermind Learning Series a little over a year ago. Keep reading to find out how it went!

Wait — What’s a Mastermind?

Last summer, CEI created a program that incorporated a lecture series lead by business experts, followed by the time-tested Mastermind process. Our two courses covered important topics like leadership, marketing, and sales. Although participants learned many helpful strategies and gained insights from experienced pros, what set this program apart is the sense of community developed during their 4-months together.

The Mastermind Process

Mastermind groups have been around for ages, even before Napoleon Hill coined the concept in his book, The Law of Success. In it’s loosest and simplest form, a mastermind group is a gathering of people focused on supporting one another and coming together to solve each other’s problems — something that communities often do naturally. But when a group is formalized by selecting members based on similar goals and curated for compatibility between personalities, they can turn into a life (or business) altering experience for all involved.

“I appreciated having support from other founders; they’re not there to criticize you and they’re all on the same page. When it was my turn to sit in the Hot Seat and get people’s feedback, I was able to see my deficiencies. I realized that some of these things we problems I probably already recognized in myself, but didn’t want to be honest about. The camaraderie of the group was really helpful.”

Rahul Rao
CEO, Desert Platforms Medical Device Consultancy
From Passion to Profit Participant

Mastermind groups are entirely dependent on the group’s level of participation. There may be a facilitator, but there’s no “guru” or “coach” who has all the answers. When someone’s in the hot seat to present some of the big issues they’re facing, the rest of the team asks questions, gives input, and works together to find solutions. By sharing and combining different perspectives, the group often comes up with better ideas than what any single individual would discover on their own.

With each course in the series, we aim to create the conditions that allow founders to be open and vulnerable with one another to accelerate relationship building between participants. Beyond supporting each other directly, we’ve seen our participants accelerate each other’s growth by offering resources, connections, and collaboration outside of CEI.

“During the Mastermind, I was able to talk freely and share the business challenges that every entrepreneur in the room had. Having a peer group who are going through what we go through. They’re not here to please me, or get on good terms with me. They’re just here to give me feedback.”

Neel Menta
CSO & Co-Founder, EpiFinder
From Passion to Profit Participant

Merging Education with Action

Although the Mastermind process is the foundation of this learning series, we know that many entrepreneurs walk through CEI’s doors with a wide variety of proficiencies (or lack thereof). Even those who have some business experience or hold an MBA still aren’t fully equipt to run their business, and our program participants don’t want their inexperience to hold them back.

Because most of the founders who join the course are usually newcomers to starting a business, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) bring a level of experience that would otherwise be lacking. But like I said earlier, there’s no room for end-all be-all solutions in our Mastermind Learning Series. So rather than dictating ideas and conversations, our SMEs contributed to each meeting by introducing ideas that they’ve learned through careers as entrepreneurs and executives, supporting international corporations and startups alike.

"From the sales and marketing aspect, it was great to get an overview of how these experienced professionals in the field go about their sales and marketing to make a business run smoothly. I liked listening to their advice and later trying to implement their suggestions.”

Tracy Miller
Founder & CEO, Sans-Bottler
From Passion to Profit Participant

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Leadership: Tom Zender


Our first course launched in the fall of 2017 and the lecture portion of From Founders to Leaders was presented by Tom Zender. Throughout his career, Tom held leadership roles with GE and Honeywell, and was a CEO and Senior VP in Fortune 500 companies, small-medium businesses, startups, and nonprofits. Today, he is a professional CEO mentor, writes a weekly Leadership column for the Phoenix Business Journal, and serves as a  Venture Mentor and Academic Associate at Arizona State University. Naturally, we knew Tom was the person to support our participants on their journeys to become stronger leaders!

“Education and real-world problem solving for entrepreneurs at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation is proven to increase the success of post-startup businesses. The CEI Mastermind process amplifies the power of interactive peer-group learning and problem resolution. Perfect for post-startup entrepreneurs. Hands on, real world.”

Tom Zender
CEO Mentor
Mastermind Learning Facilitator

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Marketing: Jamie Glass


At the start of the year, we combined two of the most important business topics to create From Passion to Sales. With her strong background in marketing and dedication to supporting startups, we asked Jamie Glass to show our participants how to demonstrate passion for their product. As the founder of Artful Thinkers, a consulting firm located in Chandler, Arizona, an experienced Chief Marketing Officer, and executive business leader with a track record for measurable success in marketing, sales and operations, we knew she’s be able to offer actionable information to Mastermind participants.

“The CEI Mastermind allows entrepreneurs to engage with each other and participate in meaningful problem-solving dialogues on key issues that can be huge impediments to growth for start-ups. CEOs and founders are often the loneliest jobs in a company. What better way to learn than from peers and top functional business experts, who have had similar challenges and created tremendous results, all willing to share with others in a transparent exchange. It’s brilliant how-to learning from people that have been in their shoes.”

Jamie Glass
Founder of Artful Thinkers
Mastermind Learning Facilitator


Sales: Michael Ellenby


Last but not least, we brought sales expert, Michael Ellenby, on board to show founders how to connect with and convince prospective buyers to generate sales. With his experience as a business executive, TEDx speaker, and SEED SPOT’s 2017 Mentor of the Year, we knew he would deliver compelling presentations that support our participants’ business growth.



“I’ve taken a lot of per-topic courses and seminars, but this is definitely more thorough… I’m actually learning how to work my entire company, not just the topic or the issue at hand. There’s a big difference.”

Mellinda Lanier
From Founders to Leaders Participant


What’s Next?

After wrapping up two Mastermind courses, we turned to our participating founders to find out how we could improve. From these conversations, we discovered that they need:

  • Time to implement some of the business tips and strategies that they learned from our SMEs while those ideas were still fresh in their minds

  • Additional opportunities to discuss issues and problem solve with their peers

  • Even more emphasis on accountability, so they feel obligated to make changes in their business throughout the course

To that effect, we overhauled the program to give founders more time, support, and reasons to take action than ever before. This year, we’re pleased to share that our next course, VentureStack, will take place from September 2018 until June 2019 and include an enhanced curriculum with additional opportunities for community-building and accountability!

If you’re a tech founder located in Phoenix, Arizona and want a group of like-minded individuals who are in the thick of scaling their business like you are, then this could be the perfect opportunity for you!

Click here to learn more about our new VentureStack course and apply by Friday, August 31st to be considered!

Amanda MollindoComment