Lifting Each Other Up

Professional mentoring relationships can bring incredible career benefits, but 63% of women have never had a mentor. Why is this and how can we make a change?

Mentor Illustration

Illustration by Amber Day

What she gave me was a great deal of confidence and ambition, and as a woman I think sometimes it feels like you need permission to feel that. She always had such great advice when it came to navigating issues as a woman. – Tania Tetlow, Loyola University’s first female president


Would you like to be more satisfied with your career? Have your business find more success? Would you like to get paid better? Get that promotion you’ve been wanting? A good mentoring relationship can help with all of this, and more.

According to a much-touted study conducted by the HR department of Sun Microsystems in 2006 that followed over 1,000 employees over a five-year period, employees who took part in the company’s mentoring program were promoted five times more often and were 20% more likely to get a raise than those who didn’t participate. Mentoring benefits also extended over to those doing the mentoring as well, who were found to be equally as likely to receive a raise and even more likely (six times) to get promoted.

Mentoring, in fact, has been so widely proven to be beneficial to both employees and companies (who commonly see greater levels of retention and employee satisfaction) that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs in place (Association for Talent Development, 2017).

When it comes to who’s more likely to be a mentor, however, the “men” in mentorship stands out. According to a 2019 study by Olivet Nazarene University, 82% of men who participated were mentored by another man, while only 69% of female participants were mentored by another woman. The data isn’t surprising given that mentors tend to be high level executives and women hold just 24% of senior management roles globally and make up only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. For women of color, the wage and leadership gap with men is even greater.

When Urban Land Institute Louisiana decided to launch its first-ever mentorship program for young professionals in the summer of 2019, a clear difference in the makeup of participants became evident.

“Of the 15 young professionals who came into the program looking for mentorship, 10 of them were women,” said Nicole DePietro, manager of ULI Louisiana. “But on the other side, of the six people who signed up to be mentors, only one was a woman.” The one female mentor was the chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute, a program of ULI Louisiana.

“It’s not surprising really,” said DePietro, “as real estate development is very much a male-dominated field, especially at the upper levels. That’s actually the reason ULI started the Women’s Leadership Institute on a national level.”

The lack of equal representation at the highest levels of business is exactly why Torrie Kranze, the youngest person ever to be named CEO of the National Kidney Foundation, professes the importance of women leaders who have reached top levels to make the effort to reach out.

“I make sure I’m out there in the community and I think — having formerly been a recruiter — I have a pretty good eye for talent, so when I see potential in someone, I’ll seek them out. In the past 10 years I’ve probably mentored 10 young women, all of whom I’m still very close to. Women have to be there for each other. That’s the only way we’re going to bridge the gender gap.”

If a woman’s ideal mentor happens to be a man, however, that can also work very well. Local businesswoman Jennie Campbell is the perfect example.

Recently recognized as a 2020 Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women magazine, Campbell, president and CEO of Stewart Steelwood Investments, is a passionate advocate for the powers of mentorship due to a mentor she said changed her life.

“I met Frank Stewart in 1991 when he attended a Boy Scout conference where I was the opening speaker,” said Campbell. “I talked about the 11 steps of self leadership. Apparently, he liked the speech and he reached out to me. He opened the door.”

When Campbell formed her second company, Stewart became an investor, and in 2009, he asked her to be the CEO of one of his companies, Stewart Steelwood Investments.

“He gave me the greatest gift, that of his time, knowledge and experience, and his belief in me,” she said. “He taught me that true leaders are going to think outside the box and that even when you make a wrong decision, it’s about how you recover, move forward and show you’re still a leader.”

But how do you find and build a great mentoring relationship no matter what the gender of the mentor? Let’s start at the beginning.


Finding a Mentor

What do you look for in a mentor?

A possible mentor is someone who typically has reached a level you aspire to or has experience and success that you feel would benefit you in reaching your own goals.

“Your core values, personally and professionally need to be in alignment,” added Campbell.

The ability to relate to someone is important, which means that professional women and business owners of color may find it more challenging to find a mentor due to a lack of representation at high levels of business.

“You want someone who you can identify with, who knows your struggles and challenges,” said Tiffany Carter, director of the Women’s Business Enterprise Council South’s (WBEC South) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center, which launched in January at the WB Collective in New Orleans Warehouse District.

Carter said mentorship is a huge component of the new center.

“We create a casual, comfortable space and opportunities where you can strike up those conversations that may start with kids and life and then move on to contractors and vendors. It’s amazing to see how quickly women connect.”

Recognizing that financial issues can be especially pressing, in January WBEC South also hired Marigny deMauriac to serve as a business and finance coach to any business owner who needs it, free of charge. Though based at the WB Collective, deMauriac will serve WBEC South’s entire footprint, which includes Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.

Beyond finding someone who you can connect with, you also want to make sure you’ve done some self-reflection and looked at exactly what your needs are and what you’re looking for in a mentor.

“You may find the right person in a different industry than yours, or even a different type of organization,” said Klassi Duncan, vice president of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation — Urban League of Louisiana. “The best person may even be more of a peer. We need to be more creative when it comes to thinking about the possibilities.”

Once you know what you want, how do you find the right person and make the connection?

“Look in your closest circle of friends and colleagues,” said Mayra Pineda, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. “Talk to women you know and ask them for referrals.”

Deb Elam, president and CEO of a strategic solutions consulting firm called Corporate Playbook™, is passionate about empowering women to “shatter glass ceilings.” She advises women to identify the person they want to meet and then, taking what they know of the person, ideally figure out how to meet them in a casual setting, for instance at a volunteer event.

The first-ever black female corporate officer at GE, Elam has been named among the “50 Most Powerful Women in Philanthropy” and recognized with the National Association of Female Executives’ Women of Excellence Legacy Award and the National Urban League’s Women of Power award. She said the first step can also be just making a simple ask.

“Ask if you can get on their calendar, for a time to meet, not more than 30 minutes,” she said.

From there, Elam said it’s crucial to follow up.

“Send a quick email saying you’d love to stay and touch and maybe add in a connection point. Note something you have in common or talk about an article you read on a subject of interest you share.”

For those who’d like some assistance in finding the perfect fit, there’s Loyola University New Orleans’ Women’s Leadership Academy, where both Duncan and Pineda have served as mentors. Launched three years ago with the goal of helping women achieve their career aspirations, the 10-month program just started again last month and, in addition to small growth group meetings, high level speakers and Individual Development Strategy exercises, it includes one-on-one monthly mentorship meetings with a mentor chosen to fit each woman’s specific needs.

The WLA was formed under the leadership of the university’s first female president, Tania Tetlow, who said she reached out to her first mentor when she was 16 years old.

“When I was young, I wanted to be Lindy Boggs [the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana],” said Tetlow. “I thought she was just the greatest possible person, so I wrote her a letter, and, to my surprise, her staff reached out and she actually sat down with me for an hour to talk. Then she hired me as an intern.”

When Boggs later retired and took an office at Tulane University, Tetlow was able to “learn at her elbow” as a student worker.

“What she gave me was a great deal of confidence and ambition,” said Tetlow, “and as a woman I think sometimes it feels like you need permission to feel that. She always had such great advice when it came to navigating issues as a woman.”

Tetlow advises women to “feel people out” when it comes to finding a mentor. “Whatever results, whether it’s a formal mentorship or just some advice, it’s worth it.”

She notes, however, that there are some things to look out for.

“You don’t want a person who sees you as an extension of themselves. Look for someone who asks you good questions, who doesn’t just pontificate.”

Make sure you have the right skills to help the mentee and that it’s someone you are genuinely interested in. And when it comes to helping them, you want to make sure you’re empowering them and providing guidance to help them find their own answers, not just give them answers. – Torrie Kranze, CEO, National Kidney Foundation


You’ve Found Someone. Now What?

A successful mentorship relationship, like any successful relationship, is one that benefits both people. But how do you make sure that happens?

One of the most important things is for both of you to agree on a set of boundaries. How often will you meet? What form of communication works best for both parties? The goal is to show mutual respect for the value of each other’s time.

When it comes to advice for mentees, one thing stands out: Be prepared.

“I just had a mentee that I was so impressed with because every time we met, she was so prepared,” said Duncan. “She had thought about exactly what issues she wanted help with and what specific questions she had.”

It’s equally as important for mentors to be thoughtful about the relationship.

“Make sure you have the right skills to help the mentee and that it’s someone you are genuinely interested in,” said Kranze. “And when it comes to helping them, you want to make sure you’re empowering them and providing guidance to help them find their own answers, not just give them answers. My first mentors gave me so much independence and autonomy but at the same time they were always there and approachable when I had questions. And they asked me great questions too.”

Above all, Pineda advises all parties to “have fun with it.

“Every time I mentor someone, I always feel like I get so much out of it, sometimes personally, sometimes professionally, sometimes both.”


More Than a Mentor

While a great mentorship can provide invaluable guidance and support, Elam advises everyone looking to advance their career to also find themselves a sponsor.

“A sponsor is someone with some real juice,” she said, “someone senior to you that will throw your name in the hat when opportunities come up.”

She said it’s not that women lack ambition, it’s that they often lack access.

“You want someone who’s willing to leverage their influence to help you succeed,” she said.

Elam advises everyone she can to read the book “Forget a Mentor, Get a Sponsor” by Sylvia Ann Hewitt to learn more about the difference a sponsor can make. Contrary to the title, however, she thinks it’s good to have both mentors and sponsors.

“Mentors can give you that coaching, feedback and perspective,” she said. “And a mentoring relationship can lead to sponsoring.”


The Time is Now

Opportunities for women in the region to brush up on leadership skills and reach for that next level have rapidly increased in recent years. In addition to the launch of programs like the Women’s Leadership Academy and Enterprising Women of Color, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce’s annual Power Up: Women’s Leadership Conference launched in 2019 and Junior League of New Orleans will host its second annual Women’s Leadership Summit on Nov. 5, 2021.

The pandemic has also provided many women with an opportunity to look more reflectively on their career, and in some cases led them to take the leap and start their own business. Professional networking site LinkedIn reported that from March through November of 2020 the number of female entrepreneurs on the platform grew by 5% — more than double its pre-pandemic average.

“Most of the world didn’t close,” said Carter of the pandemic shutdown, “which has created the perfect platform for women to get ready for when it does open fully again. Now is the time to think differently, to make those connections. We want women to be there, on the front line, fully capable to respond when those opportunities come.”