By Michelle Lange
Mentors helped Estela Segura be courageous enough to step outside of IT, a move that put her on a four-year track to a new career path in operational risk. Mentors also helped her learn what skills were transferable over any segment, which led her to bring those newly minted commercial skills back to the IT industry.
“Having mentors in your life really helps you get to where you need to be, show you what you need to focus on and give you the feedback to make some significant changes in your life,” said Segura, a global business analysis manager for BP, during “Innovate Yourself – The Importance of Mentoring,” a panel held at the Women in Tech Summit (WITS) Midwest.
The talk was held at 1871, a tech and business incubator in Chicago where more than 200 active mentors come through every month. “With the right support, assistance and being open to feedback you can change your life and your business,” said Kat Rokhlin, who works for 1871 and moderated the panel.
Anyone Can Be a Mentor
Rokhlin reminded the audience that anyone can be a mentor. “A lot of times we think of them as industry behemoths with 30 years of experience and articles written about them, but the takeaway is that everyone can be a mentor and everyone can use mentorship in some way,” she said.
When 1871 set a goal for gender parity on their mentorship roster, women were shy to volunteer and surprised when they were approached. “Imposter syndrome exists,” Rokhlin said. “Everyone in this room can be a mentor to someone else, and everyone in this room has something to learn.”
A cup of coffee can be enough to kick off a mentoring relationship, and maintaining it just means staying in touch and available for advice and stories from your experience.
“You can be subtle, grab some coffee. Say, ‘Now that you’re in London I’d like to hear what you’re up to,” said panelist Johnny Palmer, a U.S. resourcing manager for BP. “It doesn’t have to be high maintenance.”
It’s up to both the mentor and the person being mentored to manage the relationship.
“You hope organically that’s how it will evolve, but it’s up to you to manage those relationships,” said Kim Vertucci, an IT&S manager at BP. “It’s about doing your homework and setting up those meetings.”
Mentoring is a Two-Way Street
Segura said a mentor doesn’t have to be just like you. In fact, she’s learned a lot from people she didn’t share common interests or working styles with.
“I remember one person was completely the opposite of me, and somebody I didn't think I could mentor,” she said. “We went into the mentoring relationship and I learned so much. That relationship helped me see a different perspective, and along the way I learned a lot about how to work with people who are different than I am.”
Both parties bring something to the table and women and minorities who can be mentors to others help underrepresented people get a foothold.
“I think that’s something we women can give to each other, especially in IT where it’s male-dominated. Networking and helping each other goes a long way,” Segura said.
Mentors vs. Sponsors
Mentorship comes in a lot of forms, from company sponsored regular meet-ups to personal and informal working relationships. Sponsors work a little differently.
“A sponsor is someone who has the influence to guide your career, make you aware of opportunities,” said Palmer. “This person has a seat at the table and strong decision making opportunities.”
Palmer said some groups — women and minorities, for example — might not get as many sponsorship opportunities, so those people who also feel marginalized by race or sex need to use their positions to raise other people up.
“A sponsor is the person who advocating for someone when they’re not in the room,” said Vertucci.
How You Can Be a Mentor
Mentoring requires a genuine interest between both parties, mutual respect and tactical information.
“Mentors have been there, and the job is to guide someone step by step,” said Palmer.
To get into mentoring, try hosting a TechGirlz class and help girls get familiar with technology. There are step-by-step lessons available through TechShopz in a Box, and everything is free to access. TechGirlz is one of CompTIA’s partners in its NextUp campaign to inspire teenagers to consider tech careers.
Michelle Lange is a writer and editor living in Chicago.