If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.Kofi Annan
I have worked in technology for close to 20 years now, and I often get asked how is it that I was able to climb up the very challenging corporate ladder in a world mostly dominated by man. I had to think about this answer for a while and make sure I wasn’t fooling anyone. I study a lot, and I am organized, and I am friendly and get along with almost everyone, but I am convinced that the reason I’ve made it this far is because of the mentors I’ve had during those years.
It all started in college, I was in for my first English course, and as an ESL student, I could hardly understand what my professor was asking us to do. Looking back now, I feel a lot of compassion for that girl who came to a new country at the age of 16 and had to start her life from scratch in a new country, with a new language, and with many freezing, snowy days to come. Professor Dorothy S. Pam showed me that it didn’t matter the fact that I could barely speak English, what mattered was my determination to be better and work way harder than anyone else in that class to achieve my goals. I could never forget her and her beautiful smile while she kept reassuring me that “this too shall pass,” and I would end up graduating with high honors and speaking more English than anyone around me.
I believe most of us can probably point to a person or perhaps a few people who helped us shape who we are today. I’ve had not one but three mentors who worked behind the scenes with me, generously sharing their precious time and wisdom to nurture my potential and keep me on track while I was growing, both professionally and personally.
During my first year at TCI College, I met a professor who also took the time to care for me and felt the need to guide me and make sure I was on the right path. I believe that in life, we come across people that at times remind us of our younger selves and we feel compelled to help, compelled to make sure they don’t suffer the pain we suffered when we were in their shoes. This professor was Myriam Largo, and she was teaching a network technology course where I was a student — this time having a coach felt different and more personal. My first teacher was white, and even though she saw tremendous potential in me, it is completely different when you get that from someone that shares your same culture and values. Ms. Largo came up to me one day and suggested I take the NYC Civil Service exam, and without even knowing what it was at that time, I went ahead and signed up, and just a year later I was hired for my first city job with benefits that are hard to get anywhere else.
You see, for some reason, we often feel more “seen” and more connected when the mentor is either of the same gender or the same cultural background. We all know that most new employees have difficulties adjusting to their new companies, but minorities and women face unique challenges simply because minorities and women have difficulty finding mentors of the same race or gender because of underrepresentation in the upper levels of management. On top of that, the problem is at times worse for females because people can misread seeking a male mentor as a sexual advance.
My last and most current mentor is a Caucasian male, and perhaps because I don’t tend to follow all of the norms my culture likes to impose on society, I have been able to embrace this relationship, and it has paid the most dividends. I can tell you that I would not be the Assistant Vice president/CIO of an IT department if it were not for the mentorship I’ve received over the past ten years.
More Mentoring & Diversity is the Key
Being a woman in IT is not always easy (top that with being lesbian and Latina), and being the only woman in the board room at times can put unseen pressure on you. It takes a lot of self-love, self-awareness, and confidence to overcome all of that and make sure you earn the respect of others. The need for mentoring, either formal or informal, is crucial these days and even more for women and minorities. Harvard Business Review notes that in managing today’s winding career paths, the need for mentoring is greater than ever before. These relationships can have significant impacts on workplace experience and career success for women and minorities, and I don’t think companies are taking the time to invest significantly in improving the gender diversity in tech thru any means.
At times, it feels like these companies start an amazing new program, right after a big scandal, and a few months later, when nobody is talking about it, the support starts to die, and it is not taken as seriously as it should. This does not make any sense, especially after a growing body of research is supporting the idea that having diverse teams leads to better problem solving, innovation, better business outcomes, and greater creativity.
I have seen how mentoring can improve employee engagement and create an organization in which learning becomes part of the overall culture. Under my leadership, our training dollars have never decreased, and I am probably the only person who is somewhat happy when a good employee resigns to go into a much higher position. You know why? Because I know we were part of their growth, and we took the time to provide them with all the resources they needed to grow and become good enough to surpass everyone’s expectations. Through mentoring, the organization also can improve career development and address skills gaps between personnel more effectively by removing the barriers to communication and let’s not undervalue the huge sense of accomplishment and pride the mentee gets out of this process in the end. It is a win-win situation, and I know we can do better. I know we can make this the new norm because mentoring others has made me a better leader.
Awareness is not enough and we’ve been talking about this for a very long time. So let’s start with small steps. Here is what I need from you. I need you to go back to work, look around and pick one person who looks nothing like you and can benefit from your personal and professional wisdom. Can you take the time to listen to their story and offer support and guidance in whatever way that is available to you?
Can you? Will you?
I am counting on you because I know you either know someone and perhaps you are yourself someone whose story can have a very different ending if each of us took the time to help others and share our knowledge. I am counting on you!