How to Find the Right Mentor — and How to Be One
Tarika Barrett’s first mentor was her mother. Recalling her childhood spent between Brooklyn, New York and Kingston, Jamaica, Barrett remembered clearly how her mother instilled in her the value of equality, education and community. “In Kingston, she sent me to an all-girls school, which helped me understand the importance of creating spaces dedicated to supporting women,” she said.
Later, as a teacher and designer behind the New York City Department of Education’s first software engineering school, Barrett saw firsthand how few resources existed to bridge the large tech gender gap. This experience ushered in a career of helping women attain fulfilling roles in the tech industry and led her to become CEO at Girls Who Code.
Benefits of Mentorship
- Encourages self reflection.
- Fosters communication.
- Workplace equity and inclusion.
- Tear down barriers.
The tech industry talks a lot about diversity and inclusion, but the numbers show that women, people of color, LGBTQ people and members of other marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented in major tech fields. Mentorship can be a key tool in reducing those disparities, but many of these tech workers shoulder most of the weight of DEI work.
The mentoring experts we spoke with shared these concerns and provided their ideas on redistributing that burden — but they also emphasized how mentorship has transformed their careers. “When I think about all of the opportunities for mentorship I had access to and the people who advocated for me, I knew that it was essential for me to uplift other women in the same way,” Barrett said. “I think it’s important particularly for women in a position of power to uplift others around them and help pay it forward.”
What attracted you to becoming a mentor?
Product strategy lead at World Education Services; founder of Products by Women
When I moved from product marketing to product management, I was looking out for mentors, and I noticed that there was a gap in that space. A lot of larger companies offer mentorship, but what about medium- and smaller-sized companies? Also, as an immigrant, I felt like there was a real need for me to connect with someone to advance my career. I don’t often see people like myself in leadership positions. I created a really small meetup group, organizing an event so we could get drinks at a bar. I really didn’t expect a lot of people to turn up that first day. I was surprised by how many women came. And after that, at the next event, the bar we met at was full. That became Products by Women, and now our community has grown to include women from over 70 countries.
CEO at Girls Who Code
Mentorship has helped me at every step of my career, beginning from when I was a child. My mother led a mentorship program in Jamaica and she always helped steer me toward individuals that would help me grow. Often, I think of all the small ways that I have been mentored by others. I’m so inspired just watching my co-workers change the world every day, and I learn so much from them. I think that a common misconception is that you have to have a formalized mentor/mentee relationship with someone for mentorship or learning to occur. But I’ve never found that to be the case. Throughout my career I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors in my corner who pushed me to pursue new avenues which ultimately led me to where I am today as the incoming CEO of Girls Who Code. Sisterhood and mentorship are key parts of the Girls Who Code mission as well as my own career.
FinTech Platform Manager at Rise, created by Barclays
I was originally born in Bucharest, Romania, to two parents with backgrounds in engineering. For me to be working in finance in New York was unconventional and new, so I really benefited from having mentors from an early stage in my career. I continue to have mentors and other people who advise me on my personal professional journey. I don’t think that will ever stop, but at some point I decided that I also wanted to give back to others and pass on the same advice and the lessons that I’ve learned so far in my career. This has extended to supporting women in the early stages of their careers and also to supporting entrepreneurs as they take the early steps in building out their products and companies, particularly through the FinTech Friday mentoring series that we run at Rise.
Where should someone begin when seeking a mentor?
Gheorghe: At any given time, you need to look at your short-term and long-term goals and seek out people who will be able to advise you on both. In terms of short-term goals, whether it’s a career move or starting your own company, look to people who have had a similar path as you. They don’t necessarily need to have a similar personality or leadership style as you, but they should be able to give you advice on a specific next step. In terms of long-term goals, I think that is where finding a personality and leadership fit is more important. You want to look for someone who is in a position that you aspire to be in, not only based on their title, but also based on their leadership traits and experiences. That person should have a diverse or different background to you and be able to challenge your assumptions when you’re making big or difficult decisions.
Barrett: I think that the first place that people should look is their most immediate circle. Who are your professors, your teachers, your co-workers? People may be surprised by the kindness of the people directly around them. In today’s connected world you can also find amazing resources online. Connecting with people online and reaching out for an informational interview or coffee is a great way to learn more about their work and start making connections with people who can act as mentors. I don’t believe that folks have to have a dedicated mentor/mentee relationship, they can have unique mentors for unique areas of growth they are trying to address. That being said, the most important thing I have found when identifying a mentor is finding someone you admire and respect for their professional accomplishments. That person’s career doesn’t need to directly mirror the one that you want to have; you can still learn a lot by understanding how they got there.
What are the benefits of becoming a mentor?
Murthy: I really didn’t have a lot of experience with mentoring myself before I started Products by Women, but by default, the way the community grew, I started mentoring a lot of women in early career and mid-career stages. It has really refined my leadership style, and I’ve learned more about who I am as a person. It’s also a great way to give back. I think back to my early career days, and I try to model myself to my first few managers.
Barrett: I’ve found that the greatest part of being a mentor is being able to reflect. I’m able to really examine the turning points in my life and my career. I’m able to consciously think about the advice that has stuck with me and influenced my own decisions and often that affirms the road I am on today and helps me as I think about upcoming challenges I am facing.
Gheorghe: Mentors are also mentees. As a mentor, you learn from the questions that are put in front of you and the thought process that the mentee is going through. Being a mentor can also make you question your assumptions and allows you to reflect on your own experiences. That’s a useful way of not only learning more about yourself and your own journey, but it’s also a great way of improving and deepening the advice you give to others. People don’t always spend time thinking about every mistake or challenge and the lessons learned, but mentoring gives you that opportunity and provides your mentees with a chance to learn from your mistakes. I would caveat that by saying that I’m a big proponent of learning by doing, which includes learning by failing, and that is something that needs to be discussed more openly.
How can the mentorship process, and the tech industry as a whole, be more fair?
Gheorghe: When we run events at Rise, particularly supporting diverse founders or entrepreneurs, I always look to the audience and see that those leading the attempt to support minority initiatives are diverse themselves. And that’s where I believe we need to continue challenging allies, first through their actions, and, secondly, and more importantly, through their inactions. Capital for minority founders is one of the most tangible ways to help. A more intangible, but no less important, way to help is with a mindset shift. This needs to happen so that we no longer see headlines such as “Black Female Founders” but just “Founders.” This mindset shift, coupled with action, is how we move toward a fairer, more equal tech industry and workforce, more broadly.
Barrett: The hard work and change needs to come from everyone, not just marginalized people. There needs to be shifts in practices particularly when it comes to hiring at the highest level so there are more leaders who look like me in corporations around the country. To get more people who look like me into C-Suite positions there needs to be an expansion of workforce development and mentorship programs for women and women of color. Young women entering the tech workforce have to know that there are people who support them. Companies also need to speak to the employees they already have and gain insight into what can be improved.
What can company leaders do to foster mentorship in the workplace?
Barrett: To start a mentorship program in the workplace, you need commitment from the top, and for some companies that can require a culture shift. Everyone from junior members to executives of the company should feel comfortable being open with peers and co-workers, being receptive to having a dialogue and providing guidance and counsel to those who are actively pursuing it. This creates daily mentorship opportunities outside of a concrete one-to-one mentorship pairing program.
Gheorghe: I participated in a “Reverse Mentoring” program at Barclays through one of the diversity and inclusion networks that I now run. The model flips traditional mentoring on its head and views the senior member as the mentee, and the junior member as the mentor. This model facilitated conversations that I don’t think are had very often. Senior leaders were coming to analysts to understand their views on junior retention and satisfaction, culture and the mission of the company. By stepping into the shoes of junior employees, these senior managers were able to understand the impact of their decisions and use that feedback to better company culture. I don’t think it’s the end-all model, but by having members of the executive committee participating in these sessions sets a strong precedent to foster mentorship and open conversations in the workplace and empower minority groups to voice their concerns.
If someone doesn’t have prior tech industry connections, how should they find a mentor?
Murthy: Even if you don’t know the person you want to reach out to, my advice is that you should do it anyway. The more people you reach out to, the more opportunities you actually have. I think it’s great to talk to a lot of people — it opens up your mind and your point of view. It may not lead to something immediately, but the one person that you meet could actually open more doors. You can always ask them for more introductions, more opportunities.
Gheorghe: First I would say that a warm intro always helps, even if you have to go cold-calling to get that intro. I would recommend to be bold, do your homework and don’t get discouraged. Make sure you understand what your ask is and why you want to have that person as a mentor, so make sure you have researched their background and anything they’ve authored. People sometimes forget the personal nature of cold-calling, so always be respectful and remember that the person sitting on the other side of that email or phone call has likely been in a similar position to you. Lastly, don’t get discouraged, everyone is on their own path and dealing with their own challenges, so stay determined if you don’t instantly connect with a mentor. You may be able to reuse that lesson learned when you become a mentor yourself.