Growing up in the Seattle area as a first-generation American and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I faced a number of challenges when I considered how I might pursue a career in tech. My parents, who didn’t necessarily understand the requirements of higher education and were busy themselves working blue collar and back office jobs, often weren’t able to support my extracurricular activities. I had little emotional, monetary, or physical support. I spent part of high school and college working double shifts at fast food restaurants and couch surfing and, at times, sleeping in my car. I was largely on my own.
While I was intrinsically motivated to succeed, there was one specific thing that I believe enabled me to have the confidence, knowledge, and resources to pursue my career: mentorship. Starting in high school with a business teacher who helped me convince my parents to allow me to travel to business case competitions, a series of mentors from high school to the present day have been the backbone of my ability to advance my education and career.
It’s no secret that women — and minority women in particular — are underrepresented in STEM roles. Mentorship is a key element in introducing science and tech roles to a more diverse workforce, starting at a young age. But great mentors throughout the process are key in keeping women in the STEM pipeline and enabling them to advance.
As we ourselves advance in our careers, mentorship is integral to helping usher in the next generation of STEM professionals. We know that 76 percent of people believe mentors are important but only 37 percent actually have one, according to a study by Olivet Nazarene University.
Based on my experiences in tech and as a mentor to others, I have some advice to keep in mind on how to be an effective STEM mentor.
5 Pieces of Advice for Would-Be STEM Mentors
- Make sure you have the time and mental capacity
- Be open to reverse mentoring
- Keep your focus on the advisee
- Encourage, then take a step back
- Connect them with your network
1. Make Sure You Have the Time and Mental Capacity
It should go without saying, but if you plan on being a mentor, make sure you have the time and mental capacity to make the relationship meaningful. Mentors should ask those looking to be mentored what they hope to achieve, and decide if they can provide that for them before moving forward. Another option is to connect them with a more viable mentor candidate. Mentoring relationships often take more upfront time to get to know each other, build trust, and understand not only the needs of the protege but also your own needs as a mentor.
2. Be Open to Reverse Mentoring
The STEM space is constantly evolving rapidly. For this reason, mentors in this space should be open to reverse mentoring. This means the person you are mentoring may be exposed to or interested in different technologies which you yourself can learn from. This is an opportunity for you to reach into your own network for people who are working in newer areas and rekindle relationships which can benefit you and your advisee.
The next generation quickly picks up on emerging technologies. For example, if your advisee is interested in mixed reality and you don’t know much about it, nor have that expertise, you can tap into your network to find someone that does. This could also be an opportunity for you to learn alongside them.
3. Keep Your Focus on the Advisee
It’s exciting to finally be able to impart your wisdom on a protege about how you launched an amazing application or did some major scientific research. However, there will be plenty of time as your mentoring relationship develops where you can share that accomplishment. Take time to learn the personality of your advisee and what they need guidance on since you are exposed to various opportunities which could benefit from their personality. This is especially important if you have an advisee who is exploring STEM fields, no matter their phase in life (high school, college, early to mid-career). In order for STEM fields to progress successfully, we need to have people from all backgrounds and personalities contribute across the board.
For example, early on during my IT internship, my mentor picked up on my natural project management skills and my ability to quickly build relationships and explain technology to business partners in a comprehensible way. This led me down the path of global technology program management delivering multi-million dollar cross-functional programs spanning multiple territories. I never would have discovered this about myself without the help of my mentors.
So invest time to figure out if your advisee is on the analytical side, detail-oriented, strategic, operational, execution-focused, or a combination. This will help you guide them to explore areas that resonate with their personality and also could benefit the organization.
4. Encourage, Then Take a Step Back
One of the beauties of technology is there is always more than one way to solve a problem. As a mentor, it’s important to empower your advisee to make decisions and give them space to solve technical problems they come across. This will build their confidence for future, bigger problems. You are there to provide guidance but not to impose your approach. Their approach could be a more optimal one which you could also learn from.
For example, one of my proteges was tasked with setting up and configuring an out-of-the box customer relationship management solution for a nonprofit organization. She knew nothing about CRM prior to this project — not even what it even stood for. I was able to help get her started by guiding her with my background in CRM implementations. However, the more she dug into the system and the nonprofit’s needs, the more she began making suggestions on integrations with other platforms, automations, and data configurations that would allow the nonprofit to run and scale more efficiently. I gave her the space to implement those solutions, and even though along the way she came across technical issues, she was able to research on her own how to troubleshoot and fix it. This has led her to not only lead the nonprofit organization’s CRM strategy and operations, but also get involved with helping other work streams improve their processes and technical solutions as well.
5. Connect Them With Your Network
We’re all increasingly aware that access and opportunities are not equitable. Coming from a place where my parents were not familiar with the American education and professional systems, both in my finances and in connections that would advance my career, I’ve experienced this personally. As a woman of color in STEM, this creates an additional layer of challenge. But even in the past decade, mentorship has been crucial in developing my career and catapulting me to where I am now. My mentor listened to how I wanted to grow and develop and took action, ensuring that my name was in the running and that I had access when opportunities came up.
Mentoring is about creating access and opportunities for your protege to explore various areas of STEM whether horizontally or vertically, or both. It only takes one person to change a person’s life and your ability to provide guidance and connect your advisee with your network can be instrumental to their career. Who knows? Maybe someday they will also create a nonprofit and write a book because of the impact you’ve had on them.