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Successful networkers know that many well-established people are not only willing to help younger or less experienced people learn the ropes of an industry, trade, or career, they love sharing their knowledge and experience to help others. Early in their careers, many people make the mistake of thinking to themselves, “This person I admire is successful—why would they ever want to help someone like me? I haven’t accomplished anything yet!” Excluding the arrogant jerks, well-established people often recognize the role others played in helping them get where they are. They want to pay it forward, and it feels good to be useful.
One approach to finding a mentor is to think about your goals over the next year or two. Are you trying to become a better CEO? Are you an engineer who has never studied marketing and sales and wants an introduction to those fields? Are you a salesperson who doesn’t understand how products actually get built? Come up with a list of how you want to improve in your capacity as founder. Take this list to your friends and ask them who they know who’s really good at one of these skills you wish you had. Post portions of this list on Twitter. Research people at companies that excel at one of the things you want to learn about, and start asking around looking for a connection.
Your mentors don’t have to be people who are famous. Start with someone who is more knowledgeable than you on what you’re trying to learn or accomplish. Get a cup of coffee with them. Share your list of goals with them at the end and ask them if they know anyone else they can introduce you to who they think might be helpful. Author and Airbnb manager Megan Gebhart did this 52 times and met the co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, on her 45th coffee.
Mentoring Across Difference
When it comes to who makes a good mentor, a lot has been written recently about mentoring across difference, be it gender, race, socioeconomic background, or political or religious belief. Particularly in fields like technology, women remain woefully underrepresented in leadership positions—12% in 2018—which makes finding a woman mentor especially difficult. Relying on male mentorship in a male-dominated space does not necessarily foster inclusivity and cannot always meet the particular challenges women face to rise in male-dominated companies. When it comes to people of color in executive positions in Silicon Valley, the numbers are even worse. Walker’s Legacy founder Natalie Madeira Cofield laments the dearth of executives of color because, among many other reasons, mentees need “someone who’s going to be honest.” And even mentors with the best of intentions might be operating with implicit biases that they need to work to uncover.
In the fast-moving world of startups, where a fresh face can become a boss overnight, it’s important to remember that support, sponsorship, and guidance can come from all strata of a company or field. Fast Company interviewed three women CEOs who describe the lack of mentorship in their careers as an opportunity to build support within their peer networks. But mentorship from those who’ve been where you want to go can be crucial to your success, and the responsibilities of inclusivity and sponsorship of junior employees and new founders should not fall only on the higher-ups who share those individuals’ race, gender, or background.
Anyone currently in a mentorship position or hoping to mentor founders in the future should read up on how to uncover blind spots, understand implicit bias, and work with mentees with a goal of inclusivity. Founders currently searching for mentors will find value in these resources as well:
The right mentor can and should be a founder’s entryway to a wider network, which can be particularly helpful for founders who are underrepresented in their field. Many programs exist to help founders from underrepresented groups connect to peers and established players with similar backgrounds: