Confession: I Was a Mentor-less Leader of a Mentoring Movement

By Leslie Cruz, STEMconnector CEO

When I started as CEO of STEMconnector in June 2017 and saw that one of our signature initiatives was a movement called Million Women Mentors, it got me thinking. Who are my mentors? Have I ever had a mentor? I’m sorry to say that no one immediately came to mind.

How could I lead an organization with a global mentoring movement if I didn’t even know what it meant to have a mentor myself? And if I had never had a mentor, how could I encourage others to use mentoring as a lever of change for women in STEM? It’s easy to create a narrow definition of mentoring in our minds. To believe it is one specific kind of relationship – for example, one where someone more experienced formally guides someone less experienced in an effort to help them flourish whether in careers or school or life in general. That it must be a relationship with set interactions and planned check-ins. And I can’t say I’ve ever had that particular kind of mentoring in my own life.

A few months passed, and I was invited to a gathering with some colleagues I have known and worked with on and off for over a decade but whom I had not seen in a few years. Just seven women catching up, sharing successes, laughing at stories, sharing perspectives on the day’s news headlines, and providing advice on family and career. It was a friendly, familiar gathering where conversation weaved in and out, jumped from one topic to the next, and was sprinkled with laughs.

I looked around at these highly accomplished women with two CEOs, one entrepreneur, and three senior executives. These are leaders who have encouraged and bolstered each other through the highs and struggles of career and family and life. We have celebrated victories and supported through times of transition. We have leaned on each other while we learned how to juggle work and home life. And it occurred to me while I looked at these impressive women who have helped shape me that maybe a mentor isn’t just an experienced person guiding a greener one for a specific purpose. Maybe mentoring doesn’t have to be programmatic and planned. Maybe mentors are hidden in the corners of our lives.

As we come to a close on National Mentoring Month, you may consider taking a deeper examination of your own relationships. Whether or not you have formal mentors in your life, who are the people who have helped you get where you are? What about those role models that you looked up to even if they didn’t know you well, or even at all?

We all have the power to be a role model and a mentor to those around us. I would encourage us all to take more stock not of just the mentor relationships that shape us but also the mentees we might be shaping when we’re not even looking. If we just open our minds in a different way and move beyond the word. If we – as a movement – help to move beyond the buzzword and teach what it really means to be a mentor – to inspire, to support, to encourage – then we can, and will, influence those around us and create that many more mentoring moments for our youth, young professionals, and peers.  It might just be these mentors in hidden corners who create the next generation of STEM leaders.

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