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Women's History Month: Making Mentorship Meaningful

This month is a perfect opportunity for us to take a step back and think about what role we want to play as women in the technology sector.

Twenty years ago, I had just left one male-dominated industry (sports broadcasting) for another (technology). Fresh into my career in Silicon Valley, I met a colleague who would change my outlook on work forever. She taught me how to handle difficult meetings, how to have fun at work, and how to approach things with a smile and always keep my cool. Tracy Eiler, now the CMO at Alation, was my mentor; I still carry her advice with me years later in my career.

As women in tech, we both needed each other — to share ideas, to talk about the struggles of being the only women in the room, and for the everyday comradery that made us feel part of something bigger. Especially during Women's History Month, I'm here to tell you that a good mentor can be life-changing and show you how to find and maintain that relationship.

Research from ISACA found that the leading barriers experienced by women in tech are lack of mentorship and lack of female role models — that's above unequal pay, gender bias, and uneven growth opportunities. But it isn't surprising when you consider that 9 in 10 workers who have a career mentor are happy in their jobs, while 4 in 10 workers without a mentor recently considered quitting, according to CNBC's 2019 Workplace Happiness survey. Throw in the fact that we are now totally isolated from our colleagues during the pandemic, and the desire for good mentorship goes through the roof. 

I can tell you from experience that these relationships are mutually beneficial. I've kept in touch with colleagues from my sportscaster days all the way through my years in Silicon Valley and now have a wide network of folks that are just a phone call away — men and women to whom I've been able to give opportunities and who have since achieved so much.  

Don't Be Shy
The first thing I'll say about being a mentee or mentor is to never, ever wait around for someone to approach you. Find a person you admire and pursue them as a mentor. When I met Tracy, she was several levels above me in the company. I approached her and asked if I could learn from her. Take the initiative. Think about the person in (or out) of your organization with whom you'd like to connect. If you don't have a formal mentorship program at your company, I encourage you to challenge the status quo and forge those connections yourself.

Just Keep Chatting
There's a group chat on my iPhone between myself and several other CMOs where we connect with one another on a regular basis. I can't tell you how many times that group chat has helped me think through a complex situation or simply get through a loaded afternoon of meetings. Emotional support is an amazing benefit of mentorships, and it goes both ways. You'd be surprised how mutually beneficial emotional support can be, especially in our new remote work environment. We're not seeing each other in the hallway or in the kitchen anymore, which means it's really important to keep the conversation going in whatever way we can. Sometimes that's a group text with colleagues or peers, sometimes it's a monthly video call, and other times it's sending a one-off email to keep that connection going. Setting up continuous chatter between you and a mentor or mentee will help build trust and knock down walls to allow for deeper connection and long-term growth.

Pay It Forward
Successful people help other people become successful. One of the first things Tracy told me after I was hired at Business Objects, the company at which we worked together, was that I now had an obligation to give another person without the perfect resume and experience a chance. I've carried that advice with me throughout my career. I always look for someone I think can do the job but may not be a perfect fit on paper. Tracy taught me to appreciate the opportunity I was given and to pay it forward. No matter what your professional title may be, you can always offer to provide feedback to women around you: Offer feedback on resumes, role-play promotion discussions, give their presentation a proofread. I promise you won't regret it; there is no greater feeling than seeing those you've helped achieve their goals and succeed.

Mental health experts preach the role of good friendships — personal or professional — in warding off loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Even before the pandemic, 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely, and that loneliness results in "less engagement, less productivity, and lower retention levels" at a business level. I imagine the loneliness phenomenon has only multiplied since the start of social distancing.

Investing in a solution to the issue of isolation will require companies to "put their money where their mouth is" and put time and resources into mentorship initiatives. A year after he co-founded Exabeam, our CEO, Nir Polak, started a program to support and empower women at the company and within the greater tech community. The program offers career development, industry education, and personal growth opportunities for women in the tech field. Programs such as this one are a way for women to meet and develop mentor relationships, and any organization that sets up a similar program would enhance company culture and help attract the best female talent in the industry.

In homage to women's history, the month of March is a perfect opportunity for us to take a step back and think about what role we want to play as women in the technology sector. I'd be willing to bet most of us want to be a Tracy Eiler: someone who invests in the women around us, helping them succeed and fostering mentorships that matter. So, reach out, and stay connected.

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