I had the degrees, skills and drive. What I needed was someone to go to bat for me.

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Every day, I meet people looking for opportunities or talking about opportunities. This is Seattle, a city of income inequality. At the top of mind is how Jeff Bezos and others donate their money. My response has always been, “Wealth is not just money, but access to resources.”

A mentor can help with access to opportunities. Traditional mentorship programs are based on a top-down approach, where someone older mentors someone younger by sharing what they did to produce the same successful outcome. But as I look deeper at workplace data, I realize that women of color experience a unique set of barriers. In other words, what worked for you may not work for me.

Personally, I felt I was doing everything right. I had the degrees, skills and drive. What I needed was someone to go to bat for me. So I got myself the best mentor I could find. She was a woman. She was a minority. She was a lawmaker and internationally recognized in diversity and inclusion. And she was in my corner.

This is what I learned from my experience.

Mentorship vs. sponsorship

Mentors talk with you and sponsors talk about you, Heather Foust-Cummings, senior vice president of research and consulting at Catalyst, has been quoted as saying. Sponsors promote your work, share assignments and make introductions.

My success was dependent on someone championing for me. It is because of our relationship that I learned about events I didn’t know existed, was invited on boards I hadn’t participated on, heard about jobs I wasn’t aware of and met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

And it is because she vouched for me and expected my work to be exceptional.

Reverse mentorship

At first, I was hesitant to take up my mentor’s time. But then I realized that the knowledge I’ve gained in Seattle during the tech boom meant I had a lot to offer in return.

Earlier adopter Jack Welch realized that reciprocal mentorship is a two-way street. Younger associates, for example, can teach senior staff members about social media. But there is an even greater opportunity here: offering a “lens” we wouldn’t normally have access to.

We all have something to teach and learn. Reverse mentorship can engage both people, challenge stereotypes and foster inclusion.

Multiple mentors

As my experiences have proved to me, even having the best mentor doesn’t promise success. Effective mentorship doesn’t start and finish with one person. In our lives, we must look to multiple people with multiple perspectives.

According to Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for for women’s rights, women with more than one mentor are more likely to be promoted.

Although I advocate for female mentorship, there is also great power in male “allyship.”

Mentorship can happen formally through an organization or informally between friends. It is based on trust, commitment and a willingness to learn.

The sad truth is that fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. To truly diversify the workplace, people in power need to move beyond sponsoring a “mini me” toward those that underrepresented, thirsty and have the potential to succeed.

Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore