This weekend I had the privilege of speaking to a room full of women of color, all in the first part of their careers. Each of them were trying to figure out how to marry their passions with their skills to become the leaders that they know deep inside they can be.
I was the only white woman there. Just like in years past when I was the only white woman so lucky to be part of this same sacred retreat. I point out the demographics because, during my facilitation, a woman stood up and said, “It’s hard for me to find mentors. There just aren’t enough women who look like me that are high enough up to be able to help me.”
This begs the question: does your mentor need to look like you to be of value to you?
I’d argue “no.”
While it is important to have people in your life who have walked your path and know the obstacles ahead, not all of your mentors need to look alike. In fact, I might even argue that the mentors who look least like you will be the ones who will challenge you the most in your thinking, in your expectations. They are most likely to get you out of your comfort zone. Further, if you can turn those mentors into champions — the people who take you with them to the right events, introduce you to the right players, nominate you for the right projects — then having mentors who look different from you is even more essential.
It’s okay to bang on the door and ask to be let in. But, sometimes the door only opens from the inside. When someone is already in the club, it sure is easier for them to invite you in.
When I was done with my session, this woman, along with others, stood up and applauded. They came to give me hugs after. I am more proud of these moments. And, being in audiences like this rather than addressing a thousand people who look just like me. It’s the ability to reach across race, generation, and life experience that makes the conference organizer ask me back each year.
“I’ve spent years working on understanding where I need to grow. And, discovering what I can learn from others who aren’t like me,” commented one participant when I finished. “Had I not done that, I would have dismissed you before you even began. I would miss so much of the authentic knowledge you dropped on us.”
I replied, “Had you not done that work, you wouldn’t have participated in the honest way you did today. And, I wouldn’t have had a chance to learn from you either.”
We both had a good hug after that one.
But, that’s just the thing: we didn’t look alike or act alike or think alike. But we met in the middle with open minds and authenticity. We knew that we would have each other’s backs because we had the same shared goal. We both desire all of the women in the room better leaders. That’s what you should look for in your mentor, no matter what demographic boxes they check.