When did I Become a Mentor?

My summer has been full of travel and activities:  my first karate tournament in 18 years, outrigger races, hula shows, business travel, Las Vegas, family crises, podcasting, San Diego Comic Con, Walker Stalker Fan Fest, my day job, and most importantly, being a mom.  This blog has been extremely neglected but I have a lot of fodder to turn into postings, I promise.  I will work on talking about SDCC/Walker Stalker Fan Fest and my new lipstick addiction to Urban Decay’s Revolution line very soon.

One thing I didn’t expect to do much of this summer is coaching and mentoring.  But last week, I attended the Multicultural Women’s National Conference in New York City.  This year marked lucky number 13 for the event.  I have attended at least eight, maybe nine of these 13 years.  This conference is a special experience for me, especially as a woman of color in corporate America.  It is rare that I step into a room filled with leaders who are women, much less a hotel ballroom of 500 leaders who are mostly women of color.  I don’t need to play “CTA” (Count the Asians, a thing I do when I am in a public space that is not very ethnically diverse) at this event.

One new benefit for attendees that the organizers added came in the form of taking free, professional headshots of each of us.  Three artists from Bobbi Brown provided mini touch-ups to participants and professional photographers spent a few minutes with each of us before snapping a few different poses.  Some women had never had a professional photograph taken and were delighted with the prospect.  Others don’t use make-up and just wanted to have a professional give them a more polished look for the day.  And a few of the attendees wanted to use this headshot for their LinkedIn profile.  (I wondered if any would add it to their Tinder or match.com profiles?)  Either way, my headshot showed me 1) I need a haircut and 2) Doing three panels outdoors at Walker Stalker Fan Fest in San Diego gave my face a much darker tan than I usually have.  Because of those two reasons, my new headshot will not be posted on LinkedIn and I do not have Tinder account.

This year’s theme for the conference was “Mindset Matters:  Igniting Potential.  Driving Excellence.”  The agenda read as fairly standard:  keynote speakers, small group workshops and lots of opportunities for networking.  As an introvert, I find early morning networking an exhausting prospect and a huge drain on my energy when I attend a typical business conference.  However, this gathering serves as one of the highlights for my professional year in terms of giving and receiving energy.  In fact, I have made friends at this conference from all over the country because it is a safe environment for women of color to talk about being women of color.  Also, my daughter has attended this event with me, sitting in on keynote addresses and small group discussions.  She has heard some of the struggles that women of color experience in the workplace, I only hope that my daughter realizes how that impacts her growth and development as she enters the workforce.

My role at the conference has expanded from passive attendee to serving as a small group facilitator for same race and cross race conversations.  This year, I was assigned one of these six provocative topics:  Empowerment – Exposure – Impact – Learning – Resilience – and Trust.  Randomly, I received Empowerment, a topic I wanted to really chew on before facilitating small group discussions.

In the same race group, we brought up how being Asian, particularly an Asian woman, impacts “Empowerment” in the workplace.  I felt frustrated to hear the same data from participants that I have heard for years:  “My manager thinks I am young and inexperienced, despite the fact that I have 15 years of tenure and an MBA.”  “My parents taught me to work harder than anyone else and keep my head down because hard work will be rewarded.”  “No one considers me for key positions in the Sales department.”  “I don’t have a mentor.”  “I am waiting for my promotion.”  “Taking an assignment in another department is a big risk, especially if I am already a subject matter expert in my current role.”  “I am the only Asian woman in management.”  How can all of that cultural mud serve our Empowerment as Asian women?  It seeps into our mindset and dries like a weight on our collective shoulders.  Some stereotypes and cultural qualities may serve us well in our careers, “We are always striving for perfection because getting an ‘A-‘ was never good enough for our parents.”  “Asians are thought of as quiet and disciplined.”  So many of us played the piano or violin as children and practiced for hours every day.  That is discipline and research shows that music helps children develop strong math skills, another stereotype about Asian.

But being a woman and Asian in corporate America can feel like starting out with two strikes against you when striving to be in the C-suite.  Fortune reported in February 2014 that just over 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs at that time were minorities, (African-Americans, Asians, and/or Latin-Americans. And there were 24 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 — representing 4.8 percent of companies — as of June 2014.

We then shifted the conversation to address how to empower ourselves and others.  Some women talked about “Dress older than you are.”  “Find a mentor.”  “Network more.”  “Take a job in another part of the business as a stretch assignment.”  “Ask for more pay.”  What I noticed very clearly was that most of these are strategies that white men do automatically.  They don’t feel stigma from tooting their own horn.  They don’t feel shame from asking for a promotion.  They also don’t feel like they are at all different from their CEO or COO so aspirations of sitting in the C-suite do feel unreasonable.

One of my participants asked, “Is Empowerment given or taken?”  That question drew out different responses based on the participants’ company, tenure and experience.  The more senior the attendee was, the highly the likelihood was that she would mention the importance of a mentor and/sponsor.  Being in power means having influence and no one walks in the door of a company with influence unless he or she has the ear of the C-suite.  I feel like we ended in a good place where participants shared their challenges as Asian women in the workplace and learned one or two tips on how to overcome those challenges to Empower themselves.  One to two tips in 90 minutes felt like a good use of our time, in my opinion.

When I got back to the office, I had received a few emails from participants.  A lot of feedback talked about my energy, which I gleaned from the willingness of the participants to contribute.  It felt like a symbiotic relationship to me.  “It was great meeting you at the conference!  I sincerely loved your energy during the breakout session and would like to get some of your thoughts on other things I am going through.”  This woman set up a lunch meeting for some one on one time.  We shall see if our chat leads to any huge professional breakthroughs for her, I think I offered some perspective as a mentor.  Wikipedia defines mentorship as “a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise.”

In a strange twist of events, one thing we did agree on was for me to help her create a Match.com profile.  She is also a single mom and wants to jump back into the dating world.  Although I have a lot of experience as a single working mom, I do not have a lot of successful experience with on-line dating.  I hope providing her a bit of empowerment in starting to date leads to some happiness in her personal life.  However, I do not plan to make it a habit or a goal to mentor women in how to date.

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