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Good networking clearly contributes to career success, and finding the right mentor can be an important way to forge influential bonds. Young professionals often seek mentors who share their gender or ethnic background, but should they limit their search that way? Not necessarily, said a panel of MIT-alumni executives who spoke on campus in September at an Alumnae Leadership Series event.

“Our growth and development occurs through relationships,” said Laurie Hunt, moderator of the panel “Mentoring across Differences of Gender and Race,” which was sponsored by the Association of MIT Alumnae, the Sloan Alumni Club of Boston, the MIT Alumni Association, and the MIT Sloan Alumni Office. Hunt, a consulting affiliate at the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College, views successful mentoring as a two-way learning experience–“power with rather than power over,” she said.

Indeed, panelists agreed that the most successful mentoring relationships start with strong connections–and the possibility of friendship. Farzana Mohamed ‘99, chief of staff and director of strategic planning for Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, found her mentor through her own initiative.

Taking the Initiative

As an undergraduate, Mohamed was unhappy with her assigned MIT academic advisor. So she approached panelist Paul Levy ‘72, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, when he was an adjunct professor of environmental policy at MIT. After seeking classmates’ advice and attending a few of Levy’s classes, she introduced herself and asked him to advise her. He became a friend as well as a powerful role model and ultimately recruited her to work at Beth Israel.

Mohamed’s initiative paid off, said Levy, who added that if you’re seeking a mentor, you should pay attention to subtle hints that people are interested in nurturing you professionally. For example, an older colleague might ask what you’re reading or working on.

Clearing Hurdles

Audience members shared stories about confronting their own workplace hurdles. One participant, the lone woman in her office, said she couldn’t find a mentor because her colleagues felt uncomfortable having an occasional lunch with her or meeting alone with her behind closed doors.

The panel’s advice? “Don’t close the door,” Levy said, and use a current project to appeal to a prospective mentor: ask to show colleagues how far you’ve progressed and tap their experience for insight on the next step. Also, consider approaching them just before or after meetings, to keep the context public. If such informal efforts fail, the panel said, try approaching high-level executives to ask for the creation of a formal mentoring program, stressing the ways such a program could help employees gain expertise and the company cultivate a diverse client base.

Encouraging Dialogues

Another audience member, who founded a small company with a talented, diverse workforce, hadn’t initiated dialogues about gender or other differences for fear of singling out certain workers. To create an atmosphere that encourages frank, open discussion, Hunt suggested, the audience member might, say, ask a female colleague about her professional challenges. Even if the colleague mentioned no problems related to gender, she might welcome the conversation. Levy recommended potluck lunches or camaraderie­-­building events involving whole families as ways to bridge cultural differences.

Panelist Kathy Huber ‘83 is a serial entrepreneur and lead mentor in MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, which supports prospective entrepreneurs from the MIT community. She noted that mentors can have a powerful influence on inexperienced young professionals and advised them to be tactful when giving feedback–particularly suggestions for improvement. “A small word or a tone change can have a large impact,” she said. In turn, good mentors can benefit by learning from their protégés, panelists agreed. “You can mentor your mentor,” Mohamed advised young professionals.

Take Your Career to the Next Level
Learn more about career programs offered through the MIT Alumni Association at alum.mit.edu/cs/.

Institute Career Assistance Network: career advice from more than 2,900 MIT alumni in diverse fields.

MentorNet: national e-mentoring network promoting diversity in technical fields.

Jobs: Search a list of jobs posted by fellow alumni or check MIT Experience.

Venture Mentoring Service: a program that matches aspiring MIT entrepreneurs with volunteers from corporate, entrepreneurial, and academic communities.

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Credit: Jamie Brogioli

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