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Lean on Me: 12 Women on Female Mentorship

One of the most important relationships of your professional (and personal) life can be as a mentor or mentee. Why don’t we talk about it more?

MEETING YOUR MENTOR can be as life-changing as meeting your spouse, but it’s a relationship that we don’t often examine. And it’s an especially fraught relationship for women, who still struggle for parity in the workplace. Whether it’s actresses or tech workers, having someone to advise, support and sometimes challenge your ideas is important. The right mentor can also help in more tangible ways, like suggest you for jobs. (In businesss parlance, that’s a “sponsor” and women are 54 percent less likely to have one.)

The situation has gotten so dire that now, researchers are looking at ways to encourage more men to mentor women. But let’s not get that desperate. We brought together six pairs of women—from a variety of fields—to discuss how they met, and what their mentoring relationship means. Finding the right person is a mixture of luck, timing and chemistry. One thing that connected all the disparate women below: They felt lucky to know each other.

The Machine Operators
Sarah Pratt, Operating Engineer Apprentice; Marie Sullivan, Operating Engineer

On Getting Into Construction

Sarah Pratt (SP): Well, I was a forklift operator in a warehouse in Canarsie and I had really been asking to get a promotion from my boss. And finally, when the moment came he offered me the same amount of money that I was already making. I talked to my dad and he said, "That's not really a promotion." I had always heard about this program in Chelsea and I said, "Well, let me go give them a try," because they help women get into construction.

Marie Sullivan (MS): How I got into construction [is that] I went to a school in Manhattan called NEW, which stands for Non-traditional Employment for Women. And there, there was a woman that sat on the board of directors. Her name was Alice Rodney. I had all men instructors, but Alice was my mentor.

On How We Met

SP: I remember when [Marie] came into the class she's like six-one or something, and she's just very...she's the sweetest person. I know this now but she can be a little bit intimidating at first because she's larger than life, I would describe Marie. We just asked her a bunch of questions and that's when I first met her. And then I got to know her better once they hired me.

MS: Well, Sarah, she stood out. I can remember her excitement, and she had a lot of questions she asked me. And I could just see her nervous energy, sitting in the chair. So, she applied for our apprenticeship program, she got in and then after that, we just clicked.

Why Women in Construction Need to Stick Together

SP: You always that little stomach ache in the morning like, "Okay, I'm I gonna be able to handle today?" And then it's nice that I can call Marie if I have questions or if I'm on a piece of equipment, I don't know exactly how to run it or how to use it. I can call Marie and say, "How would you handle this situation if you're, you know, doing an excavation? How would you do it, you know?" And then she's always right there to break it down.

MS: For us, being females in this industry, a lot of things we don't know what to expect. You know, things that we go through as a female. Unless you have someone that's already been through it that can tell you, you know, "It's okay." What to do when a guy comes at you the wrong way, "This is what you do."

The Entrepreneurs
Sarah Krasley, CEO of Shimmy Technologies; Jessica Banks, CEO of RockPaperRobot

The First Impressions

Sarah Krasley (SK): I met Jessica when I was working in technology, and she was, I think, a few years into the company that she has, RockPaperRobot, and she just impressed me so much, being somebody so creative, and so scrappy, and fearless.

Jessica Banks (JB): My first impression of Sarah was probably that she was quiet and really smart. So, kind of holding her intelligence very close to her chest. And I always...I think I felt that she was almost a little intimidating in that way actually.

On Needing Advice

SK: While making the transition [between working full-time and being self-employed], I first knew that she was somebody I could go to for advice. Going to night school and learning about the things that I needed to learn, and building up some savings so I could start my own company. It's terrifying. I'm not gonna say that it's this really easy process because it's not.

JB: My relationship with Sarah is based in friendship. And sometimes, it's really important for me to remember that I want to be completely supportive of her dreams, and I have had my own path, and sometimes I'm highly, highly critical of myself and that I should not take that tack necessarily with Sarah. The relationship has been, I think, one of me also learning about my own growth and my own ability to translate my experience in a way that is digestible and, you know, also applicable to her moment.

Tricky Relationships

SK: I'll never forget this awful lunch I had with this, like, investor guy, and he was the first investor I talked to at all. And I was meeting him at this restaurant, and, you know, he was sitting there, and the whole time were talking he was just looking over my shoulder. I was so upset, and I remember calling Jessica and just saying...telling her what happened, and she's like, "That's not your investor. Who cares?” She really helped me understand that that's a relationship, and you're evaluating them as much as they're evaluating you.

JB: I think women can be even bigger risk takers in this environment because in some sense this is a little bit new for us. These roles and being entrepreneurs and having basically a lot of new freedom that generations ago we didn't have is totally new for us. And so, we aren't constrained necessarily by the conventional roles that we should play in this field because we haven't been in the conventional space, right?

The Community Activists
Aisha Al-Adawiya, Founder of Women in Islam, a Muslim women's human rights organization; Sarah Sayeed, Senior Advisor in the New York City Mayor's Office, Community Affairs Unit

An Unusual Introduction

Aisha Al-Adawiya (AA): I met Sarah as a little kid actually. Her parents and my family were friends over the years, and I watched her grow and develop into this amazing woman that she is now. But early on I wanted to involve her in the work that I do as a Muslim woman, and I also wanted to be able to mentor a younger generation to assume leadership of the organization and to take on the work, you know, of powerful women speaking truth to power.

Sarah Sayeed (SS): I don't remember my first impression of her. When we were very young we'd just moved here from India, so it was very comforting to have people around us, my parent's circle of friends, since we had left a lot of our family behind in India. We call her Auntie Aisha.

On Balancing the Personal and the Professional

AA: Of course, she has matured in ways that are expected, but she remains the one who can tell me off you know? I tend to try and wanna do things on a grand scale, and so I will say things like "We wanna do something on the international level," and she will say, "Wait, hold up, maybe we should start locally" you know, kind of thing. So, in many ways she mentors me.

SS: It’s a little different I mean to have a professional relationship with someone who is practically like family. There's an added dimension or depth to the relationship, because it's more focused on what you're trying to achieve together for some greater purpose, which is different than just having a relationship together.

A Mentor’s Eye

AA: Initially, I wasn't looking to mentor. I was looking to get the work done and as a result of that, I'm looking for women because my insistence is that it is a Muslim women's organization, and I want it to be run and powered by Muslim women. Often the board members will say, "Can't we invite men to join the board?" and I say, "No, men cannot join the board." This is work that women have to do. They can be advisers to the board, but I want to see women claim that space and power it.

SS: I remember once there was a fundraiser that we were trying to put together for a humanitarian cause and it was an interfaith event. And in a lot of these kinds of collaborations sometimes people like to take full credit for stuff that you might be doing, that you should get credit for. So she's always good about sensing. She has a radar for stuff like that and is able to see it before I see it sometimes, you know? So that's helpful.

Surprising Lessons

AA: I was skeptical about a certain kind of work that she wanted to pursue because of how I thought I knew her. And because of my protective attitude towards her, I was always concerned about her not being in a situation that would challenge her spiritually. But ultimately, she's a very strong women and she will make her decisions and then end up actually explaining to me how it was important that she do a certain kind of work, and what it is that she actually had to bring to the table. In fact, she wasn't as fragile as I may have thought she was.

SS: Having Sister Aisha as my mentor has really helped me to have a lot more stability in life. Having someone who will listen to me and be on my side no matter what I might be going through—she has my back.

The Hair Experts
Keisha Doxy, owner, Cherry’s Unisex Salon; Petagay Lindo, Hairstylist at Cherry’s Unisex Salon

On Becoming a Hairstylist

Keisha Doxy (KD): I always been a hairstylist. The first job that I offered, I went on the interview, I thought it was Fulton Street in the city but it turned out to be Fulton Street. I get off the wrong train. I wasn't used to traveling on the train and stuff. The owner, Gene, at the time was retiring. And it was been a week since I've been there, and he was like, "You know, I'm retiring and I would like you to take over the shop." And I was like, "You sure?"

Peta-Gaye Lindo (PL): [I like] styling people's hair, making them feel good about themselves, making them feel pretty. The customers come and they talk to us and they tell us, you know, some of their secrets, and we have a great bond.

The Meet Cute

KD: [Peta-Gaye] looked just like me when I just started out. Eager to take care of the customer. Eager to please the customer. Not only with the hairstyle, but in everything else. If the customer wants water, she would go get the water. If the customer have a baby, she would hold the baby.

PL: Actually, I met her through my uncle's wife—she knew that I liked doing hair and she knew Keisha for a while, and she introduced me and my sister to Keisha. And we both started working [at Cherry’s Unisex Salon]. It's been like eight years.

Next in Line

KD: I think with women, there is a lot of pettiness. There is a lot of arguments between each of us because there is over 15 people in the salon, so you have to know when to pick your fight, when to say something, when not to say something. She have learned that. All the stuff I have taught her. You can see it every day. I'm very impressed. If I was supposed to retire, she would be the perfect person to take over.

PL: [Being like a family], that's a little challenging! We have our ups and our downs, but the next day we still come in and we say hi to each other like nothing ever happened and get back to work as well.

The Software Engineers
Diana Shkolnikov, software engineer and manager at Mapzen; Liza Daly, software engineer and executive

On the First Phone Call

Diana Shkolnikov (DS): Liza was doing a talk for a conference and she was preparing material, and she put out a call for interviews. I reached out to her and said that I have some thoughts on, you know, leadership in the software engineering space because I was new to it and so it was still very fresh in my mind.

Liza Daly (LD): I first met Diana when I was looking for women who were in tech to interview for a talk I was going to give on engineering leadership and culture. And the talk wasn't actually about women specifically, but I felt like I would get more interesting answers if I talked to women in the field than if I talked to the same men who get quoted all the time. We had a great interview for that, and then afterwards she told me she was looking for a mentor and I said I would be happy to do that.

Talking as Strangers

DS: Usually, I'll come into our calls saying like, "This seems weird." Or like, "Maybe I'm handling this wrong, like it feels like, you know, should I trust my gut?" And I think kind of working through that with her, you know, kind of peeling back the...which part of it is just my insecurities and which part of it is actually, you know, genuinely valid or incorrect. That's really where the work has happened.

LD: At least for me, it was a little bit awkward at first just because she wasn't someone I knew beforehand. I know some of these mentors have been friends and that's how they got into their relationship, but she and I were basically strangers so just getting to know her and getting a sense of the kind of advice and feedback that would be useful to her, that just takes some time in a relationship.

On Looking for Questions, Not Answers

DS: What a great mentor does is help you be introspective. It's kinda like a therapist, I guess, in that you talk through the thing. There's not really hard direction. And I think if you were looking for a mentor, don't try to look for someone that's going to give you all the answers but, rather, someone that's gonna ask you all the questions.

LD: [Diana] is the kind of employee I would love to have. You know, a person who just has their act together, is on top of all the moving parts, wants to help everyone to work effectively, but doesn't, and maybe to her detriment, doesn't sort of bring her own problems. When she comes to me with a problem, she usually knows the right answer and she just needs a little push to make that choice.

The Educators
Marilyn Barnwell, program Director of Education at Bloomingdale Family Program; Joyce Dye, currently teaching 4-year olds in NYC Public Schools, formerly Head Start teacher for 20 years

Love at First Sight

Marilyn Barnell (MB): Joyce and I met when I was teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She was a student there. Hanging out in the office and the phone rang, and I put my watch to my ear, and it was a hysterical moment, and we've been friends since then. And then after she finished at BMCC, she got a job at our school.

Joyce Dye (JD): My first impression of Marilyn when we first met is that she was a warm person and caring. You can see that just by looking at her.

Learning from Each Other

MB: When she moved to the site where I supervise teachers, it became a working relationship. A relationship where there was somebody I could brainstorm with, I can talk about ideas, learn from.

JD: She has taught me that leadership is not about being over someone, but really being with them and getting to know them. And that's, I guess, that's how she became a mentor because I kind of admired the way she did things.

Leaving the Job

MB: A few years before she left us, she started to form those relationships with teachers that were meaningful, that are still meaningful. Teachers still call her as a resource. So I got to see her emerge as this leader when she didn't know that she was a leader.

JD: She never let me look up to her. She always was there beside the teachers and myself. And so when she became a mentor, I didn't realize it.

Being a Boss, and a Mentor

MB: I never wanted to be a supervisor. I never thought of myself as that person. But you're supposed to tell people what to do if you're their supervisor. So I went to every classroom and I wrote down all the things that, suggestions they should make. And then I went back to my desk and I realized, "This is my classroom. This is what I would do if I was in their room." And I tore up that piece of paper, and till this day, I'm learning from the teachers so many different ways to do the same thing.

JD: The most important aspect in a mentor if you're looking for one... it is a hard question, but it has to be someone who loves what they do. Sometimes you have to observe them. Someone can say from their mouth that "I love what I do," but you have to watch and observe and be able to trust them, and be able to accept honesty.

Update, 8/16: Due to an editing error, three names (and a company name) were misspelled. We regret the error.

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