Investing in women is not a new idea. Neither is the now threadbare advice for the aspirational crowd: Girl, if you want to get ahead, get yourself a mentor. But true mentorship success stories are woefully rare in business. And formal mentorship programs for women, though certainly appealing on paper, have yet to bring the change we want to see in the corporate world.
So, when Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit joined with the State Department and Vital Voices to launch a mentorship program that connected emerging women leaders to an established network of high achievers, it could easily have turned into an exercise in lightweight do-gooding with a couple of fancy dinners thrown in. These big ticket women’s conferences, a growing trend among media companies, get critiqued. Writer Ann Friedman wrote in New York Magazine: “While it’s fantastic that women who’ve made it to the upper echelons of business and politics are now willing to get up onstage and acknowledge the fact that they are indeed women, it’s not clear who, exactly, is being empowered by these events.”
So who exactly is “empowered”? It turns out quite a few…
“Here’s the thing. And it’s a real thing.” Manal Elattir, one of the mentees, is talking in a dramatic rapid-fire whisper over Skype, trying not to wake her 18-month-old twins. It’s nearly midnight in Morocco, and she is leaving in a few hours to attend an event in Brussels. She talks and packs at the same time. “What the (Fortune MPW) conference really was – for me – what really hit me hard was that it was a room of women owning their actual power.” In Morocco, she says, women are triply burdened: Most likely to be illiterate, with no professional training, and beholden to their husbands. “Owning our power. That’s what is missing in Morocco. That is what needs to scale here.”
What Manal experienced at MPW was more than just pageantry. She had earned a chance to join a network of women who had made a conscious decision to commit to the development of each other. This is no small thing. A “network” is, almost by definition, a technical thing. And we all have many. They are the people whom you know through family or friends, have worked or studied with, and are defined by the names, titles, links and nodes that increasingly tie us together. Networks – everyone will tell you — offer the promise of resources and transactions.
But “community” is more defined by the spirit than the bones. Your community is the one that cares. A network of powerful women can also be a community, but it’s not something to be taken for granted. When they overlap – as they have in this case- then it’s true magic. So while no conference can guarantee a community, it’s clear that a conference can create a context for people to both share and care – the stuff that happens after the panel discussions have ended. (And, so, too can business.) The commitment that MPW members feel for the well being of each other injects heart – perhaps, even love – into this network that turns it into a way to achieve business objectives into a way to scale ‘onlyness’. With it, we recognizing that each of stands in that spot in the world that only you stand and through connecting with others, we can solve old problems with new solutions. Or find entirely new answers.
And this has become Manal’s calling. This is the seed she wants to grow, as she returns to Morocco.
Each year MPW gets new cohort of mentees, all accomplished in their own right, tapped by embassy officials and other State Department types to apply. After a month of leadership training, the mentees spend a month living with and shadowing some of the most powerful women in business in their native habitats. (Who wouldn’t have some breakthrough ideas after sitting in meetings with Megan Smith at Google? It’s real access.)
But, a key part of the program design is that it insists that the mentee focus the power of their new network in service of building something they believe will also make a difference in their (local) world. And for that to happen, the participants have to dig deeply into their onlyness.
Gaelle Rimpel Pierre, a successful engineer and technology entrepreneur from Haiti heard about the Fortune mentorship program from the economics advisor to Kenneth Merton, then the U.S. ambassador to Haiti. “He says, ‘you are a woman and you are in technology so I think this program is perfect for you!’” she recalls with a laugh. Admittedly, she is on a very short list of candidates. Gaelle and her husband (who is also her business partner) are the only self-made millionaires that anyone seems to be able to identify in Haiti. And they are already very dialed in to power in there: They provide network services for NGOs, corporations and the government. For a set of deeply personal reasons, they have developed a commitment and a plan to help the rural poor transform their lives via entrepreneurship. At the heart of matter are how the people can help themselves. “The darker skinned cast-offs of the brutal colonial history are the kind of people who never, ever break free”, Gaelle says. But her husband did. “We are a black country and it shouldn’t be this way,” Gaelle says of this stereotype. “But it’s true.” And as an educated scientist, she is an outlier among women. “It makes a difference, coming from me.”
So when Gaelle was told in no uncertain terms that she was required to spend at least a year building something that would amplify the work she had already accomplished in Haiti, she jumped at the chance. Kathi Lutton, a litigator in the Silicon Valley firm of Fish & Richardson who has mentored four times thus far, describes the process. “I start talking with them before they come here, and I spend time to learn about their specific business goals,” she says. Then, she helps them build a ‘cabinet’ of people who can help them fine-tune their thinking, or update their plans. “I figure out who in Silicon Valley had done something similar, a parallel thing. We all reach out to our networks, and find out who we can bring to the table.”
This doesn’t appear to be networking in the classical sense of “I know you and you know me” and has nothing to do with exchanging business cards. Instead, it’s about how the net-of-the-work gets done. It’s also personal, and this is the part that is so important to understand. “We spend a lot of time together, observing, sharing, building off of each others’ ideas,” says Kathi. “For me, my network and community are the one and the same.”
I can’t help but be jealous of Manal and Gaelle as I think of this incredible resource, the “board” that Kathi organizes.
But then I think of the challenges these entrepreneurs face. Both Manal and Gaelle bring with them the heavy burden of the issues of their home countries: poverty, illiteracy, war, gender violence, lost generations, systemic corruption. That they can be connected to make a dent – one that only they can make – in their corner of the world is both inspiring and daunting. I learn how they are encouraged to do something of their own invention that is born of their own experience that will make a difference. As you’ll see in their stories in Parts II and III, they start small. They both are taking real risks. But what is common across all the mentees is how they are both filtering their new resources through a point of view and situation that is uniquely their own.
This is what tips them – and the women who succeed in the MPW Mentorship program – in a powerful new direction. While working on a real problem, you need to work with others, those who share our purpose to help us realize our dreams. But first to recognize this fundamental truth: Each of us is standing on a spot in the world only we stand in. It’s a function of our history and experiences, visions and hopes. This is Onlyness. And it’s from THIS spot in the world, this place, that grounds us in our ability to create value. We see things no one else sees, we have ideas no one else has, and with that we bring our own sense of how to dent the world. Today, in the Social Era connected people can do what once only large organizations could. And it starts first by being deeply connected in your Onlyness and then finding others by which to make those ideas powerful enough to dent the world.
Next up: Let Me Change What You See In the Mirror (More on Gaelle …) in Part II of this series.
So readers of Yes * Know… I mentioned to you that while I won’t be blogging Book III, we can share and discuss parallel stories. And – as always – we can learn with, and from each other. (Because, ya know: the future is not created, the future is co-created.) So … how does the Fortune MPW mentee experience match your own: when has it made a difference to you to see other people own their strength? When has being part of a group made you feel more powerful?
Share in the comments and send in questions and topics that you’d like to see explored by writing back to the email you get as a subscriber… You can always stay in conversation here, and on Twitter. Please also find me @nilofer and if you tag any appropriate stories with #onlyness, we have something special in store for you. More on that, soon.