A Different Tipping Point (1 of 3)

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.)

Jessica Alba Coaching Mentee at Fortune MPW Conference

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.


BlogIcon_Right copySo 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.



14 Replies

  1. As always, Nilofer, your essay is thought-provoking in many ways. I always take away at least one snippet that sticks with me. This time, the idea of “The Internet of Work,” rather than “The Internet of Things” is quite compelling. The internet of work is how things really get done. It is the intricate and interconnected spiderweb that moves us forward. It is how we build our community.

    One thing I wonder about – and maybe you can address at some point – is the difference between building a community digitally versus in-person. Is a digital community as powerful as a face-to-face, smile, laugh, cry community? Part of me thinks not. Part of me thinks that to build an effective and powerful community, face-to-face is critical. However, it is our digital community that let’s us keep up with each other, to hear about what other’s are doing and what they need, and to participate more rapidly.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on digital community versus face-to-face community, and the effects of each on power, connectedness, and onlyness. Till next time!

    1. Val – I wonder if it’s one of those situations where both need to be true. I love the digital communities because one can learn a lot about someones ideas and where they might fit with yours or perhaps be inspired by them or simply learn a new perspective. That is low bandwidth on all sides, right? I mean, relatively low bandwidth because it does take work to create content and especially well considered content. But then there’s the moment of meeting where something else happens. A kind of chemistry is needed. Even when I think of how you and I know each other. You said you had read of my work before meeting me but it was the chance moment in a hallway after a talk that let us talk more and build ontopofeachothers ideas in a kind of fun and fluid way. Not as easy to do online. So each serves. Thoughts?

      1. Yes, I agree with you. I think that each serves a purpose. I’m thinking about the power of one over the other. As you say, digital community is low bandwidth and rapid. In-person community is magic and chemistry. This is very thought-provoking. Each type of community has its place. But what place does each one serve? These questions come to mind for me:

        – When is digital community more powerful and more appropriate?
        – When is in-person community more powerful and more appropriate?
        – Are we replacing one with the other? And, if so, what happens when we mis-use either one or both?
        – What are the rules of each – limitations and boundaries, acceptable interactions, and so on?

        I think that community is perhaps this most critical component of power. And I think there are real differences between in-person community and digital digital community. I think that perhaps the lines are starting to blur – sometimes appropriately and with success, other times, not so much. I will be pondering this for a while now!

  2. Brilliant thought Nilofer,you simplify an idea which looks complex from a distance.The beauty about shadowing when the two parties want to give it their best shot is that it’s always magical. “If you want to get ahead, get yourself a mentor…”

  3. Nilofer- I first heard you speak at the GODF 2014 as a Peter Drucker Challenge finalist and very much enjoyed your contributions.

    I think your deduction regarding the community aspect of mentoring is spot on. When I was 16 I work shadowed a female VP at a global investment bank in London, this was my first experience of ‘big business’; and although learning a lot about the industry something that stuck with me was a personal anecdote she shared with me about her late father, her career and her personal life. After only a week of knowing me I was struck by her honesty. This has lead me to believe that often mentorship or just inspiring experiences are given unbeknown to the person viewed as the mentor.

    Now, at the age of 20 I’m approaching the start of my career and would love to have a mentor, yet I find is often somewhat hard to find. There are individual lecturers for example at university who I consider to be inspirational but how in reality does this person become a mentor? Do you approach them or wait for things to run their course? Does your mentor have to be someone local to you or is it more about getting out there and getting as much experience as you can, even if this is only for short periods? You talked about the how structured mentorship programs have not come to fruition and I think this, particularly at my university level, is a real shame. I would love to hear your thoughts

    1. Olivia, thanks for jumping into this conversation!

      I think your question is so interesting because finding a mentor reminds me of that awkward feeling…like asking for a date or something, isn’t it?

      Some things I’ve seen that work.
      1. After you identity some areas you’re interested in learning, identify at least one person in that space. Subscribe to their blogs, writings, etc. Follow them on Twitter etc. You can learn a LOT if you pay attention. This puts the onus on you to figure out if you’re interested in personal life balance or social entrepreneurship or whatever. But doing this homework is your work to do.

      2. Almost anyone can get a meeting if they take the right approach. For example, if you had reached out to me right before Drucker, I would have said yes to joining you for a lunch, a walk, or similar. The people you want to learn from go to conferences, like SXSW or TED or whatever. Go there. And before time, write a considered note. Use the content you got from step 1. Show you’ve done your homework. And then just ask. I used to do these as walking meetings in Los Gatos and people still fly in from around ht eworld for meetings with me. If you are willing to make an effort, you can get appts. One thing you could think of is what you could do for tha tperson “in return”. I learn a lot from people who reverse mentor me. One of the favorite people in my life now is someone I met because she was mentoring me on social tools and I on managing people.

      3. I don’t think you need “just” 1 mentor. Quite often you can think of a multitude of people to inform you. It puts a lot of onus for someone to feel they’ve signed up to be “the one” when in reality, you want to learn some things from some people.

      Any of that help?

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  5. empowering mentorship experiences…awesome, thought-provoking, and for me very timely and inspirational. Can’t wait for the next one…Let me change what you see in the mirror. I need that one for sure.

    1. I hope you’ll sign up and subscribe so you’ll get it in your inbox (if you haven’t already) and if you be thinking of the question — what is it that gives you power? I have a reason I’m asking. More to come on that…

    1. Kristen –

      If I had to draw this, I’d draw this as circles, overlapping. Kathi (in the story) says her networks and her community are one and the same. I’m probably more inclined to think of this as multiple circles. My professional network on LI for example, is quite different than the network I’ve got on Twitter, and different even from my personal rolodex of who I can reach out to and so on. The community is an overlay on top of networks, created by those who have SIMILAR or SHARED interests. Let’s take a specific to play this out: on the topic of women interested in changing the ratio of women included in tech, this is an overlay COMMUNITY to my networks. The people I know interested in this shared ideal is made up of people I’ve met in a variety of ways and in different networks.

      Back when I wrote social era, I referenced that networks and community exist in many forms: Communities of PROXIMITY, where participants share a geographic location (Craigslist is an example but co-working locations are another) will allow people to organize work differently. Communities of PASSION who share a common interest (photography, or food, or books) can inform new product lines. Communities of PURPOSE will willingly share a common task to build something (like Wikipedia) that will carry your brand and its offer to another level. Communities of PRACTICE, where they share a common career or field of business, will extend your offer because it extends their expertise (like McAfee mavens). Communities of PROVIDENCE that allow people to discover connections with others (as in Facebook) and thus enable the sharing of information, products and ideas.

      In reality, it’s easy to conflate the terms of networks and communities. They CAN be one and the same. But we can also mark the difference to say networks are the nodes, and communities are the ones where we have heart. That’s what I’ve done with my own thinking over the years. So, what are YOUR thoughts?

  6. Hi Nilofer! love your post and your work. Your post ends by suggesting to subscribe. Where do i subscribe? Your post is about women getting/searching for mentorship, right? I play with the idea of doing something with power women in fintech to do reversementorship. But don’t want to create a “power women ghetto” as i believe in inclusion. Any tips ?

    1. Peter –

      At the very top of the website, is a little “enlist” button. You can tell I’m having fun with the design instead of saying “subscribe”. Just to help, I went ahead and subscribed you and you’ll get a confirmation note shortly.

      I think your question is an interesting one. Why not ask the community of people you’re thinking of including what is the best way to do this? And perhaps it’s less about having women get mentored as much as building a mentoring program that includes 50% women. Might be more the model that works for the long run.

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