January is National Mentoring Month! There is a significant mentoring gap in the United States – 9 million young people are growing up without a mentor. Having a mentor is important. Young people who grow up with a mentor are less likely to cut school and more likely to enroll in college, as well as participate in – and lead – extracurricular activities. Mentoring has a very real impact on both mentees and mentors, and it’s a special relationship. But it can be intimidating to get started.
Recently, we asked Myra Nawabi, a senior product engineer at Lockheed Martin and a Technovation mentor since 2014, to share her advice for new mentors. In Technovation, mentors support teams of young women as they identify a problem in their community and develop a mobile-app solution to solve that problem. For most girls, Technovation is their first exposure to programming and computer science, and many mentors feel pressure to be experts in computer science to best support their team. However, Technovation mentors don’t have to be experts in the field they’re mentoring in – mentoring is about bolstering confidence and being a sounding board, not having every single technical answer your mentee might have.
Hear what being a mentor means to Myra, how it differed from her initial expectations, and why she feels grateful to work with young women taking their first steps in tech.
A mentor’s role isn’t that of a technical resource for girls to consult, it’s one of support and encouragement. Whether you are a first-time mentor, or a long-time one, Myra’s “4 C’s” of being a mentor can guide you to become a great one:
As a mentor to a young person, you want to be someone they can talk to. Practice your empathy and active listening as you hear from your mentees about their struggles with a project, school experience, or teammates. When students are struggling, encourage them by sharing how you overcame something difficult in your career or personal life.
As a mentor, you might be one of the first adults apart from your mentee’s parents to fully express your belief in their abilities. Your confidence in your mentee’s abilities to tackle big challenges is key. When your mentee gets stuck on a problem, has difficulty completing an assignment, or is anxious about facing a new challenge (be it a coding competition or a job interview), you can provide immense value by telling them you believe in them, you support them, and you know they are capable of meeting the challenge head-on.
As a mentor, you’re going to learn a lot from your mentee, too – 47% of Technovation mentors develop stronger leadership skills and confidence in leading a team – and it’s helpful to see yourself not only as a source of technical or entrepreneurial advice, but as an active collaborator. The two (or more!) of you are working together to solve problems, learn new things, and explore new subjects. You’re learning too, and by modeling that learning for your mentee, you’re showing that it’s okay to not know everything, that learning is a lifelong project, and that not immediately having the right answer isn’t a barrier to success.
You have expertise, even if it’s not a 1:1 match with the projects your mentee is working on, and you can bring both that expertise and your experience to bear on the problems they’re facing. Offer guidance and support, and help pick your mentees back up when they stumble. Encourage them and give your best analysis of a tricky problem, and offer feedback on how they choose to solve that problem. Myra reminded us that as a mentor “you don’t do the work. Your job is to be part of their journey.” Help your mentees get comfortable with making mistakes and with directing their own learning and chasing their curiosity .
Myra’s mentor breakdown applies far beyond Technovation. Believing in your mentee and expressing confidence in them is what it’s about – not doing work for your mentee or solving their problems. It’s being someone they can turn to to talk through those problems, get new perspective from, and trust with their thoughts and fears.
Mentoring.org offers some great resources for new mentors, including questions to ask yourself to help you identify the best mentoring opportunity for you (and your potential mentee).