It was the beginning of March, and we had finished hosting our annual Locelle Presents: International Women’s Day event in Victoria, British Columbia. We had invited leaders for an inspiring panel discussion on breaking gender stereotypes. This engaging event connected our community in meaningful ways, and attendees, nearly 100 of them, were buzzing with takeaways and ideas.
Days after the event, we were on lockdown — the COVID-19 pandemic had hit the world. Amid the chaos and uncertainty, it became clear that women needed guidance, they needed the support to not only navigate “the new normal,” but to cope with the struggles of maintaining some semblance of work-life balance. The new pressures of simply “being a woman in the workplace” were too much.
We pivoted quickly and began hosting our events online to create a space where women could come together and share their stories, challenges, concerns, and coping strategies. I remember quite vividly when a woman leader shared how she had developed never-ending anxiety while trying to stay productive from her kitchen island as she led a team, homeschooled her children, and kept checking in on her older parents whom she couldn’t visit. She was overwhelmed, to say the least.
When McKinsey Global Institute released its report on the regressive effects of COVID-19 on gender equality, it resonated with me as a working mom and echoed the voices of our community members. It was clear as day that the COVID19 pandemic was affecting women disproportionately.
As the CEO and leader of a tech company that is dedicated to helping women advance in the workplace, I knew I had to move quickly. I made the decision to build out a program that would help professional women bounce back from this career-crushing pandemic.
For two years, I had focused on building a brand for Locelle around networking – for meaningful connections, support, friendship, and peer-peer mentorship. While we had had success bringing communities of women together across the globe, we knew it wasn’t enough to actually help guide and support them through a pandemic — so we sent out a survey to our community, and the results were astounding. Our survey revealed that 85% of women were looking to find a mentor and over 30% wanted to become a mentor. This was it! This was the data we needed to make an impact during this crisis.
When building a program that aims to provide value to your customers or members, like a mentorship program, the challenge is to make it critical yet customizable in a thoughtful and relevant way. The mentorship programs I’d been a part of in the past had led to disappointment, from poor mentor pairing to scheduling roadblocks — and by drawing on my own experience, I was able to identify the areas of improvement in these programs.
In true startup style, I put together a team, planned, designed and implemented a fully-managed mentorship program — all in one month. We started matching women who wanted to find a mentor with industry leaders who had successfully navigated their careers into leadership. To make this work, we wanted to manage the pre-screening, matching, scheduling, and feedback loop. We knew this would take a lot of heavy lifting, but we were ready to take a risk that would see us stumble, learn and grow along the way.
Here are 3 things I learned about mentorship that I want you to know:
- It needs to be more accessible. Organizations that offer these programs must recognize that mentorship needs to be democratized so that people who need it the most can actually access it, rather than have it only be available through the biased identification of top talent.
- It needs to be intersectional. When designing a mentorship program to advance women, we need to take an intersectional approach. We need a diverse team of mentors and a commitment to inclusion at every step.
- Women leaders want to give back. When I reached out to see if the amazing women in my network could help me with this mission and donate their time as mentors to this important social-impact cause during this crisis, they all responded with an emphatic “YES!”
The moment we realized that this idea resonated with the industry was when companies started signing up entire teams for our mentorship program. The tech industry needs this, and we know this because, since we launched, from VPs of big banks and senior engineers to women starting out in their careers across all industries, every woman who has joined has stuck around.
In a recent roundtable discussion, many shared their mentorship stories. I knew we were onto something profound and influential when one of our esteemed mentors described mentorship like this:
“What mentorship means to me is listening. ‘Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.’ I learned that generic advice does not work. I aspire to ask the right question at the right time and guide [the mentee] to the answer they know is within them,” said Jama Temirova, serial entrepreneur and Innovation & Scale Executive.
As more women step into leadership after gaining access to powerful mentors in our program, here are the 3 ways that women in the workplace will benefit the most from mentorship:
- When done right, mentorship can help women navigate challenges they are facing in the workplace and better leverage opportunities in the workplace.
- Relevance is key when matching mentees with mentors. Through knowledge sharing and the exchange of relevant experiences, women can be empowered to make decisions that will help them grow.
- Since there isn’t a single playbook on how to step into leadership for women at work, having easier access to role models (specially women in leadership) can be life-changing.
In the words of a gender-equity pioneer, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” We’re on a mission to ensure women can confidently step into places where decisions are being made. And, we won’t stop there. We’ll drive forward, not only by helping women build resilience during times of crisis, but by facilitating access to actionable guidance that’ll keep them in these places where decisions are being made as they advance in their careers.
Humaira Ahmed is the Founder & CEO of Locelle Digital.