For women in tech's male culture, mentoring matters

Commentary: Melinda Gates credits her high school math teacher with her career strategy of finding mentors who are coaches instead of cheering sections.

Melinda Gates Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates is a businesswoman and philanthropist. She is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Melinda Gates
9 min read

A couple months ago, I came across a study on the value of mentorship -- it said that for women in STEM, mentors work like "social vaccines."

The research showed that women engineering undergraduates paired with a female mentor were less anxious and less likely to drop out of their courses. They were more motivated and more self-assured -- and, crucially, more likely to look for engineering jobs after graduation.

As a woman in tech, I've seen the difference mentors have made in my own life. And as someone who cares a lot about changing tech's male-dominated culture, I want to know: How can we encourage mentoring for the next generation of industry leaders?

So I was excited to chat with Caroline Ghosn, founder and CEO of Levo, a company that connects millennials with the resources they need to excel in the workplace. We talked about the mentors who have helped us along the way and the role mentors might play in setting up the next generation for success.

Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through her work at the foundation, she has seen firsthand that empowering women and girls can improve the health and prosperity of families, communities and societies. 

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Prashant Panjiar  

Ghosn: Do you have mentors? How did you find them? 

Gates: For me, it all started with my high school math teacher, Susan Bauer. She convinced the nuns in charge of my all-girls school to build us a computer lab so she could teach us how to code. She could tell computers were going to transform society in our lifetimes, and she wanted us to be a part of that. There weren't a lot of people focused on getting girls coding back in those days -- and I'm so lucky that Ms. Bauer happened to teach in my high school.

When I got older, I got more intentional about seeking out mentors myself. At Microsoft, I tried to surround myself with managers I really respected and wanted to work for. They taught me not only how to succeed in tech, but how to be the kind of person who empowered others to succeed as well -- how to make people feel supported enough that they're willing to take risks.

Gates: What is the best career advice you received from a role model?

Ghosn: You thrive in your career when you thrive with yourself. This entire journey comes down to your relationship with the true you: What are you here to do? What gives you joy? How do you apply your gifts to this mission?"

It is easy, especially early in your career when you are focused on learning your core professional "tool kit," to focus on the how. We see this all of the time with the members who fit our "starter" archetype at Levo. How do I write a resume? How do I manage someone? Often, once they have the basics down they begin to face what we have lovingly coined the Quarter Life Crisis -- this is a crisis of why. "Wait, why did I learn how to do all of these things? Am I on the right path? What is my purpose?"

I have shifted radically as a person and increased my level of happiness tenfold in turning towards my why and going through the exercise of creating and completing my personal mission statement. When you know why you are here, what you should be doing becomes clear, and how to do it becomes a joyful exercise in continually strengthening your unique gifts. I could not overemphasize the importance of approaching this exercise early and often in one's journey.

Ghosn: How have your mentors guided you to where you are today?

Gates: In my experience, the best mentors aren't just cheerleaders -- they're coaches. They encourage you, but they also teach you how to think strategically about how to set yourself up for success. I loved that my managers at Microsoft helped me get on projects that would give me the skills I needed to advance. They acted like sponsors -- they were always thinking about the next step and made sure I was, too. That's what I try to do for the young people I mentor as well.

And one other thing I'd say? The most important mentoring I've had in my life hasn't always been formal. There are rarely moments where you officially declare someone your mentor and go schedule advice-getting time in your calendar. It's really just about developing relationships with individuals who you admire and can relate to.

Caroline Ghosn

Caroline Ghosn is the founder and CEO of Levo, a professional network dedicated to helping millennials navigate the workplace.

Courtesy of Levo

Gates: What can we do to inspire and empower the next generation of women?

Ghosn: There is so much that we need to do and the time is now.

Millennial women are at the frontier of a new era in history -- not only do we belong to the largest generation that has ever been in the workforce (according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, millennials will be 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025, an unprecedented talent domination by one generation), we are the first generation of women who graduated from college at the same rate as our male peers. While that is positive momentum, it means an unprecedented flood of talented individuals is coming up against long-standing barriers, both implicit and explicit, that mean to slow them down. The time to acknowledge and overcome remaining barriers is now. The opportunity to flood the zone with fresh insight, inspiration and progress is now.

On the one hand, you can't be what you can't see. The power of storytelling -- of elevating the voices and examples of incredible leaders who have overcome odd after odd -- remains absolute. This is especially important in an environment or industry where you have a low percentage of female leadership; stories allow you to democratize success by scaling the path of one into learning and inspiration for many. This is why we at Levo focus on this at every level, from Office Hours mentorship with titans to highlighting Local Levo member stories.

On the other hand, inspiration without continuation can be insufficient. We need to foster connection between women -- long-standing, organic, sustaining relationships. This creates an echo chamber where learning and encouragement can be mirrored, reinforced and amplified. Anything that we can do to connect women with peers who are facing the same challenges gives them the support and connective tissue to fall back on when they are in doubt, feeling disoriented or just in need of a reminder that they are not alone. Speaking personally, as a first-time female founder, I would not be where I am today without an incredible network of fellow founders who have shared their challenges, advice and hacks with me. The power of the peer is critical. On Levo, we see members connect with each other 1-to-1, form groups based on industry or life stage and even convene in person multiple times a month in 30 cities around the world via Local Levo. The more pathways to connection we can create, the stronger the pipeline will remain.

Ghosn: What do we need to do with millennials and Gen Z now to build future leaders?

Gates: If we want a large and diverse group of leaders tomorrow, we need to create more pathways into tech today.

Right now we expect everyone who's interested in tech to follow one specific path. It's an old, singular trajectory where you get exposed to science or tech when you're young, you get excited about tech in high school, you enroll in AP classes so you're ready for intro classes in college, you start your second year curriculum on time and graduate in four years and go get your fancy job. That path is great for some people -- most of whom happen to be white and male -- but it shouldn't be the only way in. We're finally starting to recognize that not everyone gets interested in tech at the same point or in the same way. We also need to be creating pathways for the people who get interested in computing in other contexts and other times of their lives, many of whom are women and underrepresented minorities. If we can we give them alternate pathways into these fields -- through extracurricular programs showing kids how tech can solve problems in their communities, for example, or programs that help community college students move toward advanced degrees and into the industry -- I think we'll see a huge crop of young, diverse leaders in tech start to emerge.

Of course, it's not enough just to make sure more people are getting bitten by the tech bug. We also need to encourage people to stick with it. I know from experience that when you're the only woman in the room, it can sometimes feel like you're in the wrong room. So it can be helpful to have a mentor who's been there herself and can assure you that in fact, no one belongs there more than you do.  

Gates: What makes a successful program?

Ghosn: Millennials are craving employer-provided mentors or resources for career growth, but few of them are lucky enough to benefit from them. In our Levo Institute Workplace Happiness and Expectations Survey, we found that 78 percent of millennials are without employer-provided mentors or resources for career growth (Levo Institute, 2017). When paired with the right pedagogical path, these programs have tremendous potential.

Given this hunger, it is critical that companies evaluate the learning and connection resources they are providing their talent and base the development or provision of this benefit on the right insights about what their people want. We believe in this so strongly that we work with the most innovative companies in the world to bring this to life for their next generation of leaders.

Ghosn: What's the hardest question you've ever had to answer as a mentor?

Gates: One of the challenges I think a lot of mentors for women in tech struggle with -- me included -- is being up-front about the challenges women in tech face, while also encouraging young women to follow their dreams. If tech is your passion and where you think you can have the greatest impact, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

My strategy is to be as honest as possible. I often talk about how I almost left Microsoft. It was a very masculine culture, and for a while I tried to mimic that. I was more aggressive and competitive than I was comfortable with, and frankly, I just didn't feel like myself. But then, I made a bargain with myself. I said, You can leave, but before you do, just try your own, natural style. It worked, and I found a way to thrive in an environment that didn't cater to people like me.

I don't want to gloss over how hard it could be sometimes, but I'm grateful every day that I stayed with it. The reward was a chance to spend years doing work that challenged and excited me, alongside incredible people who have become lifelong friends. I want talented young women to hear that part of the story, too.

Gates: What should women do if they can't find a role model at work?

Ghosn: Fear not! Technology can play an incredibly powerful role here.


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As we addressed above, technology can allow us to scale mentorship such that the leaders and role models who do exist can impact a much larger group of willing recipients of their insights. I would encourage women to think about leaders in different fields or companies who they can draw parallels with. For example, I am constantly studying the lives and lessons of leaders in fields outside of technology, from the arts to politics. There is always something to learn.

The other thing that is important to remember in this context is that connective tissue -- the power of connection with peers in your company or field that we talked about earlier -- becomes even more important to your success and support equation when you are in an environment where leaders don't look like you. This can act as an important counter-lever to potentially feeling isolated or "different" from the model of success you may be seeing.

Remember, you are not alone in your career. If you ever start to feel like that, it's time to reinforce one or both components of the support and inspiration formula, from learning to connection.

Melinda Gates is a businesswoman and philanthropist. She is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Caroline Ghosn is an entrepreneur who founded and is the current CEO of Levo, a professional network dedicated to helping millennials navigate the workplace.

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