My first mentor was only a year older than me. I didn’t pick her; we were matched. The compatible traits: We both went to women’s colleges, we both were accepted to a highly competitive journalism program at a major news organization, and we’re both women of color. I’ll admit that mentorship had to be sold to me — not just then, but several times. In high school, I yearned for an adviser, but that was a pipe dream. I was one of the few Black girls at a mostly white prep school, so older, wiser mentors with advice for coping with the experience were nonexistent. Having no one to reach out to made me harder; it taught me to look inward for answers. I lived like that for a very long time. But it was during graduate school that I started to feel lost. I wanted someone to anchor me. I wanted advice, but professors were uninterested in mentorship — at least with me. It wasn’t until my first job that I was finally matched with Janelle, who continues to be my mentor almost four years later. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with her. At the time, I felt insulted. I’d been used to going it alone for so long that I couldn’t see any benefit in getting advice from someone else. Looking back, I wish I’d been better equipped for mentorship and had a better understanding of how a mentor could help me grow. But Janelle is a genius, and she's guided me through some of my most difficult challenges in the workforce, including the decision to leave a job in TV to work in the digital world. Thanks to her perseverance, I softened, learned to trust her, and eventually sought out other mentors as my career flourished.
To have a Black woman mentor me means that she can guide me through that experience — the experience of being the only brown girl in the room.
But here’s a harsh reality: My story isn’t special. Historically, research has shown that women have a tougher time finding mentors. A recent study showed that college professors are more likely to mentor white men than anyone else (shocking, I know). But it’s especially difficult to find a mentor when you’re a woman of color. To be clear, there are countless organizations, such as the Black Women’s Career Network, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and even Black Girls Rock, who cater to young women of color. As a journalist, I know that the National Association of Black Journalists is an excellent resource for connecting young journalists of color to mentors, just as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Asian American Journalists Association is for other people of color.
But these aren’t organic experiences in the workplace. They only happen for people who take the initiative to seek out outside advice.
For many Black women, the only way to find a Black professional to mentor you is by looking outward. You network by word of mouth, through relatives and friends. Or you turn to organizations to build community. It’s there you find your role models and see other women who look like you in leadership positions. But the truth is, women of color don’t have to be mentored by other people of color. Not even by other women. Personally, I have no problem also being mentored by white men or women. As a matter of fact, I’ve found that having additional mentors who are different from you is a great way to gain a new perspective in your career. But I still want someone who looks like me. Unfortunately, the higher you climb, the harder it is to find Black women in charge. The Center for American Progress found that only 5.3% of management positions are held by Black women. Among S&P 500 CEOs, there are only 23 women. Just one of them is Black — and she’s getting ready to step down. To have a Black woman mentor me means that she can guide me through the experience of being the only brown girl in the room. It’s an experience I’ve become very familiar with over the years, dating all the way back to prep school. But it’s still lonely, and sometimes it’s even confidence-shattering. It’s an experience I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable with. But success means breaking out of my comfort zone. As I’ve slowly grown more successful, I find myself in a whiter world, with fewer people who look like me. For me, having a mentor who is a woman of color is my safety net. She’s my confidant, my advisor, my anchor. And she always reminds me that by having these conversations with people of all races, I’m using my diversity as a strength. But there’s still that nagging question in the back of my mind: How long can it last? One day, I will be close to reaching the top of the ladder. Will there be any Black women there to help hoist me up?