Monday, July 25, 2011

Mentorship On Both Sides of the Gender Coin

When I was in college, my women's history professor gave us an assignment to interview and write a paper on our female mentor--a professional woman that we looked up to. My college advisor was a man, my best friend--while older than me and working outside the home--didn't consider herself a professional, so my mother was the default. Actually, my mother was my first choice, but I had to present the argument that she had no choice but to be interviewed by me for this paper. My mother owned a business--what they call in Ohio a "truck farm" for its rural and agricultural wares--and she operated it out of her home. When people ask me how long I've been in customer service, I have to count back to when I was thirteen, for I was helping her customers at that age.

A "truck farm" is one that sells bedding plants, fruits, vegetables, and sometimes livestock or livestock products (such as eggs) to customers right on site, instead of providing it to retailer. A business of this nature often requires devotion of long hours, of being available to customers outside of posted business hours, and easily detracts from challenges in weather, road conditions, etc. My mother's decision to start this business was not only seen by others as a challenge, but at times she was considered to be slightly crazy, since she started it when she was forty years old.

I knew very little about the nuances behind her decision when she started the business, but by interviewing her and writing that paper, I learned so much that I don't think she would have shared with me otherwise. Since that paper I've graduated college, she became ill with cancer and passed away in 2002, but I've taken a lot of factors of her decision into play when I decided to leave Grainger and set out to find another position. Recently, on a trip to southern California to visit my brother, I caught an article in The New Yorker that reminded me of what my mother shared, an article about Sheryl Sandberg's transition from Google to Facebook, and how women are viewed as leaders in the Silicon Valley. In the article reporter Ken Auletta talks about privilege, challenges, and power in Sandberg's inspiration to move up within the ranks in Silicon Valley. I was struck and delighted by Sandberg's approach to new opportunities in her career and the careers of women in the Bay Area--how most women had a "hangup" about the word "power," and the drive that makes men "bang down the door for new assignments...the next thing that stretches them," while women have to be "talked into it." She talked about the challenges of having a male mentor and what that mentorship looks like to colleagues in her field. Her "aha" moments in her career path reminded me of my mother's challenges and in mine in working on projects that I passionate about. It was re-affirmation of what I feel I can offer to customers and to employees.

And it was a gentle reminder of the strong mentor I hope to be one day, to men or women.

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