During Black History Month, I’m reflecting on various areas in the Black community and what contributions I could make to improve certain conditions. One concept that is near and dear to me is the idea and implementation of mentorship.
I've only had two professional goals. One is to create significant societal impact, hence the patents, Black Engineer of the Year Legacy Award, and other innovations. The other is to mentor because mentoring has been everything for me.
Certain situations invoke offering/receiving practical guidance. One type of mentorship can take the form of a counselor helping someone who may not have a stable home — and I've been on both sides of that. When I lost my father as a young child to suicide, my mother signed me up for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and my Big Brother and I are still close to this day.
Other mentoring involves crisis prevention situations, such as when a child or person has lost their way and needs someone to help them get back on the right path. We hear about these areas from time to time. However, an area not often discussed is when someone is firing on all cylinders. They're doing everything they're supposed to do, yet they still need a mentor to help them ascend to the next level and/or potentially surpass the mentor themselves.
I believe gone are the days of old-school and misguided logic — that for me as a Black person to help another Black person, you must be better than everyone else, but not better than me. Seriously, who can fly on that thin slice of fiction?
I've run into rising stars at that juncture, and it's heartbreaking to see a Serena of software not get their flowers or a Jordan of finance not being fully supported. The disappointment can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, this happens within our culture more than we would like to acknowledge. I've had a couple of instances where a mentor said I look too young or I'm too visible to advance. It's discouraging, but I never give it more attention than needed to form a new strategy. At this point, changing directions is a must. Staying positive is the North Star until you can plot a new path.
I think about relationships like Steve Jobs, who mentored Mark Zuckerberg, Maya Angelou mentoring Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet’s friendship with Bill Gates, and Father Michael mentoring Mother Teresa. Some people may not know who Father Michael is, however, the entire world has heard of Mother Teresa. What greater reward could Father Michael receive than to see Mother Teresa accomplish so much, and Michael gaining respect for guiding her? Michelle Robinson mentored Barack Obama, and then she became Michelle Obama. How secure and confident she must have been to do that.
As a footnote, I remember what Carla Harris once said in a TEDx about the transition of power and mentorship. She was speaking to sponsors and mentors, stating, "When it comes to power, the more you give away, the more power you gain."
Mentorship is progress; it should be unstoppable, yielding momentum, producing acceleration and success. I charge my protégés to do the same. Do not break the chain.
I remember two Hispanic students whose parents didn't speak English; they came from extremely humble beginnings, yet still excelling. When I met these two young men they were in the ninth grade. I took them to the top of our headquarters at AT&T to our chairman's office, had them stand in that corner suite, look across the city and take pictures. I said to them, I want you to remember this moment; I want you to look through these windows and I want you to stand in this room where billions of dollars of transactions have occurred. The largest mergers in the United States have happened in this room. I need you to look across the horizon and see yourself in this office. I told them I believe in you enough that I should be voting or working for you at some point in my life, and I don't say that to everyone.
Both of those gentlemen graduated high school with 4.0 GPAs, took dual college courses and now have successful finance and supply chain careers. We still stay connected to this day.
The message I still tell them as grown men is to pay it forward right now, give back regularly and never stop climbing. They are barely in their 20s, and they're already mentoring others. I love it!
When I meet rising stars and we build a genuine connection, if I call myself their mentor, I owe it to them to tell them the areas where I believe they should improve. I must truthfully try to help them get to the next level. In our meetings, if they don't ask the right question(s), I'm going to tell them they did not ask the right question and suggest the question they should ask. I tell them to ask it and allow me to give them more information because I don't want them to be confused, misled or stalled in their careers. My goal is to push them to do amazing things. If their journey takes as long as mine, I failed. Period. At a minimum, I could or should have introduced them to people in higher positions than me so they have a chance to ascend higher than myself. If my protégés' careers move slower than my own, then there's something I'm not saying. If they do everything asked of them, then I (or any other committed mentor) have a vested interest in ensuring they see that the process and advice works.