‘Your voice is valuable, speak up’: The power of mentorship

  • Women’s Power League of Alaska founder Kim Waller traveled to New York City earlier this year to accept a Gracie Award for Women’s Programming in Media.

Women engaged in mentorship programs experience greater confidence, make more networking connections and receive increased guidance when navigating their careers.

When Kim Waller walks into a room, people notice. She exudes charisma, and once she starts starts speaking, especially about issues she cares about, it’s easy to see why she recently received a Gracie award for her radio show Power on the Block. But appearances don’t always match how we feel, especially during our teenage and young adult years.  

“When I was a young woman, most people would have said I was outgoing and confident,” says Waller, founder of the Women’s Power League of Alaska, or WPLAK. “But the truth is, I had low self-esteem and low self-confidence. Fortunately, there were people around me — my mentors — who saw I needed direction, and they stepped up and helped me. Looking back, my life could have taken a very different path if I hadn’t had them helping me.”

Years later, Waller is returning the favor. She moved back to Anchorage in 2018 after a career in media for MTV Networks and iHeartMedia in New York City to launch WPLAK, which includes a mentorship program specifically designed for women in their 20s. Demand to participate quickly outstripped the number of available mentors, and Waller is looking forward to growing the program when applications for the next cohort open.

“In my 20s, I needed guidance — both personally and professionally. It’s a crucial time in a woman’s life: we’re thinking about our careers, relationships, family planning. It’s a lot, and the choices we make impact our future,” Waller said. “At that time, I needed people to believe in me more than I believed in myself, and they did. That’s when I really learned the power of mentorship.”

While there is momentum to change attitudes on these topics — organizations like Lean In are doing valuable research focusing on women at work and the #MeToo movement is shedding light on widespread harassment — social pressures still prevail. Mentorship can play an important role in overcoming challenges.

Women make up approximately half of Alaska’s workforce, driving a significant portion of the state's economic activity. Despite possessing equivalent hard skills like computer programming, accounting, or technical writing to their male counterparts, women often face social challenges and workplace biases that men do not.

These range from wage disparity (Alaskan women earn 72 percent of what men make on average) to balancing caretaking and household activities with professional duties, and more.

Mentorship and female entrepreneurs

Katherine Jernstrom, founder of Anchorage-based coworking space The Boardroom, says that reaching out to mentors was invaluable as a young entrepreneur, especially when she was launching her business.

“I started out doing customer discovery to test the idea (of The Boardroom) by asking smart people around me for their advice and feedback. Some of them became my mentors and I still speak to them regularly,” Jernstrom said.

Entrepreneurs with mentors are five times more likely to start a business and keep that business. According to Youth Business International, three-quarters of young entrepreneurs participating in mentorship programs felt they had stronger decision-making skills and felt more confident in running their businesses through the support of their mentors.

Women entrepreneurs in particular experience greater success when they have a mentor; 75 percent of women business owners report positive business outcomes resulting from engaging in a mentorship relationship, 2 percent point higher than male business owners.

This is not a phenomenon isolated to young entrepreneurs. Women at all stages of their career benefit from mentorship, as both a mentee and a mentor.

Jernstrom says that as her career progresses she continues to turn to her mentors for guidance. She says that one of the most important aspects of a mentor/mentee relationship is trust and mutual respect.

“You have to be able to lay your cards on the table and not feel judged or worry that someone is going to think you’re being silly,” Jernstrom said. “I know my mentor cares about my success and well-being, and that makes me comfortable being vulnerable when we dive into the nitty-gritty of what I’m working on.”

As Jernstrom’s reputation as a successful entrepreneur and savvy business person grows, people often seek her out for advice, giving her the opportunity to step into the mentor role. She says women tend to be more timid in terms of addressing business challenges, whereas men are more apt to meet them head-on.

“A lot of mentoring women is coaching them to sit at the table, and telling them, ‘Don’t be shy, don’t back down. Your voice is valuable, speak up,’” Jernstrom said.

Becoming a mentor or mentee

Mentorship is almost universally considered critical to career success, regardless of gender. For those looking to engage in mentorship, First Round studied 100 mentor-mentee matches, and identified the following ground rules:

  1. Kick off relationships around distinct problems or challenges.
  2. Build in off ramps.
  3. Create a schedule — but keep it loose.
  4. Measure progress in every meeting.
  5. Carve out time to exchange goals.

Mentoring doesn’t always need to be a formal relationship. It might last for just a few moments or span years; the common thread is the knowledge and experience that is transferred from mentor to mentee and vice versa.

Waller says that mentorship can take the form of an uplifting conversation, an email of encouragement, or a relationship that spans years, and that she has grown just as much as a mentor as when she is a mentee.

“When I’m mentoring someone, I’m mentoring myself as well — we may not think we know as much as we do until we sit down and start talking to someone who hasn’t walked in our shoes,” Waller said.

Jernstrom is often invited to coffee to help a fellow entrepreneur vet ideas or work through a problem and considers it a form of informal or peer mentorship. She too says she benefits just as much as the invitee.

“I learn a lot from other entrepreneurs, even if they’re the ones who asked me for advice,” Jernstrom said. “New perspectives are so valuable.”

Regardless of the form it takes, mentorship is powerful.

“Mentorship makes a difference,” says Waller. “We don’t do anything alone. There have been many hands in my success, and if I can help someone else achieve their dreams, then that is the true measure of success.”

Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

10/21/2019 - 4:23pm