Mentorship Matters

Athena Alum Network
7 min readSep 1, 2021

Benefits, challenges and reflections regarding mentorship

Photo by Heye Jensen on Unsplash

Mentorship relates to guidance or influence in a relationship for professional and/or personal growth. Mentorship offers encouragement during uncertain times. Mentorship provides support when important decisions are in front of you. Two alumnae, Elena Syman ’18 and Catherine Atherton ’18, share their experiences on how they give and receive in mentorship.

As we adapt to mentorship in our new normal of Zoom catch-ups or phone calls rather than in-person meetings over coffee, we hear from two alums who connect on why mentorship is important and how to prioritize it as you continue in your professional development.

On the importance of mentorship — having a Mentor and being a Mentee:

E: As a Mentor, I enjoy giving back. It’s satisfying to guide somebody through something that was complicated or difficult for me, especially knowing how I felt when I was on the other side. As for being a Mentee, the best part is that I have someone I can continuously check in with for guidance and to make sure I am on the right track to attain my goals. It’s an informal support system, kind of like a constant personal sounding board.

C: In my first job after Barnard there were very few female leaders in the company. Due to the lack of female leaders to look up to and learn from, I relied on my female mentors to fill this void. Not only did my mentors teach me how to gain recognition and advocate for myself when surrounded by men, but they also gave me the confidence to address some of the gender biases prevalent in my male dominated field.

As I have moved along in my career and gained a few of my own mentees, I am thrilled to pay back even a sliver of the value that my mentors have given to me. To me this means both being a sounding board for them when they need to unpack an idea or incident, as well as trying my best to offer advice and share learnings gained from my own mistakes and successes.

When do you reach out to Mentors?

E: Speaking to my mentors is always the first place I start when I am making a career change or working toward a specific goal. I find it helpful to run my idea or plan past a variety of my mentors as I begin the process so that I get feedback early and ensure I’m on the right path. For instance, I am beginning to write a note (essentially a long research paper) for my journal at law school. I spoke to one of my mentors who just graduated and wrote a note for the same journal to gain perspective on the note-writing process itself and what subjects are worthy of exploration. Then, I spoke to my old colleagues to hear their thoughts on whether there were any interesting legal issues we faced at work that would be interesting to explore further in my note.

As a Mentee, how do you “give” to your Mentors?

E: This is one of the more challenging issues I have faced as a mentee in a mentor-mentee relationship because of the very fact that as a mentee, I generally have less to reciprocate in terms of knowledge, connections, and advice, etc. To overcome this challenge, I try to offer support in other ways — checking in with my mentor to see how they are doing in their life and work, and to offer help where I can. For example, I have known one of my closest mentors and now friends since she interviewed me for my paralegal job at the NY District Attorney’s Office, and have since followed her to the same law school. While she has been able to share advice since she is ahead of me in her career, it’s harder for me to reciprocate that gesture. So to support her in another way, I sat and worked with her while she studied for the bar exam as a form of moral/mental support.

If I’m seeking a Mentor, where do I start?

E: There are many ways to gain a mentor, whether through a formal mentorship program facilitated by your school or work, through friends of friends, or by being colleagues at work. How you connected with a particular mentor can have implications for how you communicate with them. If I am contacting a mentor from work who is more senior than myself, I will come to them with more developed ideas, research, and questions compared to if I am texting a peer mentor I met through a friend.

C: I think one of the most useful things you can do in your career, particularly early on, is network. Not only should you network within your division and company, but also outside of that, by leveraging the Barnard/Columbia network. If you have a career goal- whether that be to rise in a certain industry, work at a specific company, or take on a type of leadership role, find people on LinkedIn who have achieved these goals and reach out.

While you will not “click” with everyone, and most will not end up becoming formal mentors to you, it is critical to establish connections at places and in roles that align with your goals. When the time comes to look for a new job, these are the people who will refer you, pass along your resume, or maybe even offer you a job.

If you have a positive conversation with someone, always try to end the conversation with some action items or a plan to speak again. This is how you develop the relationship and eventually, in some cases, gain a new mentor/mentee.

Whether you formally refer to someone as your mentor/mentee or not, people who you can learn from and who gladly respond when you call on them to offer advice or guidance, are your mentors. Invest time and energy into these relationships and do not lose them.

How do I build trusting mentorship relationships?

C: Although it is important to establish mentorship relationships, it is just as important to nourish these relationships by keeping in touch with your mentor/mentee regularly. For me, I try to speak to my mentors/mentees at least once a month or every other month- mostly via Zoom, email, or in person.

Whenever I have a career update my mentors are some of the first to know. Other times, I will reach out to ask for some advice whether that is how best to resolve a conflict I am facing, how best to advance in my career or make a pivot, or even how to navigate office politics or work with a difficult team member/manager. Occasionally there will be no update on my end and so I simply “check in” and see what is new for my mentor/mentee. To kick off these conversations, I sometimes like to send over an article that my mentor/mentee may find interesting.

When considering gender dynamics in mentorship:

C: Having a variety of mentors and mentees is critical but first and foremost every women should have at least one female mentor and female mentee. Female mentors are important because they can offer unique advice and a similar perspective as many of the challenges, biases, and obstacles you will face throughout your career will not be the same — in both size and nature- as those faced by men.

On the other hand, I also think it is important to have male mentors because as learned during the Athena program, men advocate for themselves and take on/apply for roles they are underqualified for at much higher rates than their female counterparts. Understand this intrinsic disadvantage and overcome it by learning from the best. Though I have many amazing female mentors, it is my male mentors who push me to ask for a little bit more money or apply for the role that requires 5 more years of experience than I have. As one of my mentors has taught me, “a little ego goes a long way.”

Due to the lack of female representation in leadership positions in certain industries, like the Tech industry that I work in, it is also important to have male mentors and mentees because it is critical that men see and learn from successful, smart, driven women leaders (or aspiring ones).

When considering sponsorships:

C: It is important to have both mentors and sponsors as both play different roles. To me, mentors have been those outside of my direct job who can provide unbiased advice from an outsider’s perspective. While some of these are people that I never worked with but connected with through LinkedIn or mutual connections, a few of my mentors/mentees are people who I used to work with.

Sponsors on the other hand have been former bosses and stakeholders in my current and past roles who have been impressed with my capabilities and therefore chosen me for advancement opportunities or advocated on my behalf. When you continue to work hard, take initiative, and go the extra mile (as I know most Barnard students and alumnae do) people will recognize you for that. But beyond recognition, it is important to always establish yourself as someone who is eager to advance and take on more, someone who is ambitious and goal-oriented. If you do not advocate for yourself, others likely will not either.

Alumnae biographies

Elena Syman is currently in her second year at Columbia Law School. At Columbia, she is Co-President of the Prison Healthcare Initiative and a Staff Editor for the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. After graduating from law school in 2023, she plans to pursue a career in civil rights litigation with a specific focus on criminal justice related issues such as wrongful convictions, police brutality, and discrimination.

Catherine Atheron graduated Barnard in 2018 as a Political Science major and Athena Scholar. She began her career as Chief of Staff to the CEO at capital markets consulting firm, Lab49, and eventually grew to oversee all of pre-sales and financial reporting as Global Head of Operations. Recently, Catherine pivoted to the tech sector, taking on a Sales Strategy & Operations role at DoorDash.

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