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Don’t Go It Alone

Like many successful diverse women, you’ve always been a self-directed go-getter, pushing your way up the ladder through the power of your intelligence, personality and ambition. Over the years you’ve adopted the attitude, “It’s all on me. I can get it done myself.”

Perhaps, but chances are, you can rise further and more smoothly, if you have a mentor. Today, there is a new paradigm of mentoring, that’s demonstrating that it “takes a mentoring culture” and multiple mentors to help multicultural women  grow into successful CEOs, leaders, and business owners.

Although empirical evidence is still sparse, the anecdotal evidence that mentoring benefits women of color is overwhelming.

Take, for example, Stacy Blake-Beard, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at Simmons College in Boston. Her career path has been informed by her experiences as both a mentor and a protégée.

In the late 1980s, when she was in graduate school, she was inspired by David Thomas, then a young scholar at the Wharton School of Business whose pioneering work focused on race and mentoring. She also developed a rapport with Faye Crosby, a social psychologist at Smith College.

“I felt so much more powerful having two very different people who acted as mentors and supported me,” she recalls.

From Thomas, she learned, “Do what you want to do—what you care about has to be the defining factor—but do it strategically.”

With Crosby, she gained an important role model. “Here I was in graduate school, where they tell you to focus on work only, and I had this woman modeling how to have a family and be a fine scholar at the same time.”

Blake-Beard, now one of only a few U.S. scholars focusing research on mentoring at the intersection of race and gender, believes mentoring has specific functions for women of color.

“We need people who are willing to see out in front of us, to expend their social capital to help us move ahead,” she explains. “If you’re different from those around you, having access to someone who can pave the way and help you avoid potholes is critical. It’s helpful for women of color to have a mentor who can ‘translate’ for us, answering questions like ‘How do things work around here?’”

Developing a ‘mentoring culture’

For years, the business world has widely embraced mentoring. After all, there are sound reasons for it.  “We already see the connections between mentoring and increased commitment to organizations, higher career satisfaction, more promotions, and higher salaries for women of color,” says Blake-Beard.

While most companies will encourage their employees to seek out a mentor, that may not be enough. Lois J. Zachary, Ph.D., president of Phoenix-based Leadership Development Services, LLC, and best selling author of The Mentor’s Guide, and Creating a Mentoring Culture: The Organization’s Guide, contends that the most important challenge today for organizations is to create a “mentoring culture.” In brief, this is a mindset and practice in which a company deliberately and continuously focuses on fostering mentoring relationships and opportunities within the organization. “Mentoring programs come and go; there’s a lack of sustainability there. But a mentoring culture will be supported and valued within the organization. Then, programs within that culture create a standard and consistency of mentoring practice that really works,” she says.

The biggest selling point of a mentoring culture, she adds, is that “everybody owns it.” “Everybody is responsible for mentoring someone else or running a mentoring group. It’s a cultural expectation in which all protégées have good opportunities to meet their professional and personal goals.”

Unique challenges

Despite the increasing numbers of diverse women involved in mentoring, there remains a dearth of multicultural women at the head of our nation’s boardroom tables.

That’s because the challenges facing diverse women in business are different, according to Gwen Martin, Ph.D., and research director at the Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington, D.C.

“Women of color have a double challenge—gender and race/ethnicity—on top of the fact that, often, they are business owners trying to compete with larger businesses, firms that have been around much longer, and that may have more credibility in the marketplace,” she says. “Tackling all of these challenges can be overwhelming without some solid advice, guidance, and mentoring by someone who has met these challenges and surmounted them.”

The difficulty factor goes up again for a woman of color in a male-dominant business. Just ask Joy Gathings, CEO and majority owner of Bloomfield Machine & Welding in Bloomfield, N.M. Gathings, who went into the business with her machinist husband Mike when his employer filed bankruptcy, hasn’t had formal mentors. “It would have been nice,” she says.” But I’ve tried to just learn from everybody I encounter in the course of doing business.”

The changing paradigm

Over the years,, as mentoring has become more established, the rules of the game has changed. “Once, a mentee was a passive receiver, sitting at the feet of their mentor to collect all the jewels as they fell from the mentor’s lips,” Zachary says. “The passive receiver has changed to a self-directed learner responsible for her own growth and advancement.”

Likewise, the mentor’s role has changed from that of “authority” to that of “facilitator,” Zachary adds. “The mentor is no longer a sage, but a guide-on-the-side.”

Claudia Mirza, CEO of Akorbi Language Consulting, a Dallas-based provider of language services, has experienced this change first-hand. Having a mentor is about learning, not following orders, she says. “Even though my mentors gave me advice, it was up to me and my management team to make the decision that was most appropriate for the business at a specific time,” she says.

Roni Briggs, born a member of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, is on the campaign to improve mentoring opportunities for women of color.

A former vice president at Diageo PLC, a large global beer and wine business, she has leveraged her corporate expertise, including involvement in Diageo’s worldwide mentoring program, into her own company with another Native American woman, Leigh Ann McGee, in Dallas.

Eighty percent of Osiyo Consulting’s clientele are Native American leaders and tribal governments—many of whom are women, Briggs says.

“There’s strong, matriarchal leadership in most tribes, and a phenomenal number of women are stepping out and leading in tribal business—not just in small companies but in businesses worth millions of dollars,” she says.

She believes mentoring is a natural activity for most women of color. “Women of color shine at networking; they are really good at ciphering out all the chaff and getting quickly to what they need. And they are more accepting of how a person needs to receive mentoring and learning, as opposed to how they need to deliver it,” she says.

Briggs says the business world needs to provide more high performance coaching for women of color. “If this mentoring is not a part of the fabric of a company and valued almost equally to profit, a company won’t grow good leaders or improve retention.”

The art of choosing mentors

When it comes to selecting mentoring partners, expert Lois Zachary ( HYPERLINK “” offers some cautionary advice. “What’s really important in selecting a mentoring partner is to get the right learning fit. Focus on: what do I want to learn? If you’re simpatico with somebody, that’s great, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have the expertise and experience you need to draw from.”

Zachary doesn’t believe that common race or gender is essential to a successful mentoring experience. “However, the fact that women are there—even if they are not personally mentoring us—is important,” she says.

Gina Wilkerson, chief veterinary officer at AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals, says that, not surprisingly, her first mentor when she entered the male-dominant field of science was a man. And that worked just fine; it’s all about the connection, she says. “I believe there are some things that are better communicated and fostered if you have a connection with a person. If something aligns you with them—background, scientific interests, color, gender, religion—and makes you comfortable and allows you to open up and absorb or exchange, take advantage of it.”

And when you’re all set with the mentors you need, Simmons College professor Stacy Blake-Beard reminds that there’s also joy in being a mentor to others. “What I really like about those relationships is that I get as much from it as they do…It’s wonderful to have access to beautifully brilliant minds to help with my work, and other professors to give me alternative perspectives.”

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