I was 26 years old when I first had the opportunity to serve in a senior role at a large Washington, D.C based non-profit. I was the youngest member of the senior staff team, and the only Latina, managing a department. My team was, for the most part, older than I was and I wondered if they were skeptical of my readiness. Although I knew I had the skills for the work, I found myself feeling like I was diving into the deep end, barely knowing how to swim. On top of our organization experiencing some unexpected challenges, I was trying to fight off impostor syndrome. I spent the first few months in my new role doubting most of my decisions and believing I had made a mistake in accepting the position. It was the worst way to spend the little energy and time I had left at the end of the day. Up to this point, I hadn’t even visualized this opportunity for myself, let alone have the know-how to navigate it.
For a variety of reasons, women often experience this self-doubt. Studies show that female managers report experiencing self-doubt in their job performance more than their male counterparts, and are more likely to feel like they’ve failed at meeting their own standards of excellence. Months later, I realized that continuing to doubt my approach or decisions would be a disaster, so I had to stop trying to figure it out on my own. I made a shortlist of women I respected, that I knew I could be vulnerable with and get thoughtful advice from. It was a little scary, but life-changing. My insecurities weren’t absolved, but their concrete advice steered me to be laser-focused on the mission and outcomes of my work, and less on what I feared people might be thinking of me. If I hadn’t opened up and asked for advice, I would have limited my potential and wasted more time.
When I turned 30 years old, I was experiencing another set of unfamiliar and challenging transitions. I again made a shortlist of the people that had invested in my success or gave me advice when I needed it the most. I planned to reach out to them, but it also became a powerful picture of the people that have mentored me along the way. The list itself made me feel more confident to stand in my ambition and keep challenging myself because I knew I didn’t stand alone. It’s why I join the chorus of folks that say finding a mentor is important for your career, particularly in politics and especially if you identify as a woman, are young, or are a person of color. Simply put, we know there will always be challenges that will be a lot simpler with the guidance from someone that has “been there.”
However, it’s understandable that for most people, finding a mentor is easier said than done. A recent study found, that although 76% of professionals want to have a mentor, less than half actually have one now. There just isn’t just one way to go about it. We’re also in a different era for mentoring where social and digital networks have, in some ways, changed how we build support structures. For example, asking someone you respect for advice through an Instagram DM is more common now and reaching out to folks via LinkedIn and Twitter, (for better or worse) is much more the norm.
My first experience with a mentorship network was in college. I was the first in my immediate family to attend graduate school and there were a lot of things I just didn’t know how to approach, but I always had the support and guidance of my older sister, aunt, and professors that truly invested a lot in me and mentored me through college to make sure I would succeed. And it was a realization that mentors didn’t have to be managers or executives, but people around you. This socialized me to not limit who I could ask advice or guidance from. But I knew from experience that direct access to a support structure wasn’t readily available to everyone equally. I went on to develop two formal mentoring programs for first-generation women pursuing higher education in Texas and later in New Mexico and later co-develop an all-staff mentoring program for an organization.
Now almost a decade later, I continue to think about the advice I wish I had gotten early in my career and ways to offer that to others, who don’t have access to networks, for support and professional guidance. An accessible platform for this is audio-first networks and along with my friend, Tori Taylor, we are now launching a new weekly podcast focused on women's leadership and mentorship called For Future Reference, by Wonder Media Network. It is a show dedicated to digging into topics like finding a mentor, building authentic relationships while networking, and what it really means to survive and thrive in this world.
This project came about for a few reasons, but more than anything, it's the advice from dozens of incredible women that we would have loved to have heard as we started our own professional journey. Our guests talk about their successes, their failures, and everything in between. Whether we are at work, class, or in our relationships, we are always faced with the challenges and pressures of doing it all and often having to be the first or only one in the room. But it’s just a little easier when you’ve got someone else who’s been there and can share some much-needed advice. We hope this podcast can serve as that resource for folks at the beginning, middle, or well into their professional and personal lives.
Ambar Calvillo-Rivera is the co-host of the For Future Reference podcast.
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