Why every woman should have a mentor at work (and how to find the right one)

Written by Amy Beecham

Sharmadean Reid, founder and CEO of The Stack World spoke to Stylist ahead of The Stack World Conference in partnership with Squarespace.

What does a workplace mentor look like? Someone who gives advice and helps you put out fires or someone who can help you reach the next stage of your career and put you in touch with those who will help you get there.

The answer is all of the above and more, but according to the Pew Research Center, 63% of women have never had a formal mentor. And it’s clear that they’re missing out, as statistics from February 2022 indicate that 90% of workers who have a mentor report being happy in their job and that employees who are involved in mentoring programmes have a 50% higher retention rate than those not involved.

So while the value of mentorship is clear, how can the gap be bridged?

The Stack World Conference, aka the brainchild of Squarespace and members’ platform The Stack World, is the latest project hoping to address and remove the many obstacles that female creators face when hitting the next milestones in building their business through the power of mentorship.

Through a two-month mentorship programme, 10 applicants will be directly coached by top female executives, including The Stack World founder and CEO Sharmadean Reid; Danielle Chadha, international marketing director at Squarespace; and Olivia Ferdi, co-founder of premium CBD brand TRIP, alongside others.

Ahead of the conference, Reid sat down with Stylist to talk about the importance of mentorship, how to identify when you’re ‘ready’ and how someone else’s guidance has helped her during the toughest moments of her career.

What does mentorship mean to you?

Sharmadean Reid: “To me, it’s a way for women in particular to share their knowledge and skills and basically break down this lack of information that keeps certain power structures in place.

“When women are more transparent about everything, from what they’re being paid to how they’re getting treated in the workplace, they become united and way more powerful. There is so much that I’ve learned and been through where if I can help someone not make the same mistakes, I want to.”

What is it like being a woman in business without a mentor? It seems like it could be quite a lonely experience.

SR: “It definitely is. I find that women who don’t have a supportive community tend to drop out or tap out when they come up against a challenge that they think they can’t rise to, but when you have a mentor it gives you that support, understanding and empathy that can help you recover from knockbacks.”

So has there been a particular point in your career where you felt a bit lost and wished you had a mentor?

SR: “100%. For me, it was any time I dealt with contracts when I was younger. I didn’t really understand them and it took me a while to figure out the negotiation process and actually just being able to stand firm in my needs and in my power in that way. And that’s why I think having a mentor can really help: you can help someone to understand what’s really important and how they can navigate those more difficult steps.”

And what are some of the biggest barriers to mentorship that women are experiencing right now?

SR: “In my mind, time is one of the biggest barriers. Women often find themselves rushed off their feet, doing two or three roles within one on top of unpaid labour. So going off and investing in something which doesn’t necessarily yield immediate results can feel difficult. But then I look at how there are men I know that have been networking and meeting with the same people every month for the last 30 years – and they just do not compromise on that time. So I think we need to change the ideas about respecting women’s time and allowing them the space to make commitments and respecting that. But that’s a mental change as much as it is a physical one, too.”

Surely that starts within the workplace itself? How do you think companies can be more encouraging when it comes to pursuing mentorship opportunities?

SR: “People’s employers should absolutely be encouraging personal development and taking the time out of day-to-day production to work on things that are a bit more intangible. There’s this tendency to separate it and view mentoring or community building as an addition to a day’s work when it really should be built in. Networking isn’t an add-on to someone being their best self in the workplace – it should be baked into the working day.”

The current trend is “reverse mentorship” and recognising the value of the mentee as well as the mentor. Do you also see it as a two way thing?

SR: “Completely. I think that the challenge is that the mentee needs to feel confident in what they can bring to the table. When you’re young, it can be easy to feel like you have nothing to share or nothing to give, but being closer to the ground than your mentor is or having an understanding of a different generation can be really powerful.

“It’s about coming to meetings with confidence and thinking: what can I give my mentor that they are unable to access themselves at this point in their career?”

Can you tell me a bit about a mentorship figure in your life and how they’ve impacted you?

SR: “I’ve never had a formal mentor but I would say that I’ve been mentored by both men and women who have just been wonderfully supportive in helping me with problems. Sometimes I’ve had questions like ‘How do I close a deal?’ or ‘How do I create a global company?’, but other times they’ve sponsored me for an award or put me forward for opportunities.

“It’s as much about the conversations you have as what happens after you leave the room. You want to be coming to their mind when they’re chatting to someone else and building those connections even when you’re not physically present. I always want someone mentoring to still be thinking about how they can support you after you’ve left.”

Are there any misconceptions about mentorship that you want to dispel?

SR: “I think that perhaps a lot of people look at mentorship as spending time with someone you’re impressed by and just wanting to absorb through osmosis anything you can from them, but they don’t have anything specific in mind to learn.”

So having a focus is beneficial?

SR: “Absolutely. It’s my worst nightmare when someone says they want to shadow me because I think wow, you do not want to be in my brain with all that noise. Knowing you’re ready for a mentor is really important.”

But at what point in a person’s career do you think they’re ‘ready’?

SR: “When you’ve really had time to think about where you want to be in the next five to 10 years. I think someone who isn’t sure about what they want to do isn’t a mentee, they’re a work experience person. So if that’s you, my advice would be to do a big series of internships or placements to help get to know what you like and what you don’t and go from there.”

What are you most excited about with The Stack World Conference?

SR: “I think what we’re doing with the mentorship programme is bringing people together again and providing that support network.

“When I called all my friends and asked if they’d become mentors I was shocked at how many people said yes and that they couldn’t wait. We’ve always wanted to do it andI think that because the Stack network is so engaged and powerful, I feel like the quality of mentees is going to be high and they’re going to enjoy that process.”

And what qualities are you looking for in a mentee?

SR: “Someone who will blow my mind and re-energise me because that’s what you get from younger people, they energise.”

To find out more about The Stack World Conference, visit the website here.

Images: Kiran Gidda

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