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The Value of Mentorship | Creating Opportunities for People of Color

Dr. Waajida L. Small

illustration of woman talking with mentor
Illustrated by Marian Blair

Mentoring can play a crucial role in our professional success, and this is especially true for people of color. Due to the disparity in diversity of representation within leadership combined with a lack of access to leadership, people of color often do not have the same professional development opportunities as their White peers. 

Creating spaces for people of color to develop mentoring relationships is in every employer’s best interest. In this post, I explore the impact of mentoring on the professional success of people of color as well as ways organizations can create spaces for people of color to connect with mentors.

The positive impacts of mentor relationships

Research, anecdotal evidence, and observation all show that mentorship can have a positive impact on professional success. It can provide opportunities for professional development, networking, visibility, and access, while also minimizing some of the challenges faced by mentees as they forge a path toward leadership.  

For organizations, providing mentoring opportunities for people of color has been shown to be a vital part of not only attracting, but retaining diverse talent. And in fact, research suggests that women and minorities are more likely than any other social group to say that mentoring was an important aspect of their career. 

A natural gap in building relationships

When seeking out a mentor (or if you’re considering becoming a mentor and are exploring potential mentees), it’s natural to look for someone like you. Mentor-mentee relationships are harder to create when there are differences in social identities, and it can be extremely challenging in a “White/Black” scenario. There is a natural gap caused by unconscious bias and an inherent distrust between the two groups that is deeply rooted in systemic racism.  

Missed opportunities

On the flip side, people of color who are in the position to mentor, and even more importantly sponsor, understand the need and value of those relationships and often, feel more of an obligation to sponsor other people of color. 

There is an important distinction between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor gets you in the room while a sponsor speaks about and advocates for you once you’ve left the room. Sponsors leverage their influence to create pathways, which is often critical for professionals of color who want to advance in the social-impact space.

However, there can be a fear that the relationships developed by mentors of color (and especially by sponsors of color) will be seen as favoritism. This is also true for White professionals who wish to build relationships with people of color. This fear can prevent the necessary relationship from being established, and diservices talent who can provide great value to the organization. 

Helping people of color connect to mentors

The only way to close the gap is by being intentional, conscious, and deliberate. The first step is to identify the root cause of the biases and fear that may be preventing mentors from connecting with professionals of color, and then actively working to alleviate them. The next step in the process is tackling those fears and biases head on. 

A recent Fortune article suggests that organizations can do these four things to get started: 

1.  Create a safe space for conversations about race. Race matters. Racism exists. It needs to be talked about by those impacted by it. Whether it is about race-related incidents out in the world, or in the workplace, create a space where employees of color can talk about it without fear of repercussion. 

2.  Encourage authenticity. People of color are constantly told that they need to conform to European “standards,” and this is especially true for women of color. It is important to create environments where people are allowed to be themselves, whether it is their hair, their fashion, or a preference for being called by their given name. 

3.  Develop impactful mentorship and sponsorship programs. Be intentional about the programs that you develop. Do not limit yourself to providing mentoring opportunities; provide sponsorship opportunities as well. Access to leadership and other people of influence within the organization who can offer guidance and open up doors for professional advancement is invaluable.

4.  Invest in the development of your employees of color. Formal training, coaching, and stretch assignments provide an environment that is supportive of mentees’ growth as individuals and as members of your organization.

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Is your organization ready to take the next steps to help employees of color connect with mentors? Learn how to do so equitably.

Dr. Waajida L. Small

Dr. Waajida L. Small is a human resources executive who has worked in the public and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She is a certified leadership and executive coach, human capital strategist and certified purpose leader. Dr. Small is the author of "Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color", a book for women of color on the rise into positions of leadership and influence in their organizations, industries and communities.

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