Mentoring is a notion that represents the best of human nature: people helping people. Supporting. Sharing. Connecting. Nurturing. It’s a noble act. It’s also a practical one in today’s business world.

Research has shown that mentoring is an important factor in business success. Being the beneficiary of a mentor or a mentoring program does increase one’s chances for success. Certainly a person can “make it” without a mentor, but how much more efficient is it to be guided by someone who has “been there”? To be supported by a person who has the breadth and depth of practical knowledge and experience that you do not yet have. A guide who wants to expand your perspective, your contacts — and help clear the way for you.

Let’s be realistic: Being mentored by the right person is a faster track to where you want to be. It’s a huge helping hand that makes entrance into a career field easier and success in that field more likely.

And in a culture that idealizes individuality, mentoring is about community — coming together for the greater good, for the bigger picture, for a sense of extending yourself beyond yourself.

A reciprocal act

Mentoring can come from individuals in the same career field, as well as from professionals in the legal and financial fields who can offer valuable insights. The common characteristics of mentors: they are seasoned, they have succeeded, they want to provide guidance and support, they want to share the wisdom they have gained through the experience garnered from their own trials-and-errors, they are open and generous in spirit, they want to nurture. And, I would wager, they also want to provide that essence of themselves that will continue through another and another and another: an invisible legacy of what is some of the “best” they have to offer.

The common characteristics of those receiving mentoring: they have a sincere desire to learn, they respect and appreciate the information being imparted, they treat that information — and of the mentoring relationship overall — as confidential, they realize that what they are receiving is a gift, and they want to succeed.

The basis of mentoring is the same as in any good relationship: trust and reciprocity. The giving is at a level of sincerity and honesty — as is the receiving. The exchange is mutual. In both the act of giving and receiving, on both sides of the equation — both parties benefit. Both individuals grow through the dynamics of the partnership — and isn’t growth the goal of every quality relationship?

A critical act

Mentoring is becoming increasingly important for women in business. Young women entering the business world today clearly see the benefits of being mentored. They also see that in most cases their mentors will need to be more experienced businesswomen. Why? For some, there still exists the stigma of a male executive taking an interest in a female mentee. There is simply, more often than not for both sexes, a greater comfort level in mentoring a person of the same gender.

Regardless, a woman can find a mentor. She can seek out a mentor relationship on her own, approaching the individual(s) directly. E-mail makes this easier than ever, as do electronic mentoring sites on the Internet, like Advancing Women, and its journal, Advancing Women in Leadership.

Many companies offer formal mentoring programs. These corporate mentoring programs are an excellent way for an organization to be in control of its management succession and ensure diversity of ethnicity and gender while involving senior management in a more objective and structured way.

More universities provide formal mentoring opportunities, bringing together professional women with younger women studying the same field. The Women’s Business Office of the SBA sponsors Women’s Network for Entrepreneurial Training, a mentoring and support group that links women business owners with women ready to grow their own businesses.

Professional organizations can also be an excellent source of mentoring. The San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce launched, one year after its founding, Leadership Loop — a professional development training series for women and men designed to focus on the skills required for business success. In the Leadership Loop, respected business owners and community leaders teach in-depth sessions. 2005 marked the 16th consecutive year for Leadership Loop.

Ginger Purdy, founder of Network Power/Texas, from which the San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce was established, remains a staunch mentor of women and has expanded this support to a global perspective. This was most recently evidenced when she brought Dr. Rajaa Khuzai to San Antonio and introduced her to several organizations comprised of women community leaders. Dr. Khuzai is a former member of the Iraqi National Assembly and current member of the drafting committee for the Iraqi constitution. She is also the president of the Women’s Organization in Diwaniah, founder of the Women’s Health Center in Baghdad and founder of Widow’s Care Organization.

Ginger met Dr. Khuzai when both were on a leadership trip to Russia. She brought Rajaa to San Antonio so that the women here could learn of -– and support — her efforts to develop a women’s health strategy for post-war Iraq.

A national act made local

On another local level, professional women involved in the National Association of Women Business Owners are also placing mentoring as a priority. In 1999, Lynn Weirich, president of the Business Financial Group and a board member of the San Antonio chapter of NAWBO, was a mentor at the local Business Careers High School. There, she saw firsthand the benefit of connecting with high school-age young women and imparting opportunities about entrepreneurship with them at this early age. The first president of NAWBOSA, Dixie Kingston, agreed.

Both were aware that the Detroit chapter of NAWBO had successfully launched a similar program that had been developed by Independent Means, Inc — a corporation with the purpose of increasing financial literacy and empowerment in young people — especially young women 20 years of age and younger. Founded in 1992 by former social worker and Polaroid “intrapreneur” executive Joline Godfrey, this developmental approach to financial education and introduction of the financial apprenticeship stage of life was giving parents and community leaders new tools for becoming better money mentors for kids.

When Godfrey was asked by a national magazine why it is important for girls to have an income of their own, her response was to the point: “So they don’t grow up to be poor women. And I actually don’t mean to be flip about it. Ninety percent of all women will have to take care of themselves economically at some point in their lives. Forty percent of women over 65 are poor, [while only] 13 percent of men over 65 are poor. So I don’t really care if women actually have their own business or not, but certainly the nature of our economy is such that whether they work for themselves or somebody else — to be more entrepreneurial is literally a lifesaving tool. So I guess to save your life is one answer. And then, of course, the other is on a more ethereal plane — it’s to make your dreams come true, to do things you really care about.”

Weirich set about to make one of her dreams, An Income of Her Own, a San Antonio reality. She enlisted the aid of the Business Careers principal, Betty Garza, to help pilot an adaptation of the program. The initial steering committee asked all area high schools to reach young women with dreams of owning a business. “An Income of Her Own” began.

Three acts
An Income of Her Own consists of three phases:

1) Building relationships: In this phase, the teens meet and learn how to look and act professionally; then meet with women business owners to learn about different careers. Separately, the adult facilitators meet for training.

2) Entrepreneurship training: The highlight of this phase is the all-day conference for the teens to learn about how to be entrepreneurs. An additional and very valuable component is a seminar on developing a business plan with NAWBO-SA members.

3) Application and reward: In the final phase, the two-page business plans the teens developed are submitted and scored. A recognition event is held announcing the winner of the scholarship and other business tools.

A beneficial act

In 2000, its first year in San Antonio, three schools and 85 students participated in the year-long An Income of Her Own mentoring program. In 2005, more than 100 students from 16 different schools joined in. During the first five years, more than 500 teens have participated in the program. And more than $16,000 in cash scholarships and other awards have been given to participants through the support of corporate sponsors and underwriters, including Harcourt, H-E-B, Mass Mutual, Fresh Horizons Creative Catering and The San Antonio Business Journal. Our Lady of the Lake University is partner with NAWBO-SA and serves as the host for the full-day conference and training.

The participants from these schools represent a diverse group of socioeconomic backgrounds, a variety of skill sets (from top honor students to those who are at-risk) and attendees from both regular and magnet schools.

“I saw these incredible young women with sharp minds who wanted to know about my own journey as an entrepreneur and business owner,” says Weirich. “There was no question that this was a program worth investing time and energy into to help open the eyes of young women as to what is possible with a vision and the necessary tools. Five years later, the need and interest is even stronger. And I don’t see it ending.”

The 2005 winner of the business plan competition was Maggie McCormick,a graduating senior from Smithson Valley High School, who created a business called Linen and Lime Laundry, a place to do laundry coupled with an entertainment venue. Maggie will be attending UTSA in the fall. Of the winners in prior years, all remain in school and committed to their dreams of entrepreneurship. The $2500 scholarship allowed one to attend a university that had been out of financial reach before, and another started a business while in high school. Even the runners-up and nonwinners remain committed to staying on target for their future goals.

NAWBO members have also been touched by their involvement as mentors to these young women. Many have shared that they personally had no idea they could be entrepreneurs when they were teens, and now they want to open students’ minds to the possibility.

The author George Eliot — who chose not to use her real female name in her own time — perhaps summed this feeling up best when she wrote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Author: Donna Hinkelman