On International Women’s Day – Mentorship

The summer I was 25, I was preparing to leave my job at the Fair Labor Association for grad school, when Mike Posner invited me to lunch. Mike and I had worked closely together in a period of growth for the FLA. Over sandwiches, we talked about its future and the upcoming start of school. And then Mike offered that if I were looking for a mentor, he’d be interested in mentoring me. I said yes.  

I took the job at the FLA two years earlier on the advice of a family friend, who predicted that a small, growing NGO would be a place where I would be entrusted with greater responsibility than was probably appropriate for a 23-year-old. But he also predicted that I would rise to the challenge and that being pushed in an early job would serve me well in whatever was to come.

He was right. At the FLA, I served as secretary of the board, which put me in close touch with senior people from companies, universities, and NGOs, including Mike. A dozen years later, Mike and I have worked together inside and outside of government, around the world, and on issues ranging from security assistance to Bahrain, to Chen Guangcheng’s flight from China, to the U.S. response to the Arab Spring. For the last four years, we’ve built something entirely new – a human rights center in a business school – that we hope will help shape a new chapter in the human rights movement. 

March 8th is international women’s day. There’s a growing body of research affirming that women with strong mentors enjoy fast-track success at work. Ana Fels’ book is a great read on this subject, as is this Harvard Business Review about the role of men who champion women’s leadership. They both conclude that attaining equality in the work place will require those with the most power (white guys, I’m looking at you) to use that power to elevate colleagues who don’t look like them.  

Over the past decade+ of working with Mike, our relationship has gone from one of mentorship to true partnership. In a few weeks, I’ll leave the center we’ve built together for new adventures (more to come on that). There are lots things I take away from such a long partnership, and I think Mike would say the same. But the thing that stands out the most is confidence.

More than anything, having strong mentorship has meant there’s always someone telling me, “go for it.” As the tasks have gotten bigger and the stakes higher over the years, it’s been powerful to have an ally helping instill confidence in my own judgment. I think this has translated into one of the core strengths of our Center, which is an appetite for challenging orthodoxy, often in the public eye. 

For example, our work in Bangladesh has been recognized as groundbreaking stuff – laying out the true picture of subcontracting in the apparel supply chain and putting 7,000 garment factories on a map. This was a huge effort, and not always popular (if there are a lot more factories than previously estimated, it’s going to take a lot more time, money, and innovation to fix them…). But because we aimed high, we’ve helped change the conversation about what the supply chain really looks like. Hat-tip to John Oliver and team for this segment on the pervasive nature of subcontracting in the fashion industry. 

Aiming high is easier when you’ve got someone in your corner. When I was doing research in Bangladesh, I often called Mike after a long day of interviews to do an unfiltered brain dump. When I got excited about a new finding or insight, he got excited. When I hit a roadblock, he was my partner in figuring out a way forward. That kind of support in a professional partnership has been a source of incredible strength in building my career. 

Saying yes to Mike all those years ago ranks among the easiest and best professional decisions of my life. But most mentoring relationships don’t begin with an official invitation. More should. We have so far to go to achieve equality in the workplace, and mentorship is a powerful way to reach for this goal. One of the best parts of my time at Stern has been mentoring other women starting out in their careers. Paying it forward is a small way that I can help other women aim high.