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Women in STEM: Cultivating and Maintaining Mentor Relationships

Tufts Gordon Institute recently collaborated with the Museum of Science to host an evening focused on “Women in STEM: How to Build & Leverage Mentoring Relationships” on October 22. Both institutions share a commitment to helping women be successful in their STEM careers as they drive high impact in the world, and were thrilled to host the second event in their continued partnership. Although the event focused on women working in STEM fields, this community-building initiative brought guests together at the Museum of Science to discuss mentorship in their lives – no matter their gender identity.

The night began with a networking reception that included lively conversation over refreshments, and a picture-perfect view of the Zakim Bridge and the Charles River. Attendees could be heard getting acquainted while chatting about their careers and educational backgrounds.

Following the reception, the evening featured a panel that consisted of professional women in STEM industries. The women inspired the room by providing charismatic insights on their firsthand experiences as well as suggestions for finding and keeping a mentor. Additionally, they shared recommendations on how to go about tapping into your mentor relationship as a way to benefit the progression of your career.

The impressive women on panel included:

  • Sarah Ernst Associate Director, Digital Catalyst & Operations at Sanofi Genzyme
  • Mary Pirone Senior Director, Business Development at Vertex Pharmaceuticals
  • Kristen Ransom CTO and Founder of IncluDe Innovation
  • Sara Remsen Vice President of Vuforia Product Experience at PTC
  • Moderator: Louise Strayhorn Leadership Lecturer at Tufts Gordon Institute

The panelists all mentioned similar struggles in their attempts to find a female mentor within their network that has already achieved the goals they have for themselves as well. Because of this challenge, the panelists found their mentors ultimately by reaching out to others they admired in the workplace or even being approached by colleagues who could see they were struggling. With mentors being hard to find, Mary Pirone stressed the following sentiment, “If you find a good one, take the time to keep in touch with your mentor, even if they leave [your company].”

Featured Panelists

All the women on panel reiterated that mentors can be people who you least expect. Kristen Ransom said, “One of my impactful mentors was a client who was the hardest client to please. Instead of being frustrated by him, I was able to use that feedback to better my company!”

Sara Remsen spoke highly on the “huge opportunity for visibility” that was given to her by her mentor who did something as simple as handing her a mic to answer a question in a high-visibility meeting. This small act gave her an opportunity to share her voice on a larger scale. It also proves another point that the women expressed, that mentors will advocate for you when they trust you and see you putting your heart into your work.

Sarah Ernst is at the point in her career where she has been motivated to take on being a mentor herself and pay forward the advice and wisdom she received from her own mentors. She said, “The time for me to become a mentor happened when I wasn’t looking. I wanted to do the same thing my mentor did to others. I want to be able to be a better supporter of my direct reports.”

To close out the discussion, Annette Sawyer, the Senior Vice President of the Education Division at the Museum of Science, shared some networking advice to make introducing yourself in crowds a little less daunting. The keys to gaining access into a closed group, already deep in conversation, are to make eye contact with someone in the group, get yourself physically close enough to the group that they open their bodies’ stance up to you, and then insert yourself into the conversation by introducing yourself. Annette also recommended having a prepared exit strategy to remove yourself from the group as the conversation can run its course. This allows you to ask the questions you need, exit the group, and make your way to the next closed group. Annette challenged attendees to conclude the evening by trying out this tactic amongst themselves.

Tips for a Successful Relationship with Your Mentor

  1. Do your homework! Don’t waste a mentor’s time with questions on a topic you could have easily Googled or found out about them on their LinkedIn.
  2. Be transparent about the help that you want. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting up a front. You will benefit more from being direct with your mentor.
  3. Have a level of accountability with your mentor. Discuss your goals, get their feedback, and then tell them what you did based on their feedback.
  4. Mentorship is a two-way street. You need to invest in the relationship as much as they do.
  5. You should expect honesty from your mentors and be prepared to take their criticisms. Their critiques likely come from a place of caring about your success.
  6. Any type of constructive feedback you receive is about your work, not you! You should try not to take it personally.
  7. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and that’s okay! There are plenty of other mentorship opportunities out there until you find the right fit that works for you.

Tips for Building a Strong Personal Network

  1. Stay open-minded! Reach out to people outside of the personal connections you have.
  2. Consider everyone you meet to be an opportunity to connect. You never know what you can get out of investing in relationships.
  3. It is perfectly acceptable to reach out on LinkedIn and request people who’ve provided you their business card.
  4. Keep in touch with your connections. It can be as simple as sending little notes on LinkedIn. You never know when you will want to work with someone again.
  5. Don’t treat your co-workers as just transactional interactions. Get to know them.
  6. Always offer to help! Regardless of your skillset, you may have something to offer others that may not have been initially apparent.
  7. If you can, add a personal touch to any conversation you have with a connection. It will help them remember you and making building the relationship easier. It can also be helpful to take notes in your contact records so you remember the little details about someone.
  8. Use your professional contacts when it comes to transitioning jobs. They can be your biggest assets!