Ideas for Relationship Building with Mentors and Sponsors

What is the difference between a mentor and sponsor?
  • Mentors advise their mentees.
  • Sponsors advocate for their proteges.

How do you get a mentor?

  1. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor explicitly.
  2. Do ask someone for advice, help, or feedback.
  3. Then, follow up every few months to let your mentor know how their advice helped you achieve x, y, and z. Develop the relationship by touching base and meeting with them periodically over time.

How do you get a sponsor?

  1. Do develop mutually beneficial, professional relationships with people inside and outside of your field (networking).
  2. Sponsor people in your own network by advocating for them when they are not present.
  3. Deepen mentor-mentee relationships with those present in the spaces where you aspire to be. Those are the people you want as sponsors.

Ask your mentors for support on goals, and follow through with achieving those goals! Demonstrate your excellence, and share your success.

Where to Find Potential Mentors and Sponsors

  • Your university: Professors, staff, students
  • Your company: coworkers, management, etc.
  • Social Media: Experts in your industry, visionaries in your field.
    • Twitter
    • LinkedIn
    • Facebook
    • Instagram
    • TikTok
  • Conferences
  • Organizations and Professional Societies
    • Toastmasters
    • Rotary Club
    • Public services like libraries

The best way to find mentors who can become sponsors is to do the following:

  1. Start a project, enter a competition, or work toward a goal that excites you.
  2. When you get stuck or need help, ask people (experts) for help!
  3. Build relationships with those who offer you help and support.

Remember that building relationships takes time and communication. Mutually beneficial relationships will be more authentic and valuable in the long-term. Treat everyone with kindness and respect. Everyone has different experiences, both personal and professional, that they’re navigating. If they say “no” to helping you, do not make assumptions and take it personally. Shift focus toward someone else who can offer help.

If you are a minority in your field, it can often be difficult to identifying mentors or sponsors who have a similar background or qualities as yourself. Professional societies that cater toward certain demographics, like Society of Women Engineers (SWE), can be a great places to find mentors. If there is not an organization in your field that includes people like you, this may be an opportunity to create that space or organization yourself! It’s fairly simple to start a student organization, group on Facebook or LinkedIn, or chapter of an existing organization, though it does take time and energy. Having someone with a similar background as yourself as a mentor can be incredibly helpful, especially when navigating difficult situations unique to you including racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism.

As a minority in your field, it is also important to be mindful of finding the right supportive mentors and sponsors. Sometimes, people can have good intentions, but may not treat or value you in a way comparable to the members of the majority group. For instance, I have had mentors who encouraged me to do more education and outreach-related activities even though I wanted to go into scientific research, not education. These mentors failed to truly understand my career goals, and, instead, placed me into a stereotypical role for a woman in my field. Having a mentor that listens to your needs and goals, and guides you in a way most beneficial for you, regardless of your immutable characteristics, is key to avoid wasting time and energy toward a path not suitable for you. It is important to take all advice with a grain of salt, and seek opinions and feedback from multiple people while always valuing your own intuition and desires.

When pursuing a mentor or sponsor, it is always important to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities as they come. A mentor or sponsor can be in your field, outside of your field, older than you, or younger than you. They can be the same nationality, race, sex, or creed, or different. They can help you over the whole course of your career, or only for 1 day. They can help you more than you help them, or you can help them more than they help you. You can meet them at a conference, classroom, networking app, or even a bar. Communication, respect, and mutual support and encouragement are the foundation of any professional relationship and are what really matter.

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