A new direction for MentorNet
This “social networking startup with a fifteen-year history” aims to support tech women and underrepresented groups in school and in the workplace
By Kate Colborn
Editor in chief
What do more than 32,000 tech pro/tech student mentor-protégé pairs have in common? They found each other through MentorNet (www.mentornet.org), the nonprofit online mentoring organization founded by Dr Carol Mueller in 1997. MentorNet, whose founding preceded today’s social networking scene by more than a decade, was started to support women engineering students through their undergraduate and grad school years.
The problem MentorNet was created to address is still acute fifteen years later. According to recent data from the National Science Foundation, only half the students who start in engineering and IT fields actually complete degrees in those fields; the numbers are even lower for women and underrepresented minorities.
In contrast, 93 percent of MentorNet protégés graduate with engineering or IT degrees, says Dr Mary Fernandez, who became the organization’s CEO this spring. Good mentoring makes an obvious difference in academic success.
Moving into the social arena
Fernandez and Coco Brown, who took over as COO at the same time, are taking the organization in new directions. They see MentorNet as a “social enterprise startup that happens to have a fifteen-year history.”
Their strategy involves a significant change in the organization’s matching process. MentorNet’s new platform will draw on advances in technology that created social networks like Google+, Twitter and Match.com to make profile-based connections between mentors and likely protégés. “It will be automatic and passive, although of course we’ll ask direct questions too,” Fernandez says.
Mentoring helps mentors too
Fernandez points out that mentoring is valuable for mentors as well as their student protégés. She cites a 2008 Harvard Business School study, “The Athena Factor,” which reports that more than half the women who start out in engineering, IT and science careers have left the profession within ten years. “That’s unacceptable,” she says. “These women have great educations, and their companies have invested in them.” Women’s expertise, she says, is being lost, at a time when a strong technical workforce has never been more important.
The women are not leaving because they don’t like their work, Fernandez says. They leave because “the engineering and IT workplace is still not the most welcoming to women and underrepresented groups.” Fernandez believes that the same factors are driving members of underrepresented groups out of the engineering and IT workforce. The discussions mentors have with their student protégés can help the professionals themselves discover ways to address the interpersonal and non-cognitive factors that may be affecting them in the workplace.
How it works
Universities and employers of technical professionals join MentorNet by paying a fee to the organization. As many as seventy-five professional technical membership organizations, like the Society of Women Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Technical Professionals and more, have also been members over the years. Students and alumni of member universities and members of the professional organizations can request that MentorNet connect them with a compatible mentor, or volunteer to be mentors themselves.
When corporate and government entities join, their employees are invited to become mentors.
Pairings officially last throughout students’ university careers, but may continue informally afterward.
And anyone who has ever been a mentor or a protégé with MentorNet remains part of the network. “You join MentorNet for life!” Fernandez notes.
Mentoring takes place on line and is guided through MentorNet’s social platform. MentorNet provides a wide range of suggested topics to start the conversation between mentor and protégé. On average, the organization reports, mentor and protégé spend fifteen minutes a week communicating with each other. And half of MentorNet protégés say they have considered working for their mentors’ employers.
Protégé to mentor
Dr Mary Fernandez came to MentorNet from AT&T; Labs (Florham Park, NJ), where she was most recently AVP of information and software systems research. She joined what was then AT&T; Bell Labs in 1995, the year she finished her PhD in CS at Princeton University (NJ). She has bachelors and masters degrees in CS from Brown University (Providence, RI).
“AT&T; Bell Labs helped fund my graduate education as a PhD student,” she says. The program that funded her also connected her with a mentor. “That was by far the most important part of my fellowship with AT&T;,” she reports. “There are very few women in CS, and even fewer at the top of the education pipeline. My mentor was Brian Kernighan, and he really helped me over some nasty bumps in the road.” Kernighan, a well-known Bell Labs computer scientist, is now a professor at Princeton.
“When I was subsequently hired at AT&T; Bell Labs, which became AT&T; Labs, I wanted to get involved in mentoring right away. I eventually fell into MentorNet.” She joined the MentorNet board in 2009, and was its chair from 2011 until she took over as CEO.
Fernandez has mentored eighteen different students through MentorNet, so she’s well acquainted with both the process and the benefits. “Most have been women, but not all. Most were women of color, but not all. Many were immigrants, but not all.” That’s typical of the flexible MentorNet matching process, she says.
The first protégé
Fernandez’s first protégé was Martha Lee, then an engineering grad student at Purdue (West Lafayette, IN). “MentorNet was just starting,” Lee says. “It was such a welcome relief to find someone who would give me a glimpse of industry. In college you have all these mixed messages from outside, and you don’t know what to believe. Is college really worth it? Am I being prepared for something or not? I really welcomed the idea of having someone who cared about me, who was objective and would tell things the way she saw it. I could trust her. It was just wonderful!”
Lee had come to Purdue as part of a direct PhD program in EE, but “I was struggling to find a love for the research. The passion just wasn’t there. I was thinking about getting a masters and looking for a job. It was great to have someone not vested in the decision to discuss it with, because if I had asked my Purdue advisors their answers could have been colored by their roles.”
Mentor and protégé have stayed in touch since Lee finished her masters in 2000. “I’ll email her every six months or so, just to let her know what I’m doing,” says Lee. Lee is now a leading edge technology developer in El Segundo, CA for the Space & Airborne Systems business of Raytheon (McKinney, TX). She specializes in real-time embedded systems.
Lee is now a MentorNet mentor herself, and when she needed advice on how to help a protégé, she turned to Fernandez. She met Fernandez face to face for the first time at a recent Grace Hopper Celebration.
The MentorNet social-networking-style platform is in active development, and Fernandez and Brown are lining up new corporate and university participants. “When we show people what the potential is, we get a great response,” Fernandez reports.
She’s excited to be at the heart of MentorNet’s vitally important work: mentoring underrepresented technical students and pros.
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