Every birthday is an opportunity to reflect, to celebrate, to look back and forward. Today, on International Women’s Day, the Red Thread Foundation celebrates its first birthday. A year ago, I joined nine other women with roots around the world to found an organization dedicated to the mentorship of women with multi-national backgrounds through university. We were motivated by gratitude and need: We had received financial support and personal guidance as we navigated our own paths through university and wanted to pay this service forward, especially given that we had identified a need for greater support of women with diverse, multi-national backgrounds in this field. Thus, the Red Thread Foundation of Women was born. As we enter our second year of activities, we have welcomed six extraordinary scholars to our family, expanded our circle of trustees, and developed a mentorship curriculum that addresses issues of academic and professional interest. On this birthday, and on a day of great significance for women and girls around the world, I’d like to celebrate and share some lessons from my personal journey as a mentor and mentee.
I became a mentor to step away from the caveats.
Ten years ago, I co-founded my high school’s first Model United Nations conference. I now work in the field of diplomacy, conflict management and international development and recently returned to my high school to discuss my journey. When I was preparing for my speech, I thought of all the information that would be appropriate to impart on aspiring development professionals: How to discern effective charity giving models from less impactful ones. How to avoid stereotypes in aid and development that rob individuals of their agency or countries of their dignity. How to de-glamourize students’ perceptions of the lifestyle of a conflict professional. These are questions I live with and revisit with keen interest, but they all have one thing in common: Limitations. They are united by a desire to dissuade, or to steer away from, or to point to the limits, the challenges, the missteps and the wrongs.
Mentorship is a journey of yes. It is a process that starts with ‘can do’. Students were not interested in hearing my caveats. None of them would proceed to sue me for not warning them about the challenges in my chosen field or the millions of ways in which good intentions are not enough to succeed in it. These would have been valuable themes to address and I would have gladly included them in a broader educational curriculum about conflict, aid and development. But this was the beginning of the conversation and mentorship conversations start with possibility – with dreams, without caveats, with yes.
Being a mentee means keeping your hand raised.
As I observed the Red Thread Scholars through the year, I noticed they all had something in common that I did not at their age: They actively sought support, advice and community among individuals with similar experiences to them who could support them on their life journeys. I have been blessed with extraordinary mentors in my life, but particularly during my first steps in university, I was shy about admitting that I needed more than just myself on my team. I was shy about seeking out professors, advisers and mentors who could talk to me about matters beyond course materials.
Seeking mentorship is an exercise in humility. It requires applying to the Red Thread Foundation for Women, or initiating a conversation with a professor, boss or peer. It requires taking the first step, identifying role models and supporters, and building relationships. As Sheryl Sandberg suggested in her TED talk about women and leadership, mentorship requires raising a hand — and keeping it raised.
Reach! [and invite others to join you]
During the implementation of a recent development initiative in a country with severe human rights violations, I felt stuck. My colleague and I had to strike a balance between safely implementing our curriculum without jeopardizing the security of the program beneficiaries and developing rigorous, challenging modules that would enable the participants to bring their desired change to their communities. I often felt we had to sacrifice content for safety. I caught myself – guiltily – admitting that in that challenging an environment, anything we could develop and implement would be of benefit. My colleague was aware of those same risks and challenges, but she constantly prodded me to “reach”.
We need to keep reaching. Reaching looks different to everyone and in every situation, but the act of it is punctuated with innovation, with taking leaps, with informed decisions to be governed by impact and not by fear, worry or failure. Mentorship is a journey of reaching, and of inviting others to reach with us.
There is no bubble.
Mentorship and gender advocacy can often feel like watching a scary movie whose end we already know: We want to scream at the TV and tell the protagonist not to open that door because there is a burglar hiding behind it and she will get hurt. Mentors often want to arm their mentees’ with the knowledge that will prevent them from making the mistakes they did – that will stop them from getting hurt.
Mentorship requires of us to burst the bubble — to allow mentors and mentees alike to make their own choices, navigate their mistakes, and walk with some uncertainty. To ask their own questions and make their way to the answers.
It has been a privilege to be part of this process with the Red Thread Foundation for Women and I look forward to another year of minimizing the caveats. To another season of reaching, and keeping hands raised. To sharing and imparting knowledge, to living humbly and in each other’s questions. To being mentors and mentees for each other, and to making our way in a community of people who believe in our dreams and capabilities.