Kira Hernandez (L) and Jennifer Henry (R) in San Antonio, Texas
Women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce, yet they are not rising to the executive suite at the same rate as men. Despite recent progress with more women serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before, women still only make up 8% of Fortune 500 leaders.
It’s not for lack of effort—women crave growth opportunities, but they often do not have the direction they need to get to the next level. And they fear that by asking for help, they’re diminishing their own self-worth. But if you were to ask women at the top of their field how they got to where they are today, none of them would say they did it alone. They each have built their successful careers by learning from those who came before them, fostering relationships with other women who have the knowledge and experience to empower them. They each have mentors.
The power of mentorship is undeniable. Mentorship is proven to advance more women in the workplace, help them gain access to opportunities they might otherwise have not had, and better prepare them for their dream careers. Ultimately, mentorship can also be the lever that closes the gender gap in leadership.
But how do you find a mentor you can identify with, or how do you know that you are best fit to support a mentee? Read on to learn what a successful mentorship relationship looks like from two women 2Utes, Managing Director of Industry Insights & Impact Kira Hernandez and Senior Vice President of Workforce Engagement Jennifer Henry, who found their match three years ago and are still reaping the life-changing benefits to this day.
Let’s start from the beginning: When was the first time you were introduced to the idea of mentorship?
Kira Hernandez (KH): I first experienced mentorship with a wonderful Spanish professor while I was earning my undergraduate degree. She nurtured my curiosity and drive to learn a second language and align it with its global, cross-cultural contexts and history. When I encountered challenges or struggled with motivation, she was always kind but firm and knew what to say to help me get moving again. She really saw me as a full person—not just a student or a grade—and I still think of her guidance and how it helped set the stage for the way I have approached learning and problem-solving throughout my career.
Jennifer Henry (JH): I think I was introduced to the idea of mentorship as a kid. At that age, I thought a mentor was someone who was older than me and much wiser. To be honest, I think my images of a mentor were mostly white, older men. I’m envisioning scenes from “Goodwill Hunting.” Perhaps a man with patches on the elbows of his sweater, sharing long-winded advice and stories from his misspent youth.
It was about seven years ago that I was introduced to the concept of sponsorship, which I think is mentorship’s more successful sibling. Dr. Cornel West says, “Love is what justice looks like.” Similarly, I think sponsorship is mentorship in action. Mentors give guidance and advice to you; sponsors create opportunities for you.
How did your mentorship relationship begin? Were you looking for a mentor/mentee? How did you find one another?
KH: Our mentorship relationship began when we started working together! We were introduced by a friend and former colleague of mine who thought I would be a great fit for the role I am in now at 2U. Jennifer interviewed me for the position, and I immediately knew she would be an amazing person to work for and learn from. We met for breakfast during my first week on the job, and, as a new mom, I brought my then 3-month-old daughter along, which Jennifer not only understood but embraced. During that meeting, Jennifer was supportive, enthusiastic, and brilliant. I knew I’d made the right decision.
JH: About three years ago, an incredibly talented woman who was working for me got a lucrative job opportunity she could not turn down. I asked her if she had anyone in her network who she would recommend for her role, and she said, “My former boss, Kira. If you think I’m good, wait until you meet her. Everything I know, I learned from her.” Sure enough, Kira blew me away in the interview, and we had the good fortune of both living in Oakland, California, at the time. (Kira left the best coast for the Atlanta area.)
Kira had a newborn daughter and she was worried about balancing two new roles—mom and leader. I am a mom, too. I know the tension that exists between professional ambition and the unwavering desire and commitment to be fully engaged and present in your child’s life. It was important for me to show up for Kira so she could have all the room she needed to navigate that tension. I think our relationship evolved into mentorship because Kira invited me into her life. She was willing to be honest about what was hard for her, and she was eager to trust me.
The right mentor will create room for you to be your true self in all ways and help you see where you can learn and grow to get to the next exciting iteration of that self.— Kira Hernandez, Managing Director of Industry Insights & Impact
How have you nurtured your mentor-mentee relationship? How have you empowered each other? What’s one example of a lesson you have learned through your mentor-mentee relationship that has benefited you personally/professionally?
KH: What I value most about our relationship is our ability to be candid, honest, and open with each other while always upholding our mutual admiration and respect for each other’s strength and excellence. Jennifer always treats me as a whole human, living my own complex experience—not just as someone who works for her and needs to get a job done. She never lets me lose sight of my own greatness and potential, even when we are hustling and rushing to do the next big thing.
I think the greatest lesson I have learned from Jennifer is to always consider the experience of my peers and colleagues rather than lead with my own perspective or interpretation of a situation. This has helped me be a better leader and teammate on countless occasions. In my most frazzled moments, I am able to remember that everyone is doing the best that they can, one day at a time. Jennifer leads with empathy and love, and looking to her as my mentor, I have felt empowered and fulfilled by doing the same.
JH: Kira is this dynamic mix of hard-charging, results-driven, show-me-the-metrics, and let’s acknowledge that Mars is in retrograde so that it makes sense why we are re-assessing the initiative at hand. (I am sure I am disappointing Kira right now with my poor astrology example.) Kira both colors perfectly within the lines and burns the coloring book because it is too restrictive. She lives and operates in a space adjacent to contradiction and I can’t really explain what that means except that I know it gives me permission to use a whole bundle of and statements in a world that often wants women leaders to be either/or.
What advice do you have for women looking for mentors/mentees? What should they look for in their partner in growth and female empowerment?
KH: Look for a mentor who you feel like you can trust and who will be honest with you. I trust Jennifer to hold space for me when I need a moment to reflect, feel, or process. I also trust her to be straight with me when I’m wandering off track. The right mentor will create room for you to be your true self in all ways and help you see where you can learn and grow to get to the next exciting iteration of that self.
JH: I think you have to find the person who wants to get down with you. Find someone who sees your strengths and wants to amplify them, someone who encourages you to be even more of who you are, and most importantly, is willing to do something for you. Someone who will advocate for you when you are not in the room, make an introduction, vouch for you with others, lend you their credibility, go out on a limb for you, and create space for you. If mentorship is only advice or counsel, it’s not everything you deserve.
I think a more just world begins with building a culture that communicates two things: We only win together, and there is enough for all of us.— Jennifer Henry, Senior Vice President of Workforce Engagement
Many stereotypes have emerged over the years that portray women in the workplace as competing with one another instead of choosing to lift each other up. Do you believe mentorship is a responsibility of being a woman who supports other women, a woman committed to working toward a more just world?
KH: I think that stereotype is exactly what it is—a stereotype. I have experienced folks of all genders being competitive and reductive in the workplace, and I have also worked with folks of all genders who are committed to lifting each other up. However, there are undeniable biases—conscious or otherwise—that can limit the success of women in the workplace. For that reason, I do believe women have a responsibility to lift each other up through mentorship, sponsorship, and just being good to each other.
It’s also important for women to consider the areas of our identity where we have privilege, and to leverage that privilege to empower other women who do not share those privileges due to social inequities. Being a truly powerful woman at work requires self-awareness, resilience, empathy, grace, and a fire in your spirit to do the right thing by taking care of each other every day—no matter what.
JH: Both men and women compete, and I don’t think competition is always bad. Healthy competition can lead to greatness. A talent hotbed is when each person looks at the high performance of those around them and thinks, “I better get going so I can keep up.” It’s competition coupled with the scarcity mindset—only some of us can win, not all of us—that is destructive. And if you look around the world, across all sectors of society, more men than women are winning, and more white folks are winning than people of color.
I think a more just world begins with building a culture that communicates two things: We only win together, and there is enough for all of us. This goes back to my point of finding a mentor who amplifies your strengths. We are often told, especially as women, that we are not enough. Find someone who helps you feel like you are enough. This does not mean you know everything and how to do everything. It means you have everything you need to find your way to success—a growth mindset, foundational skills, resourcefulness, and people willing to help.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share about the importance of women mentoring women, mentorship more generally, or your personal mentor-mentee relationship?
KH: Working with Jennifer has changed my life because she sees me. Find a woman who sees you and a woman who needs to be seen. When we are seen, we can blossom into the fullest version of who we are meant to be. There is nothing more powerful than that.
JH: I am humbled that Kira sees me as a mentor. I am always learning from her, and her confidence in me challenges me to always try and be the best version of myself.
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