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Encouraging Inclusion and Creativity with Mentorships

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When I joined Mailchimp’s Culture team last year, one of my first projects was developing and launching a mentorship program for our 800-plus employees. Our Culture team exists to make sure all Mailchimp peeps have what they need to be their best selves at work and grow in their roles. This includes initiatives like Mailchimp University and our apprenticeship program—and we knew adding mentorships to the mix would take it to the next level.

As Mailchimp has grown, more and more of our coworkers have been looking for ways to develop particular skill sets and strengthen their weaknesses. A mentorship program seemed like a great way to meet those needs, but we knew we needed to do it right. Often, informal mentorships are formed based on existing social connections or perceived affinities—which, in the tech world, often gives a short shrift to women and people of color. So it was important to us that the opportunity to be a mentor or a mentee was available to everyone at Mailchimp, and that our pairs were matched with an eye toward compatibility as well as our ongoing efforts to foster a company culture of diversity and inclusion.

Last May, we began accepting applications for our first-ever mentorship cohort. Anyone who’d been at Mailchimp for at least 9 months could apply to be a mentor or a mentee. We designed the application to steer potential mentors and mentees through some serious self-reflection in order to clearly identify the goal or skill set they’d like to work on. And we asked each applicant about preferred communication styles, what kind of match they were looking for, and what they’re involved in outside the office.

We ultimately selected 10 folks to be part of our inaugural cohort (5 mentors and 5 mentees), and we took great care to make each match compatible. In some cases, women and people of color requested to mentor folks from underrepresented groups because they knew first-hand how tricky navigating the tech world can be. We looked at employees’ professional backgrounds and home departments within the company, and considered generational differences, too. We spent hours reading and re-reading applications to ensure that each mentor/mentee pair was similar enough to have a productive working relationship and different enough to challenge one another as they worked toward their goals.

Once we had our pairs, we kicked things off with an introductory session and a few cohort meetings, then turned them loose. Every pair committed to meeting for 1 hour at least twice a month for 6 months. The pairs were largely on their own to decide how they’d work together and accomplish their goals, which ranged from strengthening public speaking skills to learning more about technical career-mapping. We didn’t want to impose a lot of structure—we knew a single approach wouldn’t work for every pair, and we wanted the mentors to feel empowered to coach in their own style. My team and I made ourselves available as a resource, but mostly stepped back to watch the mentorship magic happen.

Our first mentorship cohort wrapped up in February, concluding with a final meeting where everyone came together to talk about their experience and what they learned. All 5 pairs had successful mentoring relationships, but one in particular stuck out.

Early on, Brandon and Katie weren’t sure why they were paired. Katie, the mentee, was on the Marketing team and presented as extroverted. Her mentor, Brandon, was more reserved. As our Director of Infrastructure, he had a highly technical background, and she wasn’t interested in a technical role. But we had a hunch they’d be a great match: Katie’s goal was to work on her problem-solving skills and learn how to better communicate up to leadership, which Brandon had a lot of experience with. And we knew Brandon—who managed a small team of all men—would benefit from working with a woman. Sure enough, they totally clicked. After 6 months, it was hard to tell who was the mentor and who was the mentee. They both wound up setting goals and helping each other grow, and they plan to keep meeting in the future.

It was a huge relief when our first mentorship cohort ended well, especially since we launched our second cohort about halfway through! We’ve had 12 pairs go through the program so far, with even more coming up. Everyone’s learned so much, myself included. One of our company values is humility, and plenty of people here embody that trait every day, but it’s still rewarding to see it in action. Best of all, this program serves as a reminder that, whether you’re teaching or learning, there’s always something to learn on both sides.

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