It can feel daunting and overwhelming to shape someone’s career. Here’s a few easy ways to get started
I talked about the important role that mentors and sponsors can play in supporting journalists of color throughout their careers. Now, let’s talk about what that actually looks like and how you can take steps toward making it happen.
Who can be a mentor or a sponsor?
You can be a mentor or a sponsor! Yes, you! If you’re reading this column, then you probably are a human who cares about other humans in journalism. That’s really the first qualification of being a mentor. There is a difference between mentoring and sponsoring, so it’s important to understand what each entails.
Becoming a sponsor can be a bit trickier, since it requires you to have some form of privilege or social capital to spend on your candidate’s behalf. But this doesn’t mean you can only be a sponsor from the C-Suite.
When is it mentorship and when is it sponsorship?
I get asked this question a lot and this is how I define the difference: mentorship is about using your skills and experience to help your mentee level up or be their best selves, while sponsorship is about using your capital and your privilege to push your candidate into the next level or opportunity. Mentorship is, in a way, a hug and a pat on the back, while sponsorship is more of a swift kick in the rear. A sponsor is going to spend their social or political currency on the candidate’s behalf, in order to solely benefit the candidate.
Make yourself easily available
One key to becoming a mentor is to make yourself readily available to others. In the digital age, this could mean posting an online calendar link to your office hours. I’m a part of two formal online mentoring programs, Media Mentors and Digital Women Leaders, both of which ask mentors to set up a Calendly link and set aside a few time slots per month for calls.
However don’t expect people to just come breaking your door down either! This is not a “if you build it, they will come” situation. Many early career journalists and journalists of color are facing imposter syndrome and don’t feel “worthy” of asking for your time and support.
Send out a Twitter thread explaining what areas you want to give advice in (resume reviews, portfolio feedback, story exploration, career development, etc). Talk about your own background and experiences in the industry. Remember and acknowledge the folks who have mentored and supported you. This helps potential mentees get to know you separately from your professional work.
You have more to offer than you think
Another challenge is that you yourself may be facing imposter syndrome, and you may be sitting there right now thinking, “what would I even have to offer someone else?”
The truth is, if you have ever had a job, if you have ever gotten published, if you have freelanced, if you have edited, if you have managed, if you have been managed, if you have done literally anything — successfully or not — you are qualified to share that with someone else in the hopes that they can learn from your experiences.
Additionally, if you come from a historically privileged background, such as being white, it’s important to recognize that some things that worked for you might not work for someone from another background. Mentorship is both an honor and a responsibility, and it’s important for mentors to recognize their privilege while seeking to share power.
Talk to people outside your direct network
This may seem obvious but it’s an important one. Don’t just work with students who went to your alma mater or worked on your college paper. Don’t just offer to pass along resumes from candidates you already know.
Take advantage of opportunities to participate in the journalism community by speaking at college classes, pitching workshops at conferences, or attending networking meetups. This can help you widen the scope of your network so you are reaching new folks all the time.
Listen before you give advice
When you meet with your mentee or candidate, they’ll often come to you with problems and challenges. It will be tempting to jump in immediately and say, “this is how I would handle things.”
A good mentor also stops to ask: “Do you want feedback and solutions, or do you want to vent?” before diving into their thoughts on a subject. My friend Kim Bui often gives this advice, especially when the mentor and mentee are from different backgrounds: Listen and listen carefully.