Job Tips

How Does an Equity-Centered Mentoring Program Succeed?

by Sylvie Abookire

At Onboard Health, we believe diverse companies win. We work with organizations to build equitable health innovation through powerful, inclusive teams and cultures of impact.

Three Takeaways From Onboard Health’s Community Needs Assessment

At Onboard Health, we believe diverse companies win. We work with organizations to build equitable health innovation through powerful, inclusive teams and cultures of impact. Part of this mission involves empowering a diverse group of professionals by connecting, equipping, and launching them into the health innovation workforce.

Earlier this year, we set out to better understand the identities, needs and wants of our community members as so many people asked themselves what they wanted and needed in a rapidly changing workforce. This was especially true in the health innovation space as we faced unprecedented challenges and inequity and injustice were on full display.

We started with a Community Needs Survey sent via the Onboard Health newsletter. We asked folx to share some basic information about their identities, and then asked them about their biggest career challenges and the types of programming that would be most valuable to them.

From about 50 responses, our biggest takeaway was that, more than anything else, what our community members wanted was a high quality mentoring program to leverage Onboard Health’s most valuable asset: our diverse community of passionate, talented individuals.

We followed the survey with nine qualitative interviews with a random sampling of respondents. During these interviews, we asked community members to tell us more about what they believed would make a mentoring program succeed. After completing these interviews, some salient themes rose to the surface.

1. The Right Match

Compatibility between a mentor and a mentee is arguably the most essential determinant of a program’s success. The community members we interviewed wanted to be matched with mentors/mentees who shared fundamental aspects of their identities and career paths, and who understood the unique dynamics of their particular fields.

Reflecting on a recent transition from a job in academia to one in the private sector, one interviewee reflected on characteristics of a hypothetical mentor who might have helped.

“[I would want] someone who could understand my background… because it was very academic, and so I felt like I was struggling a bit more to break into an industry/company world, so maybe having someone with a similar academic background and who has had that similar path would have been helpful.”

We learned from potential mentees that these shared career experiences mean a lot when looking for trusted guidance. Having common career interests or skills is important to mentors too, because they want to understand how and where they can be of value to their mentees. Several potential mentors we spoke to cited giving back to their communities and serving their mentees as primary motivations for participating.

Community members also spoke about the power of relating to their mentor/mentee’s identity. When asked about past experiences with mentoring that may have been unproductive or even negative, multiple interviewees — particularly women of color — mentioned that more harm than good can come when mentors cannot relate to the unique challenges of pursuing career growth in settings and environments where aspects of their identities are marginalized.

Furthermore, a lack of availability of mentors representative of historically ignored groups is in itself harmful, due to the implication that a representative pool of mentors was not available or considered (which perpetuates the myth of the pipeline problem).

“Finding space for affinity of identities is important… I haven’t had Latina mentors because I haven’t seen or had access to them… [I’d want] someone who’s had a similar experience based on personal identity.”

2. Clear Expectations

When embarking on something new, it is human nature to be curious about what the experience will entail. Our community members told us that before committing to a program, they would want to understand what would be expected of them, what would be expected of their co-participants, and what they could expect from us as the organizers.

One community member believes this can be done through structure.

“Structure makes an enormous difference in a program’s ability to succeed…I think it’s good to provide a certain level of prescriptiveness… I like programs that are structured so people can understand what they’re getting into when they’re getting into them.”

Structure allows the organizers of the program to set a standard and level set expectations across the program. This enables them to communicate expectations to participants in advance of and throughout the engagement.

This then leads to greater accountability on both sides of the relationship. We found that accountability may be key to ensuring high standards and a quality experience.

Low barrier-to-entry programs have the benefit of maximum inclusivity. However, they risk casting a wide net that encourages participation even from folx who are not truly committed and/or who do not truly have the time or intent to devote energy to the program.

One interviewee described a selection process that allows any interested individual to participate, yet requires them to first attend a handful of introductory educational workshops. This allows the organizers to gauge how committed folx are to participating meaningfully in the program, while also providing the benefit of education and common grounding for participants.

With this introduction, the program begins with all attendees having invested some time and energy at the outset, and having received the same foundation from which to build upon in their individual pairings.

Mentors and mentees alike can expect that a) their counterpart is willing to put in the time to make the relationship a success, and b) they understand and share the same expectations for what the engagement will entail.

3. Flexibility to Adapt

Our community members helped us understand that, amidst this structure, a mentorship program must allow for enough flexibility that each individual’s needs can be explored and met. Of course, needs will undoubtedly vary a great deal between different individuals participating in the program, but it is also important to consider and prepare for individuals’ needs changing over time and throughout the mentoring relationship.

It is best if programs proactively prepare to adapt to these evolving needs.

One strategy that may help is to set the stage for big-picture check-in conversations at regular intervals throughout the program. These conversations could be had between mentors and mentees, or could involve the program organizers, depending on the nature of their relationships. These conversations would serve to support mentors and mentees in taking a step back and re-evaluating if and how a mentees’ needs may have changed since the program began.

Furthermore, these check-ins may benefit mentors as well. One potential mentor spoke about hesitating to commit to a mentoring relationship if the duration or extent was not clear. Setting the expectation for regular check-ins creates opportunities for either or both participants to modify the nature or cadence of the engagement, and to take a step back when needed.

Normalizing variance in the mentoring dynamic over time reduces the emotional burden of initiating what may otherwise feel like a difficult or awkward conversation.

Onboard Health values community building, mentoring, and connecting as part of our #WeAllGoUp ethos. The testimonials from our Community speak to how we are putting those values into practice. If you are considering launching a mentoring program within your own community, we hope you will leverage these findings and as always, center the needs, voices, and identities of those you are serving.

If you have questions about this article, you may feel free to reach out to Sylvie Abookire. Sylvie (formerly Director of Systems and Operations, currently friend, fan, and supporter of Onboard Health) designed and led the survey and interviews cited above between April and June, 2021.

Finally, we want to express our sincere gratitude to those community members who responded to the survey and participated in interviews. We appreciate your time and contributions.