Democratized mentorship and a new generation of young women in health

Meera Chakravarthy and Ruth Wambui Wagatua

Mentorship is a two-way street. It is a dialogue led through the exchange and continuous refinement of ideas through which the mentor learns just as much from the mentee. Strong mentors listen and provide perspective on both professional and personal growth based on each individual mentee’s unique cultural and societal experiences. They embrace and support across countries, disciplines, genders, and perspectives.

But traditional forms of mentorship have not always embraced this approach. Influenced by the Eurocentric educational structure of training and guiding “protégés,” traditional mentorship tends to cultivate individualism and meritocracy. Under this dynamic, the mentor is in a hierarchical relationship with the mentee and is helping the mentee become better at a skill or discipline. This creates a perception that the mentee is lesser, and that the mentee is lacking something that only the mentor can provide. This stark power difference often hinders growth and confidence in those seeking to grow.

We must shift the notion of hierarchy where there is a “right” way to help someone grow and embrace a model that builds confidence and provides tools to meet the needs of each unique mentee. We must democratize mentorship.

Here at ThinkWell, we are attempting to create a democratized model of mentorship through the Samya Stumo Fellowship. Over the past year, we have developed the fellowship for changemaking women in global health from Kenya, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The fellows are given monthly unrestricted stipends and two forms of mentorship. The first form consists of mentorship from a local expert in global health who is able to provide country context as well as subject matter expertise. The second form of mentorship is through a weekly course during which the fellowship manager guides fellows as a collective group to share ideas and learn skills regarding project design and entrepreneurship. We believe that this transdisciplinary approach to mentorship is vital because there is so much more to learn from collective mentorship that spans disciplines and countries.

Ruth Wambui Wagatua, a Fellow from Naivasha, Kenya building infrastructure to treat fluorosis-affected communities, has been learning the boundaries and benefits of an even mentor-mentee relationship.

“An effective mentor-mentee relationship is one that ensures that mentees remain very much themselves and that they accomplish/activate all the potential they have, through very encouraging guidance.”

Through her experience, Ruth has expressed how she and her mentor are cultivating the balance between having a manager and having a mentor. It has been a positive growing experience for them.

Later in her career, Ruth herself will become a mentor to another young changemaker. Her experience today will affect their relationship in the future not only by showing Ruth the power of equality in learning, but by showing her what she can do when an expert treats her as a peer.

This year, we have documented six key lessons learned so far and hope that by sharing these lessons, more models of democratized mentorship can be formed around the world.

  1. Listen and connect with empathy: A good mentor is first and foremost a strong listener. They leave room to connect deeply by creating an environment in which it is ok to share mistakes and failures and ask questions that enhance the learning process. This vulnerability helps break the restraints of trying go about things the “right way” and produces an environment to co-create solutions.
    • Tool: Ask questions rather than giving solutions.
  2. Make feedback a dialogue: Feedback should always be a dialogue that prioritizes progress and growth. Whenever a mentor provides feedback, they should also provide examples of how to grow. This should be a dialogue through which the mentee is given room to brainstorm ways to improve together.
    • Tool: Share an example of how to improve a skill and let the mentee respond.
  3. Help build both knowledge and skills: Strong mentors not only help mentees build skills, but they help mentees gain new perspectives. It is healthy and should be encouraged to respectfully challenge or disagree with a mentor as long as it is done respectfully. This way, both the mentor and the mentee can see things from new angles and workshop how to reconcile contrasting ideas.
    • Tool: Balance every finding or conclusion by considering a contrasting conclusion.
  4. Rely on collective mentorship: It is powerful when a mentor can acknowledge their limits and seek the help of other mentors. The best mentors are able to refer the mentee to other individuals and help them expand their own networks. When democratizing mentorship, we must realize that it is good to have multiple mentors with different perspectives.
    • Tool: Focus on helping your mentee build their own personal network.
  5. Understand power, privilege, and politics: Vanguard STEM’s model of democratizing mentorship focuses on examining the roles power, privilege, and politics play in mentorship. As mentorship develops across countries, cultures, and disciplines, it is important for both the mentor and mentee to constantly reflect on how power, politics, and privilege impacts their relationship and leave room to openly discuss this.
    • Tool: Leave space in your time together to discuss current events and their impact on your mentee’s life and perspective.
  6. Set clear boundaries together: Setting boundaries from the beginning is key. Not all mentors are the same, therefore, it is important that a mentor and mentee agree on communication styles, availability, and the boundaries of what they can feasibly help with. A mentor will not be able to provide support for everything; therefore, setting those boundaries together is vital and something that can be constantly revisited and refined.
    • Tool: Have a mentorship agreement that you create together each quarter that outlines both your and your mentee’s needs, boundaries, and work styles.