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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

I was a reluctant mentor

It was late 2019, and I was between engagements. I was trying to sort out the next stage of my professional life. I had had a great meeting with the then-head of Notre Dame’s IDEA Center and the thought of working with student entrepreneurs sounded interesting. I would love their energy and passion, but wondered if I could contribute enough. I had, after all, had a mostly large enterprise, corporate career. These students, and I presumed that they would be business students, were seriously considering start-ups. Well, if ND thought I could make a difference and the young people were interested, I would give it a go.

Thanks to the insight of John Henry, Director of Student Startups, I had the good fortune to be introduced to Phoebe T. MBA ’20. Over coffee and apple crisp, Phoebe told me about her idea — a brick and mortar business grounded in the physiological differences unique to female athletes. I was hooked. Her concept was great and she was terrific. Over the course of the next few months, I saw her flourish in her business plan and we became friends. I was more than proud when Phoebe called to tell me that she had excelled in ND’s McCloskey Business Plan Contest, winning the graduate student level. She even encouraged me to mention our work in my Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI) application. Sadly for Phoebe, COVID-19 was raging and had rendered her proposal ill-timed. I am confident that the essence of the idea remains strong and that great things are in store for Phoebe.

COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in my plans too. I had been accepted to the ILI but our program was on hold due to the pandemic. I had the time and the interest to be a mentor, but I was really hesitant to go down this road again. Could I duplicate the magic?

Fortunately for me, Phoebe was wiser than I. As she told me, young people — especially women — needed the guidance and mentorship I could provide. I could only hope that she was right. Once again, John Henry introduced me to two students, women both, though undergraduates this time. ND had planned an extended Winter break and was asking alums to help students find educational experiences and internships and to contemplate start-ups. Saving me from a difficult decision, no doubt, only one student contacted me. Over winter break ‘20-21, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Renee Yaseen ’22 (expected) as she developed a technology-based start-up — FriendOver. Was it a coincidence that Renee also won her division in McCloskey, at the undergrad level, or was a trend emerging?

That last question is rhetorical, but allow me, dear readers, to explore the virtues of “mentorship.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of mentorship. If one develops a respectful, caring and nurturing concern for a mentee, can it ever be anything but a powerful and enabling emotion? If one can teach, support and challenge a mentee, are not both people all the better for the relationship? If the mentor feels younger, smarter and more vibrant, what’s the harm? Working with Renee and Phoebe, I revisited both business and technical concepts and strove to convey them in a way that my mentees could activate the learning. In return, I shared their enthusiasm, their struggles and, eventually, their successes. And, in a very important way, we explored ideas, both business, personal and philosophical, that expanded my thinking. I hope that they feel that our conversations enriched them as much as I do. So, in a theme that I am developing personally this year, I see mentorship as a gift of love and growth, an opportunity become a better person as I attempt to help others progress toward their goals. I am grateful to Phoebe and Renee for allowing me the opportunity to know them and to call them friends. As I can begin to see the conclusion of my ILI year ahead, I know I will look forward to bringing my learnings to my “next act.” As I hope they will do theirs.

Editor's Note: This piece originally recorded Renee's last name as Yaseem. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Yaseen.

Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off campus. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at mewoods80@nd.eduor @MEWsmuses on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.