Why I Keep Coming Back to Mentor with TechWomen

This is a cross-post, written by Larissa Shapiro, from the TechWomen blog. Larissa Shapiro is the Head of Contributor Development at Mozilla.

TechWomen is an initiative of the US Department of State, administered by the Institute of International Education. TechWomen brings professional women in STEM fields from the Middle East and Africa to the SF Bay Area for month-long mentorships with women in industry and academia here. The “Emerging Leaders” are paired with a “professional” mentor (I have been honored to hold this role three times for the program) – who has the Emerging Leader with her at her workplace for a month, and a “cultural” mentor who shares the local culture and her own community and family life. The Emerging Leaders and their mentors also have the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC together in a delegation to the State Department and to other meetings with political and social movers and shakers in the capitol. Some mentors are also able to travel to the Middle East and Africa on delegations, as I was privileged to do in 2011 to Morocco. If any readers of Geek Feminism are interested in more information about the project, please visit the TechWomen page or reach out to me directly

I came across TechWomen by chance. A former colleague forwarded me a note from a local Women in Tech newsletter calling for mentors for a new State-Department-sponsored mentoring program. I thought… hmm…. am I ready for that? I’d gotten tremendous benefit from the mentors in my own life (I still do). I wanted to “give back” but felt terribly… green. I’d been in tech for about 15 years at the time, yet I felt unsure. I took a deep breath, filled in the application and sent it off, thinking there was no way I’d be accepted! In retrospect, I had Impostor Syndrome about becoming a mentor. What I did not realize then was how much mentoring would change my life, and change what I do with my life.

I was honored to be chosen for the first mentor cohort of TechWomen. I remember the first mentor meeting, and the incredible caliber of the women I met – I knew right away that this community of mentors would be a critical part of my TechWomen experience. Through mentoring, I have met and become friends with a network of amazing technical professional women with similar goals; all of us are dedicated to supporting each other and women in STEM around the world. Lifelong friendships have been built.

When my Emerging Leader arrived, I was impressed with her skills, talent, and intellect right away. It was not shocking – the women selected for this program are less than one out of ten of those applying. In 2013, 2000 women applied and 78 were selected. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to know every Emerging Leader well, and that we would never get enough time together.

Sanae and I dove into her mentorship, in which she studied project management techniques. We spent a lot of time at the French bakery down the road over coffee, learning how much we had in common. As much as I know I passed on wisdom to her about specific technical matters, she gave me her deep insights into my work relationships, and our friendship has continued. One of the biggest realizations for me in my first year as a mentor was that the technical mentorship is a container for work, but it is filled with deep international perspective, caring relationships, growth, and connection. The official “work” of the mentoring project turns out to not be the real “work” at all – not that it is not important.

As part of the program I was able to travel to both Washington, DC and to Morocco. Washington, DC was a wonderful trip – sharing both a city and a national heritage I love with new friends – that first year we happened to be in DC over the 4th of July and got to watch the fireworks from the top of the State Department. I felt like the luckiest American of all. Even more deeply meaningful for me was joining the TechWomen mentor delegation to Morocco – we travelled to Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat. One day we visited a house that provides care for girls who move to the city to attend secondary school – which they cannot do in their villages. The girls spoke mainly Berber, Arabic and French, but a few also spoke English and we talked with some of them. One told me of her determination to become a doctor and return to her village to improve healthcare for women and girls. At twelve years old, she spoke with an adult understanding of the world. I see the same fire in many girls who want to go into STEM – to change their circumstance – to change the world. She inspired me.

TechWomen moved into its second year, and expanded into more countries. I was thrilled to apply again – and my company wanted me to as well, having seen what an outstanding networking opportunity it was. I was matched with a brilliant emerging leader – an IT instructor from Tunisia. She chose a technical research project, studying the penetration of the IPv6 address protocol in Tunisia. She was also engaged in politics in her home country following its “Arab Spring” and taught me so much, giving me ever more respect for the work that goes into fighting for and building democracy.

I am now in my third year with TechWomen. I changed jobs during this year, and I was so determined to mentor again that I made my participation a criterion of my hire. I’m loving every minute with my newest Emerging Leader, Imen Rahal, who is very excited about the mission and projects of my present employer, Mozilla. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She has jumped in with both feet and is exceeding my expectations, taking on our modified Agile development process in the FirefoxOS project. I am very lucky that Imen’s Cultural Mentor is my friend (and Mentoring Process Architect) Katy Dickinson, and we have made cultural excursions together already, most recently to the redwoods near my Santa Cruz home.

Why do I mentor? Why wouldn’t I? For me, mentoring has become an emotional, networking, and perspective-building bank account where what I get back in “interest” is much more than what I put in. These women inspire me, bring my “game up” and become deeply cherished friends. If you have the chance to Mentor… I cannot recommend it enough.