The Power of “Men”tors

September 6, 2013Born in India, and currently based there, Aarti Shyamsunder, PhD, a Research Manager at Catalyst, has always considered male champions key to her professional success.

I’ve been fortunate to have encountered a number of men throughout my professional life who not only recognized my talents, but helped me to develop and expand them.

I met S.R., a wealthy, successful family friend, when I was only 16 and still living in India. I remember being impressed that he ate at fancy Italian restaurants and had a chauffeur, yet was somehow still one of the most accessible adults I’d ever met. I went on to do my first internship in an ad agency, inspired by S.R.’s passion for the field. I also worked on a short-term assignment for him, surprising him—and myself!—by producing 92 pages of material. As a reward, he allowed me to shadow him in a marketing workshop—and the workshop bug bit me. Today, I think back fondly on the lessons he taught me just by sharing his own work and perspectives.

When I was 24, I was an international student in small-town Ohio with no connections or work experience. Finding a good job or even an internship seemed like a distant dream. I’d resigned myself to another year of working in the library or teaching the same course I’d taught for the last three semesters, when I suddenly landed a job interview for an assistantship with a well-known researcher. I had a feeling that P.L., a professor of mine, had something to do with it, but I didn’t know what I could have done to impress him. It turned out that P.L. had spotted my potential and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He became my champion, and his faith and willingness to nominate me for a rare opportunity–a “hot job” of sorts—made a world of difference. Thanks to him, I found a boss I loved working for, a research topic that excited me, and assignments that challenged me—which ultimately made me the applied researcher I am today.

Fast forward a few years, and I was back in India, working as an internal consultant for a large company. Among the people I worked with was G.R., an internal client and senior leader who struck me as one of the smartest people I’d ever met. I was impressed with his track record of entrepreneurship in a conservative environment, and he took an interest in the work I was doing. Rather than a traditional, top-down mentoring relationship, ours was a friendship between equals. I’m indebted to him for challenging me to find solutions, and always being there with advice in the form of a bad pun or a movie reference when I needed an impartial view. He never failed to make me question my assumptions and my long-term goals.

Whether it was S.R. opening new worlds to me, P.L. advocating for me behind the scenes, or G.R. finding new ways to test me, these “men”tors have left a lasting impact. They didn’t choose me as part of a formal mentoring program, or because they had a special goal of aiding women. Luckily for me, they simply noticed my potential and helped me to reach it.