Mentoring: A Life Changing Experience

I keep meeting accomplished, interesting, and successful Czech women. But when I ask who helped them to achieve their career goals, I usually hear - “Nobody”.

This is a completely unknown concept for me.

Even during my university years, I had mentors. People, who helped me, guided me and were interested in my career development. First was a gifted teacher and pianist, Professor Lincoln. During the summer period where we had four months off school, he would give me weekly piano lessons. I didn’t have any money to pay him. But he did not care; he just didn’t want me to slow down my progress. After two years of studying with him, Professor Lincoln retired. I tried my third year in the program with his replacement, but could not find the same motivation, the same drive and devotion. I ultimately left for another faculty.

My second mentor at university was a Business faculty Professor Alice Nakamura. She lived with her husband a few blocks off campus and she always walked past my study spot on her way home. She’d often stop to chat, and in my last year of the University of Alberta Commerce Program, started asking me the important question about “what next”.

I was interested in getting a doctorate degree in economics. Alice recommended some universities in the United States, but first went to the University of Alberta Economics Department to speak with some of her colleagues there. She arranged an interview with me and the head of the economics team to talk about entering the two years Masters program. The interview went very badly. The Economics professor spent half an hour telling me how difficult the graduate program in economics was and how I probably would not make it thru. I applied and got into the program.

Alice stayed with me thru out the completion of my Graduate work as a member of the panel board to whom I presented my final thesis.

Thanks to Alice, I am where I am today.

Given the support I have been given over the years, it was quite natural to think about mentoring within the world of business. In 2010, with the support of the Top 25 Women in Business from Hospodářské noviny, Jan Bubeník (Executive Partner, Bubenik Partners), Pepper de Callier (Founder & Executive Director, Prague Leadership Institute) and Petr Šimůnek (Editor in Chief, Forbes), we launched the mentoring program Odyssey. It was the first program in the Czech Republic which provided a cross-company and cross-industry mentoring for future female leaders. Odyssey is a non-commercial mentoring project supported by female and male leaders, which creates an ideal platform to match aspiring Czech talented female professionals with experienced mentors.

Since its launch, more than ninety mentors and mentees have taken part in Odyssey. I am proud to hear that most of the mentees found a valuable partner in their mentor. Most of them tell me that being able to discuss work challenges or their career path with someone more experienced or with an insight, helped them view their situation from a different perspective. Also the mentors give me feedback on how the mentoring sessions inspire and motivate them.

As I am fully aware of the fact that competent female managers are also to be found outside the business sector, together with the Vodafone Foundation team, we started looking for ways how to empower women in the non-profit sector. First, we decided to expand the mentoring program to mentees from the NGO sector. We even had former Odyssey mentees continue in the role of mentors for women managers in non-profits.

Secondly, during the Vodafone Foundation yearly “World of Difference” program, we give the chance to people from the business sector to work for a non-profit organization of their choice, their former salary paid by the Vodafone Foundation. Through this program, the non-profit sector gets a motivated employee with business know-how for free. There are currently 27 applicants involved in these projects, with 13 million CZK in direct project support and another 7 million CZK allocated for this year. We focus on supporting people who are real experts; by this substantial transfer of know-how from the private to the non-profit sector, we are helping to ensure the non-profit organizations growth and sustainability. The supported non-profits have their cranking from ecology, regional development, philanthropy, social work, and social enterprise. Just to give one recent example: Travel agency director Tereza Vajtová started up a social enterprise project for the Jedlicka Institute for physically disabled youth - provides on-the-job training for disabled youth, offers job opportunities for the disabled and makes profit.

I hope that long-term programs like Odyssey and World of Difference establish a culture of mentoring in Czech businesses, and that more people have the opportunity to experience the fulfillment that comes from taking part in one of these programs.