How to Build Your Mentoring Network

Emani Brooks told a panel at the 2023 National Mentoring Summit in Washington, DC on Jan. 26 that she was shy before she became an Urban Alliance intern at Power to Decide.

“I didn’t like talking to people at first, I preferred people coming to me, and I didn’t like public speaking,” said the Urban Alliance Alumnus to a room of 100 attendees–educators, nonprofit leaders, youth development experts–from across the country, 48 online viewers, and her fellow panelists Seema Sabnani, Laurentiis M. Gaines, Jr. and Sam Meisenberg. “By the end of the internship, it was like a complete 180 — I’ve gained more confidence, I’m better at public speaking, I take the initiative, I ask people where they’re from.”

Now majoring in business administration at Bowie State University in Maryland, Emani’s experience doing “real work” at her paid internship through Urban Alliance’s flagship High School Internship Program (HSIP) gave her confidence in continuing to build a professional and mentoring network at college. From publishing blogs on her employer’s website, to creating social media content, and attending department meetings, Emani says she felt like more than just an intern. “I felt like a part of the team.”

Mentoring is an investment

On the other side of the panel was Sam Meisenberg, Director of Product Experience at CyberVista where he’s responsible for designing and creating educational content for cybersecurity professionals. Now in his third year of mentoring, he tries to do exactly what Emani described. “I promise Emani and I did not share answers before the panel,” he joked. “But I try to treat the intern as an adult with two approaches:

  1. Give them real responsibility, real deadlines, giving real work that is public-facing, and setting very high standards. Sometimes that manifests in some difficult conversations like, ‘I think you can do better,’ but the intern feels like an adult and heard. They feel respected and valuable. That’s the goal.

  2. Second prong approach is not always talking about work. Finding ways to connect on a human level. I had an hour-long work meeting about shoes and learned the difference between Jordan 4s and Jordan 1s.”

When Sam first started as a mentor, his employer worried at first that he would spend more time mentoring than doing his job, but he made his case. 

“I think the good news is there is a lot of natural alignment with what works for the employer at Cybervista and the intern,” he said. “When we’re in meetings, we don’t say ‘this is Emani, an intern,’ we say, ‘she’s on the product team.’ Interns respond really well to that — they feel important and valued and the company feels like they’re gaining another team member.”

Mentoring works best by setting up end goals

Sam starts a meeting with the interns and his colleagues by establishing three needs:

  1. You get something out of it
  2. I get something out of it
  3. We are going to try to have fun

This sets everyone up for thinking about end goals, thinking about things in reverse, so they are aware of the skills, knowledge, and abilities the intern wants to explore. He makes a list and then figures out what tasks or jobs and responsibilities will help the intern get there.

Washington, DC, high school senior, Jaden Dicks, is Sam’s current Urban Alliance mentee. “Jaden is interested in IT, and I was going to introduce him to a colleague, but he already knew him, and I attribute that to the pre-work he did in the eight-week Urban Alliance training before the internship begins.”

Mentoring high school students for life

Sam and Emani are just two of the mentors and mentees that are part of the vast Urban Alliance network. Through strong relationships with mentors and program leads, high school seniors are launched on a pathway to future economic mobility, and hundreds of employer partners are accessing and building a talent pipeline of young leaders. 

“I’m still connected to mentors I met 10 or 15 years ago,” said Laurentiis M. Gaines, Jr., Program Director for Urban Alliance Greater DC. Gaines gave context to the testimonials of Sam and Emani. “Not every young person wants to go straight into college so one of the key aspects is the one-on-one mentoring.” 

Laurentiis explained to the audience that Urban Alliance conducts mentor orientations, evaluates the mentor’s skillset, assesses how to build and foster the relationship, and how to create a work plan so the intern doesn’t come in doing typical mundane tasks.  

“Our program serves children of color, so sometimes we’re prepping the mentor for a new environment and a new relationship,” he said. Most importantly, he emphasizes two things: 

  1. Accessibility: How mentors will connect the intern to their colleagues. 
  2. Exposure: Interns don’t know what they like until they try it. “We tell interns to be open to something new, to try new tasks and projects. If they say they’re done with tasks, we advise mentors to give them something more to fail, succeed, to grow, to learn.”

Mentoring relationships give interns a chance to receive constructive criticism

This ability to fail and learn and grow is one of the key aspects Seema Sabnani, Chief Program Officer for Urban Alliance, highlighted. “Constructive criticism is never easy to take, so I commend Emani for getting it and taking it so early in life.”

What made Emani feel more comfortable with taking constructive criticism is when she started getting closer to her mentors at Power to Decide–Cat McCay, Social Media Manager, and Maggi LeDuc, Senior Manager of Content. 

“Once I started asking questions, the conversations started to flow,” said Emani. “I asked how they applied to college, and it helped talking about things other than work. I want to emphasize once your internship ends, your communication with your mentors do not have to end.” 

"My internship helped me get out of my shell and step out into the real world with my head held high."