As February ushers in Black History Month and the highly anticipated release of Marvel’s Black Panther, I’ve noticed a couple of things in the excitement surrounding the movie.
First, Black Panther is the first movie in history where people may be considered uncool for NOT wearing a costume to the premier.
Second, and more important, observation is that various members of the community have come together and taken on the responsibility of buying out theaters to make sure that black kids, regardless of their parent’s income, will be able to see the movie. It’s been surreal seeing the community invest financial resources and time to make sure that these kids can see and celebrate superheroes who look like them.
Mentors are superheroes to their mentees because they take on the responsibility of providing guidance and support for someone’s academic or professional goals. As with buying out theaters for Black Panther, supporting typically underrepresented STEM students/early career professionals may require an even greater level of commitment from their community than the already admirable commitment of being a mentor. While it would be impossible for you to mentor to every person who needs one, these are some tangible steps that you can take to go from being a superhero to your mentee, to being a superhero to entire communities.
As with any superhero, people need to know your story. Get together with some of your friends who are studying/working in STEM related fields and ask a local middle or high school about starting a monthly speaker series where you can talk to the students about your academic and professional journey. Think about the pride you felt when people who looked like you came in and spoke with your class or school about their careers; you’re able to do this now.
Volunteering as a judge during a local hackathon, robotics competition,
youth entrepreneurship competition, or any other activities exposing students to STEM is a great experience. It’s good to be supportive of existing efforts to uplift the community and encourage students to engage in STEM, and at some point, you should consider putting together your own event. Gather some like-minded individuals and host a hackathon or youth entrepreneurship competition. Buy some cool prizes for the participants and even if money is too tight to do that yourself, try to get your company or student organization to donate money for prizes for the students. Superheroes need crews too.
Having super powers doesn’t make you a superhero unless you use these powers when called upon by those in need. Simply stated, a core part of being a superhero is being responsive to calls for help. If you are serious about increasing diversity in STEM fields, you can’t just lay low and build. Tell people the best way to get in touch with you and then be responsive when people reach out to ask questions.
This doesn’t mean that you must grab coffee with everyone who “wants to pick your brain,” but it does mean that you should dedicate some time every week or month to responding to people on a platform of your choice. Maybe you use Twitter, maybe you accept inquiries through your personal website, maybe you do some type of Facebook Live Q &A session every month; whatever it is, don’t get too important to answer sincere questions.
Tip: Once you answer a question, post the question and the answer to your personal website. Posting your responses to previously asked questions will further establish you as an authority in your field, serve as a resource for those with questions, and ensure that you aren’t answering the same questions every time you speak with someone.
Superheroes come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and personality types, and that’s perfect. If you’re a person of a different background than many of the students/young professionals in your community, you can still be a superhero in your community. In addition to volunteering yourself, try asking people in your network who share similar backgrounds as the people you’re mentoring to get involved. If you’re a man and you talk to a group of young ladies about STEM opportunities, that’s awesome! Your next step is to think about some women colleagues who would also be willing to speak with the young ladies about her experience. If you’re a white person and you volunteer at an event with a group of black students, talk to some of your black colleagues about your experience and invite them to come with you in the future. The best superheroes understand that sometimes the same message from a different messenger will resonate in a different way. They aren’t worried about who gets credit for saving the world as long as the mission is accomplished.
BONUS POINT: Be the Plug
The next point may not flow with the superhero theme, but it’s an important point regardless. Remember those friends that I’m encouraging you to work with to pull off big community investment projects, highlight their work and help them establish themselves as leaders in their industries. This helps your friends build their own personal brands and builds a network of community-minded people who are leading voices in their fields.
One of my favorite quotes is “Good enough is never your best, but your best is always good enough.” When you serve as a mentor you are also preparing your mentee to be part of the next generation of mentors; make sure they are constantly thinking of how to go above what’s expected and inspire them to do their best at giving back to the community. Prepare your mentees to embrace the responsibility of being superheroes by being one yourself.