Misty Copeland's Success Story Is a Model for Black Women in Every Career

As an accomplished ballet dancer, Misty Copeland knows how to soar and spin. Her promotion to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has propelled her to heights once considered unthinkable: She is the first African-American woman to receive the prestigious ballet company's highest rank. And now the American Ballet Theatre star is wowing us once again with her breathtaking Essence cover for the September issue.

Although ballerinas win cheers for their solo turns, Copeland is the first to say that she owes her ascent to a strong network of supporters who helped her surmount childhood homelessness and racist dance critics, crippling injuries and a career that demands so much. This support network could be divided into two categories: mentors and sponsors.

Although people often conflate the two, research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows there's a crucial difference. Mentors are those people who take an interest in counseling you because they like you, or because you remind them of themselves. Mentors offer a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on and compassionate advice based on their own experience. Among Copeland's mentors was Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina in a major ballet company when she starred with the Ballets Russes in the 1950s, an era when the color of her skin prevented her from performing in certain areas of the South. Copeland found a kindred spirit in Wilkinson, who, in turn gave her advice on how to pursue her personal journey. "It was like I found a missing piece of myself, and a connection," Copeland said in an interview.

A sponsor is also someone who takes an interest in you and your career but their chief role is to develop you as a leader. They believe in your potential and are willing to take a bet on you by advocating for your next promotion, introducing you to key connections, encouraging you to take risks and providing air cover. Copeland benefited from sponsorship early on, when her drill team coach recognized Copeland's talent and introduced her to her friend Cynthia Bradley, which led to ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club; learning of Copeland's difficult living situation, Bradley took her into her own home and made her part of her family. More recently, Copeland's career has been given a massive boost by Valentino Carlotti. Valentino is Copeland's ABT sponsor and has been a supporter of hers for several years. As such, he has introduced Misty to influential businesspeople in the corporate world and has advised Copeland on strategic career moves.

Copeland's story has played out in the rarefied field of tutus and pointe shoes, but the lessons about sponsorship are crucial for anyone who wants to succeed in their chosen career. Furthermore, as Copeland has shown, they're especially important for black women who aspire to leadership positions in the corporate world.

As CTI research affirms, sponsors lend career traction by providing stretch assignments, advocacy, and air cover to high potential talent. Sponsorship is particularly crucial in invigorating ambition and driving engagement among people of color. Previous CTI research shows that 53 percent of African-Americans with a sponsor are satisfied with their rate of advancement, compared with 35 percent of those without such advocacy.

In fact, in our Black Women: Ready to Lead report, every senior black female executive we interviewed attributed her success in scaling those uppermost rungs to the advocacy of other powerful leaders. For instance, Angela Daker, a partner in White & Case Miami's office, attributes her success to "a broad range of support" that she's cultivated over the years by doggedly seeking commonality and forging relationships with people ostensibly unlike herself but who were in a position to see how she engaged with clients and delivered on projects. "I always understood that, if I had the right relationships and support, I'd have a chance."

People in a position to sponsor others, in turn, benefit by extending their support. Building a posse of protégés enhances your bench strength, complements your skill sets, and helps you realize your vision and burnish your legacy. Interestingly, CTI found that there's a protégé effect akin to the sponsor effect in terms of career traction for corporate leaders. Leaders of color who have developed young talent are overall 24 percent more satisfied with their career progress than those who haven't built that base of support.

All in all, a sponsorship relationship is key to advancement, no matter what industry you're in. It's also very important to pay it forward. Misty Copeland pays it forward by mentoring young dancers in ABT's Project Plié, a comprehensive initiative to draw more diverse dancers into elite ballet. In an ELLE interview, she says "I think it's so important for young dancers of color to have someone who looks like them as an example--someone they can touch," grabbing the skin on her forearm to make the point. "I tell them to be true to themselves."

That's a message rising stars in all careers can appreciate.