Women in Business: Q&A with Samantha Albery, Director of MicroMentor

Samantha Albery is the Director of MicroMentor, an online community that helps entrepreneurs and experienced professionals work together to build small businesses. At MicroMentor, she offers leadership skills combined her with passions for entrepreneurship, systemic solutions, partnership development, and adult education. Samantha believes that supporting small business through mentorship transforms individuals, families, and communities.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I never saw myself as a leader. I was comfortable in the co-pilot seat where I could help the leader turn their vision into reality. During a transition for MicroMentor, I was nudged into leadership by a number of Mercy Corps senior leaders who believed that my vision would transform MicroMentor and that I was capable of implementing that vision.

My work horse roots helped me demonstrate my drive and my ability to execute. These two characteristics coupled with my passion for MicroMentor builds a compelling case that has won over colleagues and partners. Learning to respect my own vision has completed the loop and has helped me become comfortable in the shoes of a leader. Where I was once reluctant, I have come to embrace my leadership role.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at MicroMentor?
I began working at age 14 - both of my parents imparted an incredibly strong work ethic on me and my sister. My jobs ranged from the unskilled and low paid (cleaning public restrooms at Yosemite National Park, and administrative support at my University) to highly skilled and unpaid (supporting at-risk youth at a middle school in Denver to working in a think tank in Germany). I worked odd jobs, volunteered, and interned extensively, trying to discover the right career path for myself. At times I felt as though I had circled the globe and had only eliminated options. Instead, what I discovered was that following my passion and my diverse interests helped me develop an eclectic skillset that has made me uniquely qualified for my current leadership position. Returning to the lessons of my parents, they taught me to work hard at my job (regardless of what that was) and to follow my passion. Those lessons have served me well.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Pure stubbornness and an incredibly supportive husband. We both work hard, but we also make sure to enjoy our lives, take time for ourselves, and spend time with our son. I am dogmatic about this in the office and strive to create an environment that encourages this balance.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at MicroMentor?
Some of the greatest challenges have been working hard to achieve an objective and still falling short. There have been so many moments when I felt that we were on the brink of something great, and then it didn't materialize. That felt so disappointing. But, more than that, those moments drove me to tackle the same issue from a different angle--to try, try, and try again. These lessons enabled us to achieve greater success.

Another highlight is my team. I am surrounded by passionate, smart individuals who put their hearts and souls into their work. I am inspired on a daily basis by my colleagues and have learned so much, both personally and professionally, from working with them.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking a similar career?
Follow your passion.

Work hard (or volunteer) through university and beyond, and in a wide variety of areas. These jobs will help you identify your path and will help you build skills in the process.

Learn from others. Actively seek people whom you admire or whose jobs you would like and find out how they got there.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are systemic constraints that women face toward advancement, but I look at myself and many of my female friends and wonder how many of our challenges stem from within. We need to believe in (and advocate for) ourselves, speak up, network, and not fear being labeled as too ambitious.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl Sandberg has spoken a number of truths. Many of them were hard to hear, and some of them lead in a direction that would not work for many, but she initiated an overdue dialogue in this country.

Lean In reminded me of myself at age 23. At this time, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany and I had just begun a competitive internship at a German think tank. I was on top of the world for a 23-year-old, and yet I was already adjusting my career ambitions downwards because I knew that I wanted a family. I remember extended conversations with peers--women who were incredibly accomplished for their age and had every right to expect great things, but who were equally likely to downgrade their ambitions. Looking back, I wish that I'd had a copy of Lean In at that time; moving forward, I will pass it on.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been blessed by many mentors who believe in me and have helped me to believe in myself. I tend to connect with new mentors when I'm at a crossroads. They help me broaden my horizon and see a problem from a different angle. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of shifting my gaze a fraction of a percent, and other times it feels like my mentors have taken off my blinders. I can sincerely say that I would not be in my current position if it were not for the belief and encouragement of my mentors.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
When I first started at MicroMentor, I remember being really blown away by Karen Doyle Grossman, the original founder of MicroMentor. She was so knowledgeable, could command attention, and managed to always maintain her own personality. I still have tremendous respect for Karen and call on her for advice regularly.

At the same time, I am inspired by many of my current colleagues. In particular, I am constantly learning from Anita Ramachandran. I tend to approach critics? combatively and passionately, while Anita can knock down critics one at a time by winning their hearts and minds. Anita mentors me and other team members to help us live up to our potential.

One public figure whom I find inspirational right now is Malala Yousafzai. She is so young but already so inspirational. She is asking for a basic human right--the ability to go to school--but it is revolutionary in her context and takes so much courage. She has responded with such grace to the adversity that she has faced since becoming a public figure.

What are your hopes for the future of MicroMentor?
Right now, I would like to see the momentum continue accelerating. It has taken MicroMentor more than 5 years to facilitate 5,000 mentoring relationships; our goal is to double that in 2014, facilitating an additional 5,000 matches for a total of 10,000 mentoring relationships. This goal is ambitious, but our trajectory indicates that it is not out of reach.

As a non-profit, MicroMentor's success is deeply tied to the success of our beneficiaries--small business owners who are investing in themselves, their businesses, and their communities through the help of volunteer mentors. Small businesses are the backbone of many American cities, yet many small business owners are struggling to make ends meet. Entrepreneurs who receive assistance from MicroMentor increase their revenues by an average of $47,000, which is greater than a 100 percent increase. Likewise, one out of every two businesses creates a full-time job. If only one in three small businesses in the United States created a full time job, then the United States would reach full employment.

At the same time, we can only continue to grow and serve these small business owners if we continue to increase the number of volunteer business mentors coming to MicroMentor. Mentors can grow while serving others. By sharing their experience with small business owners, mentors can help bring business possibilities to life, and help individuals achieve their dreams. Share what you know with a business owner, become inspired by their passion, and help them achieve their dream.