Tears welled in Janel Bell’s eyes as she thought back on her struggle to make sense of her purpose. “This brings back a lot that I hadn’t really thought about in a long time, that isolation. I’ve always been a think-on-my- own, I don’t follow the crowd type … I’m pretty much self-made,” she says, reflecting on her search for someone to guide her professionally. “It can be very isolating when you don’t have anyone else as like-minded to really connect with.” After 25 years of raising children, the 47-year-old mother of 10 thought that there was absolutely no one who could relate to her experience, let alone help her craft a new career trajectory. With a little intentional intervention, though, Bell realized that the next chapters of her professional dreams were yet to be written.
Initially, Bell was reluctant to apply to Unlock Her Potential, a nonprofit mentorship program she came across, because she struggled seeing her worth beyond motherhood. But the universe quickly and joyfully shattered that fallacy. It soon became evident that her unique experience with caregiving was one that she knew people could learn from. She toyed with the idea of writing a book, but had no idea where or how to start. The mentor she was matched with, Marcelle Karp, is an author and creative director, and was able to tap into a part of her that had been overlooked. “Through her, I would not be where I am now, It was just such an awesome experience to have her unlock the writer within me,” Bell tells me.
I am no stranger to the loneliness of navigating professional spaces. During my college years, I learned that mentorship was not just integral to a successful career path, but also integral to our confidence in a given field. I learned that mentors provide mentees with early stage developmental opportunities, speak their names in rooms they haven’t entered, and help them realize their full potential ― but finding a good one was a brutal task.
While I spent hundreds of hours grooming myself for the moment when someone would swoop in and help me make sense of what it was I was trying to do with my life, the coffee dates and emails selling myself to individuals I thought I’d bond with felt awkward and ineffective. I lost hope in mentorship all together. It felt like another thing that wasn’t for me, only deepening the pre-existing loneliness. While this experience did force me to grow a thick skin and become self-sufficient, this was only scar tissue on the deep wound left behind by the struggle of being denied something we all need — a reliable guiding light with the wisdom to propel us forward.
Women of color, in particular, struggle to find mentorship in all industries. And we need them badly. We are passed up for opportunities to work under and learn from gatekeepers, even when we have all of the credentials and experience to do so. The lack of these connections are reflected in ongoing data about how undervalued we are: Women of color representing only 4% of C-suite employees, for example, and reportedly earn far less than their white male counterparts. Bias isn’t something that we can change overnight, but having the tools to shatter glass ceilings will at least start the process.
Black and brown women should not be left to tread the choppy waters of our careers alone. And frankly, effective mentorship looks different for us than it does for Chad in accounting. We need access to all of the insider secrets that propel our white counterparts to promotions and raises. For this reason, screenwriter and author Sophia Chang, founded Unlock Her Potential in 2020, to address the lack of mentorship amongst women of color ages 18 and up.
“Our goal is to see more of us ascend to positions of power that grant us the leverage of making decisions that will impact our community. We want more of us in the C-suites calling shots,” says Chang.
Chang experienced the power of professional guidance after building a relationship with her mentor Michael Ostin, former president of A&R at Warner Brothers Records and former President of Dreamworks Records, whom she met in the late ’80s during the budding stages of her career.
It was through this relationship that she was able to actualize her own path. “Mentorship is deeply meaningful to success because it helps us shape our thoughts around our identity, value and direction,” says Chang. Along with providing her with a deeper understanding of herself, her mentor was able to present opportunities that she might not have had otherwise.
It was important for Chang to build a program that included male mentors so they could share some of the privilege they experience just by existing in a professional space. “I think for white men, mentorship comes about organically because most industries are built by, populated by, and sustained for them. Therefore, they’re naturally welcomed into the rooms and integrated into the conversations. It’s more difficult for women of color because we are not the default, like whiteness is,” Chang said. She’s not wrong.
Throughout industries, women of color often struggle with demystifying what is often referred to as “the process” because of a difference in cultural norms and language. This ultimately makes it difficult to connect with individuals who might be able to guide them, Chang tells me. In the program, she pairs women with established individuals (our team found out about the program because HuffPost’s editor-in-chief, Danielle Belton, volunteers as a mentor) who can help decode the rules, while also providing invaluable advice to bright and capable, yet overlooked, talent.
And the program bears more tangible fruits as well.
“Though Unlock Her Potential is about guidance and not access, we have had remarkable scenarios where mentors have extended themselves to make introductions, write letters of recommendation, even hire their mentees.”
Michelle Malizaki, a 53-year-old stand-up comedian, is one of 300 women who have been mentored in the program so far. She immigrated to California from Japan to attend San Diego State where she hoped to major in theater, but was discouraged when a professor told her she was a good actor as long as she didn’t speak. Yeah, you read that right.
“I’ve tried to get scholarships, and things like that, anything that would help me better. I’m usually considered, but I’m never picked, and that’s been my whole life … I’m good enough, but I’m not great enough,” said Milizaki.
After college she wanted to be a copywriter but spent a large portion of her early career meandering through corporate doing TV production work. Malizaki recalls working on reality TV, variety shows, documentaries and sports news before getting married and deciding to become a stay-at-home mom.
“When I was 45-ish, I was like, is this how things are going to end for me? I’m not doing anything for society. I’m not happy. What am I doing? What am I living for?” said Milizaki. What she calls a mid-life crisis led her to improv classes, open-mics, and then stand-up comedy, which she had no idea was an actual profession until five years ago. After applying to UnLock Her Potential, she was paired with comedic giant Russell Peters, who was one of the comics she discovered during her early days binging stand-up on XM radio’s Laugh USA. During her initial interactions, she spent a lot of time doubting herself until Peters let her know he had hand-picked her application.
This moment changed the perception she had of herself moving forward.
“I had no words, it really boosted my self-confidence,” said Milizaki. During their mentorship period, she had the opportunity to open up for Peters for two shows, while also receiving his advice which was always imbued with kindness. “I was cautious in the beginning because of what I’ve been through. I’m not looking for a friend, I’m looking for a north star to guide me ― Russell is a high north star for me, I have aways to go, but he’s been that,” she added.
Many of us have learned to adapt to being constantly dismissed or disrespected in our fields. We continue to stride, steering our professional journeys and advocating for our needs at a pace all our own, but at any age — we benefit from a little nudge in the right direction.