How important is it to have a mentor? Sources suggest that mentorship in general can have a large affect on careers, improving key skills, providing a different perspective & allowing for impartial advice among other things. Another key consideration, especially when starting your career, is that there have been many in your shoes with similar experiences whose advice is the result of experience.
Whilst the necessary theoretical skills can be developed during study and education, the saturated nature of the Data Science market has resulted in the need to 'stand out', which can be tough unless under the mentorship or guidance of someone who 'knows what they're doing'. The growth in AI focussed roles in recent years has also resulted in great competition for mentors, most of whom will also be busy with other work or simply uninterested in mentorship. We asked our Diversity Diaries contributors their advice on mentorship from the standpoint of a Woman in AI including their own experiences!
Rana el Kaliouby, CEO, Affectiva
Investing in your network, including finding peers and mentors, is one of the most important things you can do for your career, no matter what stage you’re in. I met my mentor, Dr. Rosalind Picard, while pursuing my Ph.D. at Cambridge University. I’d read her book, Affective Computing, which spawned my interest in Emotion AI. Little did I know that meeting Roz would change the entire trajectory of my career and my life.
I ended up going to the MIT Media Lab to do my post-doctorate with Roz’s group, and we went on to spin out of the Media Lab and co-found Affectiva together. We learned a lot about moving from academia to business, raising venture capital and more, but even beyond our professional relationship, I learned a great deal about life from observing how she conducted hers. She taught me about perseverance, never taking “no” for an answer, and keeping faith – one of the most important values for a scientist building something that’s never been built before. Through my experience with Roz and countless other mentors I’ve gained over the years, I now recognize that being a mentor to other young people – especially young women – is one of the most important roles I can have to give back to the tech and AI communities.
Georgia Gkioxari, Research Scientist, Facebook AI Research
It is very important to have a mentor throughout your career. I have had mentors during school, college, my graduate studies and my job. My parents strongly believe in education, not surprising as they are educators themselves. They supported and encouraged me throughout all of my school years. In college, my thesis advisor encouraged me to pursue graduate studies and helped me gain the confidence to apply to the best universities in the world, even though I was in smaller university in Greece, very far from UC Berkeley, where I eventually was accepted for a PhD. At UC Berkeley, my PhD advisor has had a strong, positive, impact on my growth and career. All the way from brainstorming and researching together to providing invaluable advice. Last, my current manager at my job is someone who has helped me grow both by closely collaborating with me on impactful projects but also by actively promoting my career.
Julia Kroll, Data & ML Engineer, Amazon
It’s crucial to have connections for advice and encouragement. I didn’t have just one mentor, but rather various professors, peers, and colleagues who encouraged me and helped me grow as an engineer. I recommend seeking out advice and support from people in your academic or professional circle that you admire and see opportunities to learn from. Oftentimes people are happy to help when you take the first step and express an interest in connecting.
Think of mentors as your backstage, production, and direction team!
Vishakha Gupta, Co-founder and CEO, ApertureData
I have had several mentors over the last decade, basically ever since I was ready to finish grad school and step out into the "real" world. Quite a few of them were work colleagues, managers, second level managers, and some were matched with me at events. Sometimes your experienced friends can be your mentors too. I look at a mentor as someone who can help you answer some work-related questions when you are struggling to answer them yourself. You always need someone you look up to and trust to be your mentor for growing yourself into the best version of you. They also show you the way to achieve what you want to. My mentors have answered tough questions about interacting with teammates or management, how to become a lead by walking the talk, how to watch the trends to carve out a niche and succeed, and how to be good at the technology you are developing.
There are a lot of nice people around you who have tons of experience. All you have to do is ask, follow up, and feel if the chemistry is right. Make the meetings fun for them too by offering them something you learnt. Most of my mentors were very busy people but were also very technically savvy. So for our 1:1s, I made it a point to inform them of any new research I had read and some new upcoming trends so they could be informed without having to read a lot of papers in my domain. I always like to think of anyone's success as a team effort even if you are the face of it and do the challenging work. Think of mentors as your backstage, production, and direction team!
Jekaterina Novikova, Director of Machine Learning, Winterlight Labs
I think it is extremely important to have a mentor that inspires you and makes you learn new things, either directly or indirectly. During my career, I have met people that influenced me either with their work or their general attitude. These people made me want to become a better version of myself, to keep going and make progress. For me personally, it was usually enough to know those people exist, I did not necessarily need to speak to them or ask for a specific advice. I never tried to look for such people on purpose, I just always try to keep my eyes open and notice exceptional people around me that could give me some inspiration.
Julia Rabin, Project Lead, Diversity VC
At the beginning of your career having a mentor to guide you through career decisions and talk you through any questions you have about your role whilst also acting as your champion within the industry can be extremely helpful. Personally I've never actually had an official mentor but in a way my first boss took on this role as the first person to introduce me to London's startup scene - connecting me to individuals across the ecosystem (including the organisation I now work for), and taking an interest in what future roles I might use his organisation as a launchpad for.
Sarah Laszlo, Senior Neuroscientist, X the moonshot factory
To me, the word "mentor" means a lot, and I don't use it casually. My mentor is Dr. Kara D. Federmeier. I only use the word "mentor" to refer to her, and I say it with great reverence.
I have known Kara for 16 years now. We first met when I was visiting the University of Illinois for graduate student preview weekend. We have different memories of that first meeting. I remember Kara's impassioned description of her research methodology. Kara remembers me wanting to come to Illinois because of the cow pastures, which reminded me of my home in Montana. I had little idea of what it really meant to do language research then, and as I have already written about in this forum, my success today depended a lot on a person—in this case, Kara—not judging me too harshly for my ignorance, for seeing my potential, and deciding to help me get better.
I was Kara's graduate student for 5 years, and her first graduate student to attain a PhD. During this time, Kara made herself selflessly available to me. She advised me on every aspect of my life. My academics and research, of course (that early in my career, I thought all PhD advisors did this; now I know how fortunate I was), but also more personal aspects of my life, like my finances — she helped advise me on the purchase of my first house — and even at times my love life (or lack thereof). When a summer funding opportunity I had secured fell through, Kara wrote me a check on the spot to cover my rent for the month.
When I went off to do my postdoc, Kara still met with me more than my postdoc advisor did. When I applied for my faculty position, Kara was the one I called in tears because of how badly my practice job talk went: it the most important talk of my life, and I went down in flames in my first practice in front of a room full of people. But Kara was there, so it was okay. Kara has advised and supported me in almost every area of my life in the time since we met. When I accepted my faculty position, Kara sent me a copy of her faculty startup budget, and that is what I based my own on. Same for my first grant. Same for my tenure package.
Through all of this, across all of the topics and situations that we have talked through, there are two things about our relationship that I hope that everyone can find in a mentor. First, I can trust her. In all senses of the word -- I trust that she won't betray my confidence, I trust that she will treat me fairly, I trust that she won't judge me, I trust that she won't abandon me if I fail, I trust that she will tell me what she expects of me and hold to those expectations. And second, she never underestimates me. I am a short, round woman with a smiling baby face, and throughout my life I have been constantly underestimated by 99% of people that I work with. But Kara has never done that, even from when I was a brand new and inexperienced graduate student. Because she doesn't underestimate me, she enables me to be my best self.
"You always do the hardest thing," she said to me once, when I was a graduate student, and I hear that voice even now, working on moonshots. She believed, and still believes, that I can do the hardest thing, whatever it may be. I hear that voice even when I don't believe it myself, sometimes.
I hope that you can find someone that can be that voice for you.
Alexia Jolicoieur-Martineau, AI Researcher, MILA
I am more of a lone wolf and I was not mentored in my early years through school, but having a more will help you a lot if you can find one. First-generation students (as I was) should get mentors because things are really complicated when you are new. I recommend talking to professors about doing a research project with them, this helped me a lot. It’s not guaranteed to get you a mentor (professor is not equal to mentor), but it helps.
Jessie Lamontagne, Data Science and Model Innovation, Scotiabank
I know networking can be a dirty word and doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people in STEM, but I’ve invested a focused amount of time into making genuine connections with people I find interesting, whose work I admire, or who may be able to introduce me to others. Mentorship has to start with a relationship: one of my most valuable mentor is someone I met through a mutual friend, who turned out to be a senior executive at my current work. Because she’s very busy, I take on the ownership of booking time in her calendar every quarter, and I come prepared with specific topics I want her advice on, new projects I want to share, or questions I think she may be able to answer.
I really value her perspective, she keeps me grounded in what matters in the big picture. I also have a few male mentors, and I think that’s essential in a male-dominated field; it’s unfair to the few women around to impose a higher mentorship requirement on them, and it’s also important to have a variety of perspectives on the workplace. One of these mentors hired me to my current role and helps me continuously push the limit of what I can do, another is a rising star in the business and I find his raw ambition energizing.
First-generation students (as I was) should get mentors because things are really complicated when you are new
Bianca Curutan, Software Engineer, Postmates
I think it's helpful to have a mentor, although not a "requirement" per se. A good mentor helps nudge you in the right direction so you know where to focus your knowledge and skills development, experiences, and your energy to have a more beneficial return than if you were to build these things on your own. I had and have multiple mentors (I mostly met them at work) who I lean on for different purposes since they have different areas of expertise.
Chanuki Seresinhe, Visiting Researcher, The Alan Turing Institute and Lead Data Scientist, Popsa
I think role models are super important. I didn’t have a mentor growing up, but seeing evidence of women achieving amazing things in areas I was interested in was inspirational. So, we need to continue making this visible.
Samantha Edds, Senior Data Scientist, LexFox gmbh
I have found it very important to have mentors because then I have a neutral party to ask questions to, think big picture, and longer term about my career in a way that is not company specific. I also have multiple mentors, for different focuses. I was lucky enough that my first mentor, whom I am still regularly in touch with, is my former manager from my Data Science leadership program at Nielsen. He helped me better understand how to approach different kinds of people, how to present to different levels of leadership, and all forms of tailoring communication from data summarisation to C-suite presenting.
Another mentor I have is a woman who has navigated the difficulties of being a woman in Tech, and often the only woman in the room. She was introduced to me through a friend, and I asked for her mentorship around this area after we had a few discussions. She also really helped me get abroad to Berlin from the USA by suggesting I just reach out to the small startups and prepare a catchy 3 liner, which is how I landed all of my eventual offers. Both of these mentors have given me invaluable guidance that can be applied in any work setting. They have also encouraged me to do the same and give back to others by mentoring!
Afsaneh Fazly, Director of Research, Samsung Toronto AI Lab
I have had many mentors: people who have had an impact in my life in one way or another. I think every person whom you encounter in life can teach you something about yourself, and about the world. We need to see everyone in our life as a potential mentor.
As you can see from the answers given above, there is no set route or structure those entering the field need to follow nor a set number of mentors that you can have during periods of your career. Whilst it should be acknowledged that the guidance of someone already established in the industry can be beneficial, it is entirely dependent on not only finding the correct mentor but also someone to merely guide your path.