Everywhere you look, you can read articles about “How to Find a Mentor,” enjoy quotes about how inspiring mentors can be and join organizations that advertise their connections with industry leaders. Each article and group has a different promise but they all serve the same need: that many of us feel like we don’t have a mentor, with only 61% of millenials reporting that they have a mentor, according to a study from Deloitte.
In the same study, researchers drew a line between employee retention and mentorship, with data showing that millennials intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%). So mentorship is great for both companies and employees and yet there’s still almost 40% of young professionals without mentors.
Personally, I’ve tried all kinds of ways to find a mentor, from paying membership fees for professional groups to attempting to work with my manager to cold-emailing people in my industry to ask questions and maybe schedule a call or a coffee meeting. Despite all of my efforts, I still feel like I haven’t found “the one,” that perfect mentor who will work with you throughout your career.
Now, I wouldn’t consider myself in the category of “without a mentor,” but instead someone who has a series of mentors. Some have helped me just by responding to my questions via email and some I’ve developed a more sustained relationship with, fueled by plenty of coffee and phone calls.
Most of these mentors I’ve met have been through my university, the University of Virginia (UVA), and they’ve proven to be an invaluable resource. However, none of them have been matched with me through a formal mentoring program.
Out with the Old
When I first realized that I couldn’t be a student forever, and one day would need to join the working world, I decided to reach out to as many UVA alumni as possible. I don’t remember why my first thought was alumni, but I’m pretty sure it stemmed from my father’s countless stories of when his friends and fraternity brothers helped him along his career.
I also can’t remember who was the first person to point me to Hoos Online, (add link) an endless database with contact information for alumni including their industry, what they studied at UVA, and where they live now. As a student, I had access to the database and could message the alumni through the system, which would go straight to the alum’s email (but I didn’t have their personal email address, just through the system).
At the time, I was first interested in working in sports media and so I did a massive search and email blast to anyone working in and around sports media. I would craft individual emails to each alum I found, trying to pull from advice I had gotten along the way to make sure to introduce myself, list a reason of why I was relevant, and then ask a question or two.
I had about a 60% response rate, with several alumni confused on how I had gotten their contact. Clearly, they hadn’t heard about Hoos Online when they were a student. Others said the information I had was out of date since they had moved on from sports media and were now working in a different industry. But about 30% of the responses were helpful and I was very thankful for those as they helped me navigate my final year of college and learn more about what I wanted in my first job out of college.
My story with Hoos Online had a happy ending, but there were many problems with the system.
- The learners (students) didn’t know about the resource. Really, I have since gone around promoting the database to other UVA alumni and students who all have never heard of it. Clearly, it was not adequately promoted by our career center or advisors.
- The advisors (alumni) didn’t know they were even in the system. This led to some awkward email exchanges, very few of them where the alumni was angry that I reached out, but it did take some explaining on my part to say that I saw their information on Hoos Online, something they also had not heard of.
- No promotion from the University. This awesome tool is something that you would think the school would want to promote that connects students and alumni, one of their main sells when recruiting new students, and yet you can’t find information as a student or an alum unless you knew where to look.
- Outdated technology. Not only is some of the alumni’s information out of date, but the system itself is difficult to navigate and doesn’t seem to have been updated in years. Basic search functions are for an alumni’s last name or place, which is limiting.
In with the New
We are in the age of AIexas, virtual assistants, and mobile payments, yet mentoring and advising networks haven’t seemed to catch up. With an increased number of things that require our attention, mentoring and advising is listed as a priority for many and yet few are willing to invest the time in manually searching for a mentor and and then painstakingly build a relationship with them.
If I had the power to update my school’s Hoos Online system or any school’s alumni database, I would wish for three simple things:
- An easy to navigate list of alumni particularly interested in helping other alumni or current students. This list should include information about where they work, their expertise, and what they want to help students with. This can be a box that students check when they graduate, asking that they’re added to the alumni database. Annual emails can ask if the alumni would like to update their contact information in the system and can give them a chance to opt out if they change their mind. It would also remind alumni that they can give back to current students by engaging on the platform.
- Use a system that quickly integrates with email so I don’t need to have another platform that I need to keep logging into check. The more seamless the technology, the better. I do like that Hoos Online goes right to the alum’s email so they don’t need to open a new window and log into a different system. Keeping a function like this will make it easier on the mentor to be engaged. Also, monthly emails to students would help to promote the system and let them know what kind of alumni they can email or chat with as they figure out more about what they want to do after graduation.
- Backend tracking for the university so they can see that it actually works. This is huge because for universities and any large organization, you want to see return on your investment. You want to know how many people are active in your database, and how many of them are actually connecting. You might see a trend in the types of people who are talking more or you might realize that no one is using your system and you need to promote it more effectively to your students.
Any university can implement a system that helps make alumni more accessible without overcomplicating the process. A simple interface would do the trick and would be light years ahead of manually sifting through an endless list of names and emails.
You might be surprised by the interactions that come with having a clear, concise alumni directory that protects the alumni’s personal data but allows people to connect over common experiences.
There’s nothing as powerful as an alumni connection when you are trying to build a professional network, and having a system that empowers you as a student or even as an alum to reach out to other alumni, the better.
What do you wish that you had in an alumni mentoring/connection software for your University? Do you have any success stories of reaching out to fellow alumni for business or personal connections?