According to a study from Deloitte, 61% of millennials report that they have a mentor. In the same study, researchers found a connection 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%). Mentorship is proven to help both the individual employee and the overall company, and yet there are still almost 40% of young professionals without mentors.
I’ve tried all kinds of ways to find a mentor, from paying membership fees for professional groups and trying to work with my manager to cold-emailing people in my industry to ask questions and try to schedule a call or meeting.
Most of the mentors I’ve met have been through my university, the University of Virginia (UVA), and they’ve proven to be an invaluable resource. However, I haven't found any of them through a formal mentoring program.
Out with the Old
When I first realized that I couldn’t be a student forever and needed to join the workforce, I reached out to as many UVA alumni as possible. I don’t remember why my first thought was alumni, but it probably stemmed from my father’s countless stories of when his college friends helped him along his career.
I also can’t remember who was the first person to point me to HoosOnline, a database with contact information for thousands of 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).
I was interested in working in sports media and so I did a massive search and email blast to anyone working in and around sports. I would craft individual emails to each alum, introducing myself and then asking a question or two.
I had about a 60% response rate, and a few responded back confused on how I got their contact information. Of those that replied, 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 HoosOnline had a happy ending, but there were a few areas for improvement in the system:
- The learners (students) don’t know about the resource. I love talking about the database to other UVA alumni and students as it's a valuable resource but many have never heard of it. The university needs to make sure they're talking about and promoting the website to new and existing students and alumni.
- The advisors (alumni) didn’t know they were even in the system. This led to some awkward email exchanges. No one was angry but it did take some explaining on my part to say where I got their information from. Even the alumni hadn't really heard of the database.
- No promotion from the University. This awesome tool is something that the school would want to promote since it creates powerful connections between students and alumni, a large focus of many institutions. But, it's a hard website to find unless you know what you're looking for.
- Outdated technology. Not only are 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. The current system allows for basic search functions like name and place but nothing related to detailed information about the alumni.
In with the New
In the age of AIexas, virtual assistants, and mobile payments, the mentoring space seems to have left behind. Even though many people will agree that mentoring is a priority, they often don't know where to look or have the patience to manually search through a database.
Technology can help administrators create online mentoring programs that are sustainable, scalable, and easy to use. From my experience with HoosOnline, all universities' alumni databases should have:
- 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. Students could opt in as alumni when they graduate and annual emails could ask alumni to update their contact information in the system. This would also provide them with the opportunity to opt out if they change their mind.
- Use a system that easily integrates with email so users don’t need to have another platform to check. The more seamless the technology, the better. I like that HoosOnline 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 remind them about the 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. It all comes back to return on investment and impact. With backend analytics, program administrators can see exactly how their users navigate the mentoring system and who's booking sessions with who. Online mentoring software programs allow administrators see trends within their network and receive real-time feedback from their users.
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, is even better.