Neuroscience, Mirror Neurons and the Power of Virtual Mentoring

    By David Meerman Scott

    Since the beginning of humanity, we’re a species who have cultivated personal relationships. This instinct is so powerful that neuroscientists say we cannot help ourselves. We’re drawn to people we’re comfortable with, we want to be near people like us, and we enjoy interacting with those who share wisdom with us.


    These signals are hardwired in all of us based on evolutionary survival strategies. Is that sound in the woods something that might eat us? Is it a friend? Or maybe a potential mate?

    These basics instincts are so incredibly powerful that we can’t help ourselves in the way we react, no matter how much we try.

    It’s why we enjoy the company of close friends so much. It’s also why we’re uncomfortable in a crowded elevator. Both are times that we are near other humans, but in one case we share a close personal connection and in another we don’t know the other people. In one case our brains say we are safe and in the other our survival instincts kick in making us wary.

    The power of mentoring and mentors can also be explained by the signals firing in our brain. Mentors are important to us because as we develop a strong personal bond with somebody offering advice and we are physically near our mentor, our brain fires the neurons that signal safety and security, both among the most basic human needs.

    But what about virtual mentoring? Are the same powerful human instincts at play when we meet with somebody electronically?

    It turns out the answer is yes, because of something called Mirror Neurons.

     Mirror neurons are a group of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex of our brain. These neurons are fascinating because we humans process information when we see somebody on a video screen in the same way as if the person were actually in the same room as us.

     In his book Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others, Marco Iacoboni, a leading neuroscientist, explains the groundbreaking research into mirror neurons. He calls them the “smart cells” in our brain that allow us to understand others in many ways from imitation to morality, from political affiliations to consumer choices. 

    Mirror neurons explain why we feel that we “know” a television personality that we’ve never met, because our brains fire as if we have a close personal relationship with that TV personality. Even though we’ve never been in the same room, our brains tell us we know them as if they have been physically next to us many times.

    As I was reading Iacoboni’s book, I kept getting excited about the concept of how mirror neurons explain the science behind the power of virtual mentoring. Having technology that enables us to connect in a such a way lights up our brain in the same way as if we were being mentored in the same room, sitting across the table. 

    In today’s world where we have colleagues all over the world, it’s impossible to meet face-to-face in the ways our great-grandparents did. However, technology that helps overcome the divide is powerful indeed, it brings the world closer together and is a force for good.

    No one knows more about using the new real-time tools and strategies to spread ideas, influence minds and build business than David Meerman Scott. He is author of ten books - three are international bestsellers – and is best known for “The New Rules of Marketing & PR”. He's currently researching the importance of passion in business. David is an advisor to InstaViser. 

    "My Take on Mentoring" with InstaViser's Josh Getz

    Recently, we've been talking with customers and users about how mentoring is changing. It seems like people are changing the way they find mentors, how often they meet with them, and even who they consider a mentor.

    To help us better understand this new view of mentorship, we've set out to interview people about how they think about mentorship. We kickoff the series of interviews with members from our InstaViser team. We sat down with Josh Getz, one of our customer success managers, to talk about who he turns to for advice, if it's true that mentors really need to be older than you, and how to ask the universe for help in finding a mentor.

    What does mentoring mean to you?

    Mentoring means having someone to turn to when you're not sure what to do. Someone that you trust, someone that you respect. Someone who you know has your best interests in mind. Often times it can be hard to find someone like this and when that’s the case, it’s easy to lose confidence in your decision about something big in your life. Mentoring also provides some illumination when doing something completely new because you have the resources of someone who’s already been there and done that.


    Do you think mentors have to be older or can they be the same age/experience level as you or even younger?

    In short, no. Mentors of different ages all have their very useful place. For example, younger mentors may have just gone through the same experience you’re dealing with and may have extremely relevant advice. They’re also likely easier to relate to because of the age similarity. On the other hand, they’re also still in the hunt, hungry for success. They likely haven’t quite made to the top yet and in that case, they’re probably still seeking out mentorship. Older mentors have the advantage of more experience and can provide better long term advice for potentially large career moves or life decisions because they have seen the impact of such decisions over years.

    Is mentorship important to career/personal development? How so?

    Absolutely. Life is an open book. You can chose to do whatever it is that you want to do. Once you’ve made your decision, it’s easy to get lost or confused along the way. Having someone to turn to during both the good times and the bad can help keep you on a path to success. They’re also able to guide you around potential obstacles and prevent you from making some of the mistakes they made.

    A study from the Huffington Post found that 79% of millennials believe “mentorship programs are crucial to their career success.” Why do you think so many people value mentorship?

    I think everyone realizes success is not a solo endeavor and having someone on your team is essential in today’s extremely competitive professional landscape.

    Who do you think of as a mentor in your life?

    I don’t have someone I call “my mentor” but whenever I have a big decision to make or am going through a tough time, I always reach out to as many people as I can to seek advice and guidance. There are some I routinely reach out to such as Major Nate Wood in the Marines. He’s helped guide me in every major decision in my military career, and has provided invaluable advice and reassurance when I encountered roadblocks along the way.

    How did you find your mentors?

    We were connected via the Michigan Rowing alumni network. He’s a few years older than me but we both rowed at Michigan in college and both turned to the military for careers after rowing. We shared a common background and similar goals even though we’re in different branches of the military.

    Have you been a mentor to anyone and how did you know you were ready to be a mentor?

    Yes, I have mentored kindergarten kids, college students, and a few rowers here and there. Anyone is ready to be a mentor if they have valuable information to share about a subject that they intimately understand. All that matters is what you know and your willingness to share it. Age isn't important.

    Any advice for people looking to become a mentor or find a mentor?

    If you’re looking to find a mentor, it’s all about networking. There are so many out there that want to give back because no one is successful all by themselves. But it’s up to you to find them. Throw yourself headfirst into whatever community you’re interested in. Go to events, talk to strangers on the street. It’s your responsibility to put your goals and desires out there. If you don’t tell anyone, they certainly won’t be able to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask the universe for something. More often than not, you’ll find yourself with it, or at least a step closer to getting it.

    If you’re someone looking to teach and coach, the best place to find the people looking for help is in the community itself. There are tons of resources online and in person that enable communities to get together. Start getting involved and letting others know what you know. Nobody will seek your advice if they haven’t a clue who you are or what you’ve done. And nowadays there are many different ways to put yourself out there: Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, etc. There are 100s of ways to get involved in a community. Join and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there!

    Josh is a two-time US National Team rower with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He has been with InstaViser for three years working as part of, and to develop the Customer Success team. Currently, he is in the army training to become a Green Beret.

    A New Way to Engage Offline with Your Community: Mentor Walks

    On a warm spring day in Shanghai, I arrived at a neighborhood park with about thirty other women for a mentor walk. It was my first time attending the monthly event, organized by a group of women's communities that wanted to create mentoring opportunities.

    I didn't really know what to expect from a mentor walk but I knew that successful women had mentors to help them and what better way to find a new mentor than at an event named "mentor walks."


    As a mentee, I was able to sign up for the event for free, though spots were limited to the first thirty to sign up. The mentors were invited to join the event by leaders of each of the women's groups. All of the mentors were female, had 10+ years of experience in their field and held some kind of a leadership role.

    On that particular morning, we came together in the center of the park and were separated into mentees and mentors. Each mentor stood in front of the group and presented a quick 30-60 second summary of their career and what career areas or questions they'd be happy to talk about. The organizers reminded us that the mentors were under no obligation to give us their contact details after but could if they wanted to.

    After the introductions, the mentees were given the choice to pick their own mentor. You would just walk up and introduce yourself to your mentor and that was it. Each mentor would end up with two, three, or sometimes four mentees depending on the number of mentors available. We were then told we had an hour to walk around the park or sit in a nearby cafe and talk about anything we wanted to.

    I can't remember exactly what I talked about on that first mentor walk but I remember coming away feeling energized and excited about what I was doing. The mentor walks gave me an easy and low stakes way to network and build mentoring relationships with people farther along in their careers.

    Since that first day two years ago, I’ve gone back monthly and it's one of my favorite networking events. It focuses on building one on one relationships instead of large group or speed dating. Our discussions are always new and different, and I've found people that I'd love to have as long term mentors and others that I just want to listen to for that one hour.

    An interesting trend I noticed over the years has been that some mentors return to the event the next month, but this time as mentees because they also want a chance to talk with the other mentors. You're never too old or experienced to learn something new and it was fun to see these accomplished women with an eagerness to talk with someone new.

    So how can you replicate this easy-going approach to mentoring in your organization?

    The concept of mentor walks can be applied to any community group, especially one that is organized around a shared location. If it’s too hot or cold to walk outside, you could meet at a local mall or coffee shop and start from there. All you need is space for smaller groups to break away and have their own discussions.

    You can also adapt this type of event as a breakout session at your next annual conference or gathering as a low stakes way to have mentors, mentees and leaders meet with each other.

    I'm constantly looking for new mentors and ways to build my network. But one thing I've settled on is that high quality interactions trump large scale ones. I know one Friday a month that I will get the opportunity to talk and listen to a female business leader and other women trying to figure it out just like me. That's not something I can guarantee will happen at my next networking happy hour.

    I’m a millennial and there have been countless studies about how we're navigating our careers differently than older generations. I'm a part of the “79% of millennials who believe “mentorship programs are crucial to their career success.” But I also have learned that mentors can come in all shapes and sizes and even this once a month, for one hour mentor sessions can help me feel like I’m being supported and helped along the way.

    It’s refreshing to hear another person’s perspective and the relaxed environment has led me to bring up questions and challenges I’ve been struggling with the past few weeks. I also love hearing the concerns and questions from other mentees as I’m reminded that I’m not alone in trying “to figure it out” and navigate my way through my career.

    Sustained mentorship programs are more effective in forging long term relationships but don’t discount the short-term mentoring opportunities as well. A mentor walk or similarly structured event could be the perfect complement to your organization’s formal in person or online mentoring program.

    Collaborative Coaching: From LeBron James to Elite Rowing

    When LeBron James announced his decision to depart Cleveland for Los Angeles to join the Lakers, there was plenty of excitement (and despair), accompanied by grand projections for the decision’s impact on the rest of the NBA. A peripheral but intriguing storyline was the fact that James would now be coached by Luke Walton from the same 2003 NBA Draft class. Walton was drafted 31 spots after James, the number one pick that year. Only five years apart in age, they’re practically peers. It’s interesting that the youngest coach in the NBA will be coaching the larger than life, arguably greatest player in the NBA. Can it possibly work?

    Walton is known as a player’s coach, having developed his coaching style under some of the greatest coaches out there, including five-time NBA Champion (as a player) and three-time NBA Champion (as a coach), Warriors Head Coach, Steve Kerr. In a 2016 interview, Walton said of his time under Kerr, “It was the first time I'd been around that type of open relationship between player [and] coach. That's naturally who I am. I like being able to talk to the guys, can include them in decisions and get their feedback. The way [Kerr] did that and the success we had and how much that helped in having players take ownership of what we were doing as a team is something that is a big part of my coaching style now.”

    With a player like LeBron, Walton will have to continue to cultivate a collaborative environment much like the one he learned up in Oakland under Coach Kerr. If Kerr and what he has going on with the Warriors is any indication of the power of collaboration, Walton is on the right track.

    Sports fans and athletes alike have been debating the qualities of what makes the best coach for decades. For some, “great players make great coaches” or “the greatest players make awful coaches, because X, Y, Z.” The reality is that there is no right answer and it all depends on the situation, sport, and personnel. 

    As a professional athlete and Olympian, I’ve experienced the gamut of coaching styles and player-coach dynamics throughout my career. For the past few years, my boat partner and two-time Olympian, Ellen Tomek and I have been in perhaps our most nontraditional coaching arrangement, but also our most successful one. 


    (Photo Credit:

    Since Ellen and I teamed up in 2013, we’ve had to bounce around training centers, change coaches, and essentially fend for ourselves. We’ve had to make some big decisions, none of which were accompanied with a $154 million contract and ESPN feature, a la LeBron James.

    Despite the turbulence, we’re now the winningest women’s double in American history. We’ve won four World Cup medals, competed at five World Championships, the 2016 Olympic Games, and in all our years together have only lost one race on U.S. soil. We made history at last year’s World Championships where we took second, the best finish ever for the U.S. in the event. Our silver medal also broke a 27-year medal drought for the U.S. in the event.

    Left without a coach heading into the Olympic year in the fall of 2015, we turned to former teammate and successful U.S. rower, Sarah Trowbridge who had retired after the 2012 Olympics to begin her coaching career. Only a couple years older, Sarah was very much a peer. We had all trained together at the U.S. Rowing Training Center and Ellen and Sarah both rowed at Michigan together.

    So we began what would become a collaboration. We learned from her and she learned from us as we navigated how to build a fast American women’s double. While managing two athletes is very different from managing a full basketball roster, the elements of building a culture in which the athletes have the ability to engage in the process, provide feedback, and take ownership is the same. The atmosphere is fun, but accompanied by a high level of effort and hard work. 

    We were no longer left to fend for ourselves because our team had grown to three. Trust and accountability was woven throughout the threads of this collaborative process.

    It was sometime early last year after the Rio Olympics that I began calling our pursuit, “The Women’s Double Project.” Early on, we learned that if we were going to do something different, we had to go about things differently, revolutionarily even. 

    Last month we won our sixth consecutive U.S. National Team Trials, securing our spots to compete at the upcoming 2018 World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. This summer we leaned into our unique coaching strategy that we discovered over the past few years.


    Having moved back into collegiate coaching as the head coach of the University of San Diego Women’s Rowing Team last year, Sarah was unable to join us for travel to this summer’s World Cup and World Championships. Knowing that we wanted to hold on to the magic that we had found, we turned to Kate Bertko, another former teammate and Olympian who had recently retired from competition and was coaching at the collegiate level, to help us on the project.

    Our team grew from three to four and with it, an expansion to our arsenal of experience and passion for the women’s double.

    Since 2008, at least one of the four of us have been a member of the U.S. women’s double and/or lightweight women’s double. This wasn’t accidental. Ellen and I sought out the best scullers and students of the sport who also understood the nuance between creating a new path toward success versus stepping onto an already paved path. There was no playbook for what we were doing, so we needed pioneers and trailblazers. We needed collaborators.

    We have yet to achieve King James status in our sport, but I like to think that we’re onto something by breaking from the more traditional coaching mold in rowing.

    No one coaching structure is perfect, but that’s exactly my argument. Whether it’s coaching, mentorship, or a professional working relationship, collaboration is key. Collaboration requires an understanding that both parties are benefitting from working together toward a shared goal and effectively, mutual benefit.

    Athlete or coach, employee or boss, mentee or mentor, you each must be willing to contribute to the process from start to finish, holding each other accountable throughout.

    Why Proactive Mentees Make the Best Mentees


    At first, I’d thought the mentors would come find me. That by signing up for an official mentor program and telling people in my network that I was looking for a mentor, someone would step up and reach out to me. That was not the case.

    For starters, I’ve learned that mentors come in all shapes and sizes and very rarely do you find one when you’re explicitly looking for a mentor. It’s like the common belief around finding a romantic partner, you’ll find it when you’re least expecting it. The same can be said for finding a mentor.

    My current list of mentors include friends, alumni, former coworkers, and even a few clients. They are people that I know because of a common interest or experience and based on how often we kept in touch, our personalities, and our current situations, we grew into a mentor/mentee relationship.

    One of my mentors is a good friend who has taught me how to grow into myself and embrace the parts of me that make me unique (and a little weird). I have another former colleague who is my go-to sounding board for career questions and challenges. I’ve also relied heavily on my university’s alumni network for advice when moving to a new city, changing jobs, and meeting new people.

    It’s kind of funny how that mentors can organically appear but there is one common thread throughout my mentor relationships: I was proactive.

    In most of those examples, I reached out to them and I’ve put the effort into following up with them.

    It’s rare to find someone who has “wants to be a mentor” listed on their LinkedIn profile or is openly offering to be a mentor at a networking event. A mentor-mentee relationship takes time and energy on both sides, but it is a transactional relationship.

    On one side, the mentor brings their experience and advice to the relationship, however, their time is limited as they’re farther along in their career or busy with family. On the other side, the mentee is looking to learn and has time to give and invest in the relationship.

    Time is the common link, one person has plenty of it and the other has limited time. I’ve learned to use that to my advantage and invest my time into my mentor relationships.

    I was proactive in sending emails to potential mentors, thanking them for connecting and following up with them every few weeks or months, and constantly looking for new mentors.

    As you start your mentor search or are you’re looking to find new mentors, here are three habits  you can apply to become a more proactive mentee:

    Don’t be afraid of the cold email/message - I really struggled with this when I first got started, as I felt awkward and weird reaching out to people I didn’t know. But through a lot of trial and error, I found that there most people are happy to answer your emails, questions, and messages when they can tell you’ve taken the time to do you research.

    Look the person up online before reaching out, identify a common interest or something that you think will be of interest to them, and highlight that in your email. This will help you stand out from the rest of the random emails they receive and is the first step to showing them that you are serious.

    It takes time to figure out exactly how to introduce yourself in a cold email. I usually use 2-3 sentences and focus on why they should keep reading in those first few sentences. I’ll add in the common interest from my research and finish off with a question or request to have a quick call or invite them for coffee. Your cold email might look a little different from this but there’s no way to know until you start sending them.

    Thank them and set a reminder to follow-up in a month - A well-crafted thank you email never goes out of style. You want to show your potential new mentor that you’re grateful for their time and follow-up on any ideas or comments that have come up since your last email, call, or meeting.

    This is also a time when you can schedule a follow-up call or meeting to keep the conversation going. If there doesn’t seem to be any organic next step, I usually set a reminder to follow-up with them in a month from now on my phone or computer.

    Letting some time pass will give you the opportunity to update them on what you’ve been up to or find an article that’s interesting to them. I’ve loved using calendar or reminder tools to stay on top of your mentor relationships, as it’s very easy to forget about your follow-up note until several months have passed and you’ve missed out on building that relationship.

    Constantly look for new mentors - Just like any relationship, not every mentor relationship will work out. Your goals change, you move cities, or you get busy and lose touch. That’s ok, but to mitigate against that, it’s good to avoid investing all of your time in one mentor and staying on the lookout for new ones.

    There is no rule that you can only have one mentor at a time. I’ve found at different parts of my life I’ve relied on some mentors more and then others a little less. Your challenges will change and evolve on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis and so can your mentors.

    I’ve utilized coffee dates as my main point for starting a relationship with anyone, whether it’s a friend, potential job lead, or mentor. It’s a low stakes way to meet the other person and I love the person-to-person interaction that sometimes is lost in an email or on a phone call. It’s easy to tell if your personalities match up and if you enjoy talking with the person. In-person meetings have strengthened my mentor relationships, even if the meeting comes weeks or months after I’ve started an email-based relationship.

    You won’t get very far in your mentor relationships if you think that the hard part is finding them. Once you have a potential mentor, you need to put in the work throughout and respect your mentor’s time and energy. Block off time each month to invest in following up with current mentors, looking up new ones, and taking time to think about your own goals. Just one or two hours a month can pay off in the long run.

    Don’t be afraid to take charge of your next mentor relationship and be proactive. Reach out to new contacts, continue to follow-up with old ones, and always be on the lookout for new mentors. You never know where you’ll meet the next one but you can be sure you’ll know how to grow the relationship.

    2018 ACE Summit: The Power of Mentors, Networking, and Shared Stories

    I just returned from the 2018 Team USA Athlete Career Education (ACE) Summit, a three-day event held by the US Olympic Committee after each Olympic Games to provide our Olympians and Paralympians with the knowledge and connections they need as they contemplate “what’s next” after having competed on their sports’ biggest stage in the world.

    An essential part of the summit is “Networking Practice,” which provides our athletes with the opportunity to have informal, human-to-human chats with people who have walked in their shoes and have gone on to success in life after sport, seemingly without a hitch.

    During the Summit, I caught up with ACE Network mentor Lauryn Williams. Lauryn is an athletic all-star: the first female US Olympian to win medals in both summer and winter Olympics, with 2004 Olympic silver medal in the 100m, 2012 Olympic gold medal in the 4x100m relay, and 2014 Olympic silver in the two-woman bobsled at Sochi 2014. She has since gone on to found Worth Winning, a company recreating financial planning for young, busy tech-savvy professionals and athletes.

    When asked about her experiences as an ACE Mentor, her reaction was, “At first, I was a bit nervous. Why would anyone want to talk to me? I wasn’t sure I would have anything helpful to add.”

    Hearing this was very surprising. Lauryn’s counsel is quite sought after, and her ACE mentees’ results on and off the field demonstrate why. 

    But it got me thinking about my own early experiences as a mentor. I had those same qualms: what did I have to share? Enough to make a difference. Would I give them bad advice and screw them up? Absolutely not! In the end, great mentees take ownership of their journeys. We are just here to help with a few useful tips, and a story or two to let them know they are not alone.

    Anyone who has ever accomplished anything in their lives (read: “all of us”) has learned lessons along the way. Sharing those lessons–the mistakes, the triumphs, the “if I had it to do over” stories–can help the next generations achieve things we could only dream of.

    Think about your own experiences for a moment. What do you have to share?

    How an Alumni Network Helped a Cal Student Land a Finance Internship

    It was a Thursday morning in the middle of the fall semester and Cal student-athlete, Danny Jordan was sitting in his first class of the day, wondering how he was supposed to land his college internship. A rising sophomore and a member of the varsity men’s rowing team at UC-Berkeley, Danny was a first-generation college student with an interest in finance but he didn’t know where to start.


    With no existing connections in the industry, he decided to start with LinkedIn. He described this portion of his job search as the “ground and pound” technique, sending countless messages to high school alumni and family connections. He sent a few into the Cal alumni network but overall, he received only a few responses.

    “For every 100 messages on LinkedIn, I would get one message back. It was time-consuming and I spent time I probably should have spent learning business just trying to network.”

    “I knew I had to start [looking for internships] early. I had a low GPA and I went to a non target school [for investment banking companies], so I knew it was going to be an uphill battle. So I looked at what was ahead of me and said, ‘I better start now.’”

    He didn’t seem to be getting any tangible leads until an email caught his eye in class last fall. The Golden Ties Network, a student-athlete alumni network at UC-Berkeley, offers the opportunity for students to connect with alumni via video or audio chat and this month’s newsletter jumped out at Danny because it featured the profile of an alum who worked at a leading wealth management company.

    He decided to set up a profile and booked his first session with Kelly Brennan, the month’s featured mentor and a managing director at Goldman Sachs. He scheduled sessions with a few other advisors on the platform who also worked in finance.

    Before each session, Danny made an effort to craft a personal message to the advisor ahead of his call. He wanted to stick out to the advisor and save time in case the Golden Ties advisor had a busy schedule.

    “I tried to put myself in the shoes of the advisors as much as possible because if I knew what they expected, I could perform to those expectations. I kept thinking, ‘it’s your first impression, you need to prove you are very smart.’ For every one minute I spent on the phone, I probably spent two minutes preparing ahead of time.”

    Doing homework before the call and exchanging messages ahead of time helped Danny feel like he was making the most of both his and his advisors’ time. He was able to use the time on the call to network instead of asking basic questions about their company or the industry. When you set the expectations ahead of the call, this takes away the pressure from the mentee and helps the mentor feel that they’re spending their time efficiently.

    Through several calls with different Golden Ties advisors, Danny was able to refine his elevator pitch--the quick 30- to 60-second summary of who you are and what you want to do.

    “There is a science to networking and it is not as easy as making a friend. Sometimes it comes down to the right place at the right time,” said Jordan. At the Cal Crew banquet, an alum approached Danny and asked him about himself. “It was like I had a script ready,” said Danny. “I had pretty much finely tuned what I wanted to say from all of my calls with Golden Ties advisors.”

    After their initial conversation, Danny followed up with the alum, interviewed for an internship at Merril Lynch and got selected for the position.

    “If I hadn’t had the experience through Golden Ties, I don’t think I would have been as prepared because I wouldn’t have as much knowledge about the industry. Through my preparation for all of those alumni calls, I was more confident going into my job interviews.”

    “This is exactly the type of outcome we are striving for by building networking and mentorship platforms that work to connect people in meaningful ways,” said Meghan O’Leary, vice president of InstaViser. “Connections like this are life-changing and it’s great to hear that Danny landed a dream internship because of the time he took and lessons he learned speaking to alumni advisors on Golden Ties.”

    “I look forward to giving back whenever possible and hopefully later on in my career when I’m working after graduation I’ll also be a Golden Ties advisor,” said Jordan.

    Carlijn Schoutens: An Olympic Speed Skater's Take on Mentorship

    Two weeks ago, Carlijn Schoutens, long-track speed skater for the United States of America took the line in Pyeongchang, South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics. In that moment, she probably had a number of things running through her mind: the state of the ice, her race strategy and chasing a medal. Years of training, dedication and hard work added up to bring her to that moment. Another important, but perhaps less tangible factor had played a role in helping her get to the starting line of her first Winter Olympics: the power of mentorship. 


    Schoutens is a member of the ACE Mentor Network, one of our customer platforms. The United States Olympic Committee Athlete Career and Education Program (ACE) provides current and retired Team USA athletes with career, education and life skills resources to support their athletic performance goals, facilitate a successful transition to post-elite competition careers and inspire long-term positive engagement with the Olympic/Paralympic movement. The ACE Mentor Network is one of the many great resources offered to Team USA athletes. 

    As an ACE mentee, Carlijn Schoutens was matched up with Lauryn Williams, Olympian and and founder of Worth Winning, her own financial planning company, dedicated to helping other athletes manage their careers and lives after sport. In between Schoutens training sessions leading up to the Games, we had a chance to ask her a few questions about her experience talking with Williams and the role that mentors played in her Olympic journey.

    When asked about how she was first matched with Williams, Schoutens responded, “Lauryn was recommended as a mentor for me by Elana [Meyers Taylor], because she also did a time trial sport and has been very successful athletically and professionally.”

    Williams’ impressive Olympic resume includes four Olympic Games, three Olympic medals, and being the first American woman to medal at both the Winter and Summer Games. To learn more about Williams and her passion for financial planning, read her interview with the Women’s Sports Foundation.

    “We first talked [before Olympic Trials] when I realized that I was going to do things this year that I had never done before,” said Schoutens. “I was interested to learn about the added challenges at Olympic Trials compared to normal racing, and how best to deal with those. Lauryn told me about her many Olympic Trials experiences and how she was able to race as well there as at a regular competition.”

    “We talked about preparing for each challenge by making mental plans and practical arrangements. It made me feel more in control of my competition and I was able to perform well and have a lot of fun. Lauryn was available in the week of my Trials and we called and texted back and forth a lot. Thanks Lauryn!”

    Schoutens and Williams’ mentorship relationship helped create a support system for her to lean up during the lead-up to the Olympic Trials and continued throughout her preparation for the Winter Games.



    Schoutens was particularly impressed by the different type of mentorship she experienced with fellow Olympian Lauryn. “I’ve mostly had coaches, teachers and parents as mentors in my career, but having a fellow athlete by my side was different and awesome.”



    Congratulations to Carlijn Schoutens and the rest of Team USA at last month’s Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. To keep up with Carlijn on her Olympic journey and see what’s next, follow her on Twitter and Instagram. We look forward to cheering on the U.S. Paralympic Team which will start competing in South Korea this weekend.

    Featured in the News: How CSweetener is helping women healthcare leaders succeed

    Article originally posted on MedCity News

    A 2017 study of 177 publicly-listed biotech companies found women hold just 1 in 10 board seats. And 2012 research from Rock Health showed women make up 4 percent of healthcare company CEOs.

    CSweetener, a Mill Valley, California-based nonprofit company, wants to change that.

    The organization, which launched in September 2016, was founded by Lisa Suennen and Lisa Serwin, the latter of whom will be speaking on a diversity in healthcare panel at MedCity INVEST in May.

    In a recent phone interview, Suennen explained the impetus behind the business. As part of her Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellowship, she was tasked with creating something that advanced the field of healthcare.

    While brainstorming and catching up on emails, Suennen noticed that she typically gets between 10 and 20 requests for advice from women each week. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thought, if there were a for healthcare that would pair women with established male and female mentors?

    So that’s what she and Serwin developed with CSweetener.

    As part of the matchmaking process, female mentees sign up and must be approved to join. Candidates have to be C-suite or in an equivalent role (such as vice president). Once accepted, they pay a $250 fee and are matched with a mentor based on their personality and availability. With their membership, mentees gain 12 sessions per year, which can be with the same mentor or different mentors.

    Mentors have to be experienced healthcare executives who are talented at giving advice. They don’t pay a fee, but must commit at least one hour per month to speaking with mentees.

    Pairings can contact each other through the phone and video capabilities in the app so they don’t have to exchange personal information if they don’t want to. They can also meet in person if desired.

    After the initial sessions, mentors and mentees can decide if they’re the right fit for each other before moving forward with additional meetings.

    Suennen said CSweetener currently has a couple hundred mentees and a couple hundred mentors. Some companies have even started to sponsor mentees and pay the $250 fee.

    “It’s beginning to pick up and spread,” Suennen said. “People have been loving it and really enjoying the connections.”

    Chicago-based ExplORer Surgical cofounder and CEO Jennifer Fried is one such mentee. Through CSweetener, she met Ned Scheetz, managing partner of Aphelion Capital and now ExplORer Surgical’s lead investor. He has also joined the startup’s board of directors.

    “It’s been hugely helpful,” Fried said in a phone conversation.

    The primary benefit of the program, Fried added, is access to experts in the field.

    “They have an interesting set of senior folks who have signed up for this,” she said. “When it’s structured like this, it doesn’t feel as high stakes as ‘I’m coming in to pitch you my company.'”

    For Suennen, part of what sets CSweetener apart is that it’s focused on women executives rather than young women who are new to the field. It’s also crucial that the organization pairs mentees with both female and male mentors.

    “Our general view of the world is that women talking to women is an echo chamber,” Suennen said. It’s challenging to make progress if all stakeholders (regardless of gender) aren’t involved.

    The ultimate goal of CSweetener isn’t to create a monster company. Instead, it’s fairly straightforward.

    “I think my goal is pretty simple: just to help women succeed faster and better,” Suennen said.

    Featured: CSweetener in the News

    Amid Gender Gap Talk, Mentor Network Emerges For Women In Health, Bio

    Article originally posted on

    It’s been more than a year since an infamous party with hired models in cocktail dresses captured the biotech community’s attention at the 2016 J.P. Morgan conference.

    There has been plenty of talk since about closing biotech’s notable gender gap. At this year’s J.P Morgan conference, for example, a group of 100 life science executives and others pledged to follow a list of gender diversity “best practices.”

    There has also been some action. Launched last fall, a nonprofit mentoring program for women in healthcare and biotech has already signed up about 100 women, according to its founder.

    The group, called CSweetener, is meant as a boost for women who are nearing the executive level. It is the brainchild of life sciences investor Lisa Suennen, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and publishes a popular industry blog and podcast. Suennen and cofounder Lisa Serwin have cobbled together $125,000 in donations, grants, and sponsorships to commission a software platform that could be what Suennen calls a “ for mentors.” Because of her high profile, she says she receives frequent requests from women executives for help and advice. “If I said yes to everyone, I wouldn’t have time to work,” she says. “So I thought, ‘What if I can outsource this problem?'”

    Despite a rank-and-file that is roughly 50 percent women, fewer than 10 percent of biotech CEOs are women, according to a recent report from U.K. recruitment firm Liftstream, which studied 177 biotechs that went public between 2012 and 2015.

    Board seats are another measure. Less than five percent of the board members were women at the time of those companies’ IPOs.

    There was a hint of progress in the report: 58 percent of public companies have at least one female board member, up from 48 percent three years ago. But there’s far to go. Public biotech boards would need 40 more years to achieve gender equity.

    To address the board gap, a five-day training program called Boardroom Ready launched last summer. Of its initial class of 20 women, four have been placed onto boards so far.

    Run by the nonprofit group Women In Bio, the program is sponsored in part by the life-science advisory firm that threw the cocktail party. For now, the plan is to hold Boardroom Ready once a year; the next one takes place over two weekends in the fall.

    Suennen’s investor peers deserve no small portion of the gender gap blame (as she often points out on her blog). Fewer than 10 percent of life-science venture partners are women, according to Liftstream. The low number of female VCs perpetuates the gender gap because venture investors sit on their companies’ boards until and often well beyond the initial public offering. “Our study shows that the male dominance of venture capital brings unintended implications for the portfolio companies in terms of their board diversity, and consequently may also have an undesirable effect on their ability to attract talent,” the report reads.

    Suennen recently joined GE Ventures, the venture arm of General Electric and one of the few firms in the traditional or corporate VC world with a high percentage of women. (GE Ventures has donated to CSweetener.)

    In addition to the 100 women who have signed up for CSweetener, the network now counts 110 mentor volunteers, Suennen says. Roughly 15 percent are men. If they are not involved, adds Suennen, “nothing will ever change.”

    Ned Scheetz, founder of Bay Area healthcare venture firm Aphelion Capital and father of two daughters, explains that he signed up to be a CSweetener mentor because healthcare needs more women entrepreneurs. “An outsized percent of venture backed companies are founded and led by high-ego, take-the-hill men and backed by equally Y-dominant venture groups,” Scheetz says. “Much of healthcare is about understanding and serving the subtler, empathetic needs of humanity, and testosterone-driven ambition may miss some of those finer points.”

    Many corporations have internal programs to pair women with mentors or sponsors. But the set-up is fraught with potential conflicts: how freely can a woman speak her mind about the pros and cons of her job, or about her ambitions, to a person higher up the corporate ladder, even if that person has pledged support? CSweetener is meant to provide independent mentoring without conflicted relationships. Mentors are required to have C-suite experience and no financial or business ties to their mentees—a rule to discourage women from joining the network to sell products or raise funds, Suennen says.

    CSweetener requires a $250 fee from mentees. (Mentors sign up for free.) With a few hundred thousand dollars more, Suennen would like to build more community tools into the organization’s software—giving mentors a chance to compare notes, for example—and offer training material for mentees. Negotiation skills would be a priority. “Women don’t often ask for what they want,” Suennen says. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”