When Maureen Sullivan, COO of Rent the Runway, first saw Wenda Millard at LaGuardia Airport in 2006, she thought, I want to be you. At the time, Sullivan was working for Google; Millard was running sales for Yahoo (today she is the vice chairman of Media Link). The companies were in fierce competition and Sullivan had only heard legend of Millard—mostly from her intimidated male boss.
“I felt like I was seeing a mythical creature in real life,” said Sullivan. “I wanted to be the kind of person that this guy, who was in the prime of his career, was in awe of.”
So Sullivan did what she always advises women seeking mentorship: If someone inspires you, tell them.
“A lot of the women I’ve been able to build strong relationships with come from me being honest and telling them that I admire what they’re doing,” Sullivan told the 200 women who recently gathered at WeWork Metropolitan Square in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion about the importance of female mentorship moderated by CNN anchor Brianna Keilar and sponsored by Rent the Runway, a member company and partner of WeWork’s.
Sullivan and Millard’s meeting began a mentorship that has endured for more than a decade. It’s a valuable relationship that too few women have: In a survey of 1,000 female professionals, LinkedIn found that while 82 percent of women believe having a mentor is important, nearly one out of five has never had one.
Five tips for women seeking mentorship
Here are five pieces of advice Sullivan and Millard have for women seeking mentorship—or a mentee.
1. Everyone needs a mentor
Sullivan and Millard agree: You just can’t be maximally effective without more experienced sounding boards. Indeed, according to one study, people with mentors have more career satisfaction and can even make more money. Women also benefit from formal mentorship more than men do. One study found that women in engineering with a female mentor experienced more belonging, motivation, confidence, and higher retention rates.
2. Don’t wait around for the ‘right person’ to come to you
Some 52 percent of women said they’ve never had a mentor because they never found the right person. To avoid that pitfall, Sullivan encourages making a vision board that maps out what your dream “personal board of directors” would look like. As with the college application process, she suggests including reach candidates as well as a few layups.
3. It’s best to keep things casual and focused
“When there’s too much formality around mentorship, it feels forced,” said Sullivan. “Some things are better in a slow cooker.” Start small and be targeted. Keep it simple by asking a potential mentor for a 30-minute coffee and make sure you ask specific, directed questions.
“The people you want to have as your mentor are always going to be the busiest people; they’re not going to have a lot of time,” Sullivan said.
4. Recognize what you have to offer
Mentoring other people is as important as being mentored and if you choose carefully, both parties will benefit. “I don’t mentor anyone who I am not incredibly inspired by and excited about,” said Millard.
That said, some women have a hard time approaching someone they think they could mentor. In fact, some 67 percent of women said they’ve never been a mentor because they’ve never been asked.
“We’re all a little humble and unsure of whether we can be helpful,” acknowledged Millard. “But it’s really important to realize that you can give back at the same time you’re trying to find people to learn from.”
5. Be the person who brings women together
“Be a magnet for people and things just come together,” promised Millard, who has been hosting an annual weekend away for women the past 11 years, where she says friendships are formed as fast as business deals are made.
It’s a message that resonated with the women at the event. “You’re a collection of the impressions you make on other people and that other people make on you,” said Laura Sheets, an attendee who was headed from the event to get sushi with a mentee—introduced to her by a mentor of her own—who wanted career advice on pivoting from government to technology.
“You pay it forward and then it’s like dominoes falling into place,” said Sheets. “That’s what happens when women mentor each other.”