Looking back on my long professional career, I can remember many events, people and concepts that had a significant impact on my journey. I was fortunate to have many committed and wise mentors of all races, genders and backgrounds. They were needed because being black in the ’50s was not easy. Blacks did not have access to public facilities in the South and faced significant prejudice and discrimination in the North. There were no poverty programs and few corporate opportunities. The thought of a black or Hispanic quarterback leading a football team in the professional ranks or even on a college campus was far-fetched.
Over many years, we have experienced many changes, which is why I take pride in the progress our great nation has made, culminating with the election of a black president. Often I ask myself what the critical factors were that allowed our nation to accomplish what many thought would be unobtainable, especially in our lifetime.
While there were many factors, I believe much of the credit should go to the young people who lost their lives in the civil rights movement, leadership that prevailed at all levels in and outside of government and elected officials who passed many important laws. These people helped create opportunities for individuals like myself who were the first to benefit from these national changes; who were privileged to attend universities where we were previously denied access; who were privileged to compete in athletics and other endeavors; and who were privileged with job opportunities at major consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies.
We were educated and trained to take advantage of opportunities, but the most successful of my contemporaries, including myself, were helped along the way. We eagerly accepted advice and constructive criticism. We realized the value of mentors who shared their wisdom. We listened because our elders did not want us to make the same mistakes they had made.
The world we live in today is different from the one of my youth. However, as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The guidance I received as a young professional is just as valuable today. However, are the young professionals today being offered the same support I received? If so, are they willing to accept it?
I believe there are many young professionals desperately looking for effective mentors. Every day, I receive multiple requests from young and successful professionals asking me to mentor them. Because I feel so indebted to those who mentor me, I give a significant amount of my time mentoring those I feel are willing and able to accept it. I receive an exorbitant amount of pride and joy when the advice I offer is followed and progress is made. I learn from these experiences too and see mentoring as a dual-learning process of giving and receiving. However, time is a precious commodity, and only so much can be accomplished in a lifetime.
Accepting this reality, I have started informal mentoring sessions with 10 to 15 young professionals, which allows me to share my wisdom and absorb theirs. I truly believe the younger generations have insights from which I can profit even late in my career. In essence, these sessions are a win-win situation. I strongly believe, if in every city in the country such monthly sessions were organized, where people from multiple generations came together to solve problems, our nation would be stronger, businesses would be more innovative and entrepreneurial growth would be faster.
The relationships I developed with my mentors fostered my success and in tandem fostered theirs. Together our efforts were an integral part in helping our nation accomplish the unobtainable. We achieve greatness when we support each other with our knowledge. It does take a village to raise a child. Are we offering support? Are we willing to accept and grow from this support? Time will tell. I do know our future depends upon our collaboration.