Which Chicagoans are best at mentoring women?
October 27 2017

Lisa Bertagnoli
Crain’s Chicago Business

Mentoring for women hardly existed when Nancy Wright was building her career. Wright, 60, learned the intricacies of corporate life by observing her bosses, and took up golf to muscle in on the all-guy discussions taking place on the green.

Now, as CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Northwest Indiana, she’s making sure the organization’s 53,000 participants get mentoring through programs like Camp CEO, at which prominent female executives share career insights with Girl Scouts. Wright has plenty of volunteers: “More than ever, women want to support young professionals,” she says.

Women constitute 46 percent of the workforce, and a woman ran for president. Still, only 32 of the Fortune 500 firms have female CEOs, and a historic lack of mentoring might well be the reason. “Mentoring allows us to access new networks and opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get,” says K. Sujata, CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women, which offers several formal mentoring programs.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal; it can look like a friendship and span several years, or an hour over coffee. Mentoring should be lateral and intergenerational, and women should seek male mentors as well as female. It should also encompass sponsorship—the willingness of an executive to advocate and vouch for a junior employee in the workplace. “All decisions about your career will be made when you aren’t in the room,” says Kate Bensen, CEO of the Chicago Network, a by-invitation club of almost 500 female leaders in Chicago.

Crain’s has identified Chicago executives who excel at mentoring women in different sectors: STEM fields, advertising, technology, arts and culture, and the law. Here’s how they mentor, and why mentees swear by their counsel.

MICHELLE BOONE
56, chief program and engagement officer, Navy Pier Inc.

Boone has never asked anyone to mentor her, nor has she been asked to be a mentor. Yet she has had mentors, including Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, and the late Maggie Daley. And Boone has mentored dozens of young women in arts and culture, in her roles as executive director at Gallery 37, the predecessor to After School Matters, and as a senior program officer at Joyce Foundation. Boone started her current post at Navy Pier last summer.

To Boone, mentoring “is about building a support system,” and the women she’s mentored agree. Wendy Walker Williams, 47, executive director at South East Chicago Commission, a nonprofit community organization, met Boone while deputy director at Gallery 37 and consults with her on major career decisions. Boone “is brutally honest, and the advice she’s giving me is honest and with love. I trust her,” Williams says.

The middle child in a blended family, Boone learned by observing those around her—avoiding their failures, emulating their successes. To this day, she realizes that her status as a boss makes her a mentor, or at the very least a role model. “People pay attention,” she says, adding that her responsibility is twofold because she’s a woman and she’s black. “You are mindful of behavior because you’re one of the few,” she says. Whatever shape mentoring takes, Boone is happy to help. “There’s room to learn, always, from someone,” she says.

RENETTA MCCANN
60, chief talent officer, Leo Burnett

She’s a C-level executive and a legend in advertising, and will mentor anyone who musters up the courage to ask. “My famous phrase is, ‘Come see me,’ ” McCann says. “There’s a whole lot of anxiety around them asking me. If they make the effort to get through what appears to be that barrier, I’ll talk to them.”

McCann mentors through formal programs at Burnett and She Runs It, a nonprofit spinoff from the Advertising Women of New York. At any given time she’s an informal mentor to a dozen people, and mentoring people of color in advertising is crucial, she says. “I feel an extraordinary commitment to helping them sort through their careers,” she says, partly because she didn’t get that kind of guidance on her way up.

Mentoring means lending “another set of eyes to see in themselves what they don’t see,” McCann says. She thinks her particular “contrarian” point of view draws people to her mentoring. “I’m not the one you come to and ask, ‘What are the top five ways I can do X?’ ”

McCann’s style of guidance helped Shakira Seabrooks decide to leave her post as senior art director at Burnett and move to New York last year to freelance. “She’s helped me figure out that this is part of the journey, too, that even if you feel like you’re not moving forward, you are,” says Seabrooks, 33.

Esther “E.T.” Franklin, managing director at Spark Foundry, a Publicis media brand, met McCann in 2002, and to this day lives by three McCann-dispensed pieces of advice: Understand the game, claim your space and magnify your influence. “Women often feel they have less influence and power than they do,” says Franklin, 60. “The influence you have is 99.9 percent bigger than you think you have. Lead with that.”

ANDREA KRAMER
62, partner, McDermott Will & Emery; co-founder, Women’s Leadership & Mentoring Alliance

When Kramer graduated from law school, she saw the business world as a meritocracy, and soon realized she was wrong. “We are still in gender-biased workplaces, where women don’t have the same organic mentorship men do in professions,” Kramer says. “Women need opportunities to develop leadership skills, and mentorships provide that.”

Eleven years ago, Kramer co-founded the Women’s Leadership & Mentoring Alliance, a nonprofit that now has a presence in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. The organization matches mentors and mentees for a six-month formal relationship.

On her own, at any given time Kramer mentors 15 to 20 women and four or five men. She spends time with them on the phone the weekend before a big interview, helps perfect self-evaluations and makes connections. Given that devotion, she wants to make sure those who ask for help are invested in their own success. She assigns a task—LinkedIn research on a person they want to meet or a book to read. If they comply, they’re on the way to a mentoring relationship with Kramer.

“Once you’re pulled into her orb, you don’t really leave,” says Bethany Harris, an associate attorney at Mossing & Navarre, a personal-injury practice in Chicago. A Women’s Leadership mentor introduced Harris, 32, to firm co-founder Adria Mossing, thus helping Harris land a job there. Harris says Kramer has taught her to use her voice to project authority and to ask for challenging projects at work. “She was interested in my journey from the beginning,” Harris says.

Kramer expects mentees to mentor other women or volunteer for nonprofit work. One former mentee expressed thanks by having her office donate underwear to the Women’s Treatment Center, a Chicago​ nonprofit Kramer supports. “Not everybody can say they had bras and underwear donated in their name,” Kramer says with a laugh. “That’s the thing. You can help someone.” Because with a little help, the world can become a fairer place.

ANNE PRAMAGGIORE
59, CEO, Commonwealth Edison

She runs a $5 billion company with 6,100 employees and 3.9 million customers. Still, Pramaggiore finds time to mentor on many levels. “There’s a myth that you mentor in this formalistic way,” says Pramaggiore, ComEd’s first female CEO. “There are many ways to do it.” She manages and motivates teams as part of her job, and helps friends and colleagues sift through career decisions and dilemmas.

What really makes her eyes light up is the Icebox Derby. The annual competition, which ComEd launched in 2014, solicits applications from girls ages 13 to 18 with an interest in science and math. The program accepts 30 girls and then, during a two-week summer program, teaches them engineering skills to build an electric car out of an old refrigerator. The girls team up and race their cars; each member of the winning team receives a check for $2,500 and a laptop.

Five derby participants have returned to ComEd as interns, and Pramaggiore has taken a personal interest in several, helping place them in after-school programs that ensure they will succeed in high school and go on to college. One is Kiarra Pearson, 16, a junior at Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago. Pearson met Pramaggiore in April at a fundraising luncheon for the school and participated in the 2017 Icebox Derby. Pearson credits Pramaggiore for helping her envision a virtually unlimited future. “Anything I put my mind to, I can do,” Pearson says. “I really didn’t have that mindset before meeting her.”

TROY HENIKOFF
53, managing director, Math Venture Partners; lecturer on entrepreneurship and innovation, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

“I love helping entrepreneurs,” says Henikoff, founder of SurePayroll.com and co-founder of Excelerate Labs, now Techstars Chicago. “It’s awesome to see them succeed.” Henikoff requires chemistry in a mentoring relationship. “There needs to be something there—I am passionate about the company or person, and the company has to want to work with me,” he says. Honesty is also necessary. “Some people think I’m too tough or trying to be a jerk,” he says. “I’m not. I’m trying to help.”

Amanda Lannert, CEO of Chicago-based Jellyvision, welcomes “unvarnished truth” from Henikoff. “He will tell you what you need to hear so you can get better,” says Lannert, 44. She attributes a third of her network to Henikoff, and says he has sent employees, customers and other advisers her way. He’s also helped her with venture pitches, one of which just yielded a $20 million investment in Jellyvision, which creates interactive employee-communication software. “I am a CEO because he was incredibly helpful with advice,” Lannert says.

Henikoff mentors via 30-minute open-office appointments every Friday, a service he publicizes via Twitter, and through Techstars Chicago. The heaviest mentoring takes place through Math Venture Partners, where he invests time and ultimately money in startups he’d like to succeed.

Even while mentoring, Henikoff protects his network. One example is the way he handles requests for introductions. Henikoff asks for a forwardable email explaining why a mentee wants that introduction. He then forwards it to the person of interest. “I don’t want people to feel obligated,” Henikoff says. He sends four to five such emails a day with a success rate of 95 percent to 98 percent. “It’s really amazing how this community is open to helping,” he says.

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