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What has been your most important experience as a mentor?

I have had the honour of mentoring someone who was older than I was in age, but had less experience in our industry than I did due to her mid-career transition. I very much enjoyed learning about how to keep things in perspective from someone who had more life experience than I did, while working collaboratively to show her the ropes in our industry and offer approaches in solving problems specific to our work.

She asked good questions and had a good perspective on life. She made it very easy for me to be a career mentor, while I felt as though she had indirectly mentored me in mothering and handling life’s transitions. In the time that we worked together, her teenage son went off to college and then graduated from college and started his first job, while my young daughters grew into teenagers themselves. These life transitions can be just as challenging as navigating career paths or obstacles.

I believe we each learn so much from others that a good mentor/mentee relationship is rarely just a unidirectional path but rather more of a partnership or collaborative journey. I felt very honored to share my career experience with her, while she also shared her own life experience with me.

What has been your most important experience as a mentee?

One of my earliest career mentors was wicked smart and yet very understated. She was the only woman at a higher level of authority where we worked, and she held back and tried to blend into our strongly male-dominated environment.

We often talked at length about gender bias, stereotypes, and the risks of being an assertive woman in a male-dominated field. I felt conflicted about having to navigate this “nice-ness” path, and trying not to be complacent about our male colleagues dominating projects or clients while they edged us out. My mentor had some admirable skills in building relationships with clients so that even when one of our male colleagues stepped in, the client usually would remain loyal to her.

It was an important lesson, but a frustrating one. I had to learn very quickly that politics is something necessary to consider, not just my own work ethic or abilities. She was very matter of fact, which helped me to keep from becoming frustrated, and she handled each situation with grace. I learned not just a lot about practicing in my field, but also about navigating potential political minefields on the job.

I believe it is important to recognise reality, and I am glad my mentor shared with me her own limitations and her own struggles with navigating her career. She had 20 years more career experience than I did when she mentored me, and I appreciated and respected the issues that she had encountered in her career that I would not (thanks to women like her who had worked to change things for those of us who followed), and also helped me overcome my own obstacles as I gained my own experiences.

How did you arrive at the position you are in now?

I was raised in a small town, and I was the first woman in my family to go to college. I loved science and technology, and got a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, then a Ph.D. in immunology. I received a fellowship for graduate school, and I told myself that I could not turn down having my degree fully funded. That was a dream for me! Once I began down that path of research and teaching medical students, however, I decided that I didn’t want a career in academia.

I considered several options: veterinary school, medical school, and law school. I knew that I wanted a family some day and I felt that a career in law would allow me more flexibility to do that, so I went to law school. During law school, I had two of my three daughters, the youngest coming shortly after I started practicing patent law. With a few years of law firm practice under my belt, I was recruited to go in house at a private equity group. I worked there for ten years, building and supporting startup companies—I helped build IP portfolios, formulate business plans and investor pitch decks, review licenses and other contracts, and even helped coordinate prototyping with product development teams. It was thrilling work, but as my daughters grew into teenagers, I decided to take a leap of faith and left my position.

After taking several months off, I recently launched my own law practice and business consulting firm. I am learning so much being on my own, and I have the freedom to spend my time with work that is fulfilling. I mentor startups, especially those founded by women and people of color. I volunteer to judge the startup competition at the local university business school. I guest lecture at the local community college and speak at events that highlight women in science and technology.

I am using my experience to offer mentoring to women coming up the ranks behind me. Since my own mother is no longer alive, I am the matriarch of the family–a single mother to three daughters who are preparing launches of their own. I believe life and careers do not always take us where we expect, and we need to try to be adaptable to what may come.

I have worked in very strongly male-dominated fields and organizations, and while sometimes it was hard to feel the effects of that or navigate the landscape, I am happy to be able to leverage those experiences to inform and guide younger women ahead to their goals and their own successes.

Melanie Kitzen: TeamMember
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