Mentorship program connects Vanderbilt students with Nashville businesswomen

The student organization Women in Business is holding a mentoring event that gives female students the chance to have meaningful conversations with local businesswomen

This year, the Women in Business student organization is working to grow the Mentorship Program, which promotes the benefits of networking and mentorship for students early in their careers. By pairing each student participant with two businesswomen, the program gives students the opportunity to hold meaningful conversations with women who have been in their shoes.

Since fall 2016, WIB has hosted its Mentorship Program once every semester. Organized by Joanna Cheng, a founder and current member of the executive board of WIB, the program began as a way to address the lack of opportunities for female Vanderbilt students interested in business to connect with businesswomen, particularly in the Nashville community. To begin breaching this gap, WIB reached out to the Women in Business Association in the Owen Graduate School of Management.

“We partnered with the Women in Business Association in Owen, the business school here, and through that partnership we realized we could gain credibility by working with them,” Cheng said. “We wanted to gather a little bit of attention, so we hosted an event where we had some our connections in Nashville come speak to students, and the students got to ask any questions they wanted. We had a lot of attendees, and we thought, okay, this is good, we should actually launch this program.”

This preliminary program inspired the basis of the organization’s mentorship program, which provides women at Vanderbilt the unique opportunity to have one-on-one interactions with businesswomen from a variety of different fields and professions. Vanderbilt undergraduates have the ability to speak personally for twenty minutes with two businesswomen they have been matched with. After these interviews, the program offers a reception in which students can reach out to any other businesswoman attending the event.

To match undergraduates and mentors, Cheng has each participant fill out a survey before the event. With questions about interest in earning an MBA, career interests and dream companies, the survey matches participants based on complementary industry interests, professional goals and personality traits. Cheng also sees the matching process as a way to introduce students with mentors outside of their traditional interests.

“Even if this woman does not have the job that you think you want, I think that just having that conversation and hearing what they have to say can really broaden your understanding of business in general,” Cheng said. “A couple of my mentors are not even in the field that I am interested in, but having them as a sounding board helped change the trajectory of my career. I don’t think I would have had that without Women in Business.”

The mentoring program lists networking opportunities and mentoring relationships as its two main goals. The program offers undergraduates a personal opportunity to ask experts their questions about the business field, as well as establish connections with members of the industry they are interested in entering. Undergraduates who have participated in the program are encouraged by WIB to follow up with their mentors and establish a meaningful, long-lasting relationship with them. WIB purposely matches students and mentors by personality traits to encourage the formation of organic, personal relationships. For the Nov. 7 event, WIB especially wishes to emphasize the mentoring aspect of the program.

“With mentorship, you not only meet people within your industry or in the job you specifically want,” said Cheng. “You meet businesswomen who have experiences in a variety of business related jobs or past experiences. And with that, you learn about the dos and don’ts in business, especially concerned with women.”

To prepare undergraduates for their one-on-one conversation with their mentors, WIB encourages them to do background research on these businesswomen to discover areas of interest they would like to learn more about. In particular, WIB recommends undergraduates to ask their mentors about their careers, how they got to where they are and how they managed the transition between college and their career path. WIB also encourages undergraduates to explore the diverse steps that different mentors took to reach their current roles. Cheng is interested in giving student participants the opportunity to learn about less conventional methods to succeeding in business.

“I think a lot of Vanderbilt students have focused on the conventional routes of business,” Cheng said. “And with these mentors, they all went through so many different routes to get where they are. We encourage them to share their past and what they went through to get here, because that would encourage so many students to go through unconventional career paths, which I think is awesome.”

While the Mentoring Program emphasizes networking and mentoring relationships, it has also resulted in job and internship offers for participating students. WIB does not emphasize this component of the program, but it occurs nonetheless.

“Although we emphasize maintaining these relationships because of your professional development goals, we don’t emphasize getting job offers,” Cheng said. “But the fact that we meet with so many women, and so many of those women are impressed with Vanderbilt students, means that jobs just arise from it.”

The Mentorship Program on Nov. 7 will have 33 businesswomen participating as mentors, 11 of whom are graduate students at the Owen Graduate School of Management. Cheng began her search for businesswomen to participate in the event through a women’s networking workshop she attended, where she explained the mission of the program to the women she met there. These businesswomen were interested to help out and learn more about the Mentorship Program, and they connected Cheng with other influential women eager to participate. Now, WIB has a list of 100 women that they regularly ask to participate in these events.

“We have the CEO of Make-A-Wish, the People Director of M Street, the VP of Public Affairs of CMT, two famous fashion bloggers from New York who have moved to Nashville and the founder of Pierce Public Relations,” Cheng said. “We have former Bain consultants, which we know are a huge hit with Vanderbilt students. We also have the Director of Social Enterprise Alliance and the VP of Finance for Red Pepper.”

Looking into the future, Cheng is optimistic about the Mentoring Program’s outreach into the greater Nashville community. In the long term, Cheng is interested in influencing nearby schools to develop a similar mentorship program.

“As far as I’m concerned, Vanderbilt is the only school that pairs students with mentors and emphasizes that mentoring relationship,” Cheng said. “Other schools may have it, but I just haven’t heard about it. So, I think it would be amazing if other schools were inspired by this program.”

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Caitlin David (2020) is a writer for the Campus section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. From Alpharetta, Georgia, Caitlin is majoring in Economics and Human & Organizational Development. In her free time, Caitlin likes to read, go for runs in Centennial Park, and explore coffee shops in Nashville.

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