It was during a Lighthouse Labs “demo day” last spring that data scientist Russell Yearwood virtually reconnected with his former instructor at the technology education company, Anurag Srivastava.
When the two decided to catch up by phone a few days later, Mr. Yearwood talked about the challenge he was having finding work. After completing a three-month boot camp at Lighthouse Labs a month earlier, Mr. Yearwood had applied for more than 100 positions but hadn’t yet landed a job. Ms. Srivastava tapped his network and, within a week, Mr. Yearwood had an interview with a tech startup that led to an eight-month contract.
The two men carried on their virtual mentor-mentee relationship. For example, when Mr. Yearwood was deciding on other positions after his tech company contract ended, Mr. Srivastava helped him prepare for job interviews and advised him on how much to ask for in compensation.
“He helped me practice how to negotiate with people that are in very, very senior positions,” recalls Mr. Yearwood, who now works as a data scientist for a private company.
Mr. Yearwood credits his relationship with Mr. Srivastava to fast-tracking his data-science career and inspiring him to become a mentor himself.
It can be challenging to find a mentor in the best of times, but even more so when most people are working remotely during the pandemic. Still, experts say it’s possible to find and build meaningful professional relationships online.
Having mentors is also a good way for workers to stay motivated during the remote and hybrid work era, says Rachel Wong, co-founder of the online career and mentorship platform Monday Girl.
“A lot of people feel stagnant right now with COVID,” Ms. Wong explains. “Younger professionals, with the ‘Great Resignation,’ are finding other ways to [create] connections and find more inspiration from their careers.”
Organizations that have gone remote-only should also play their part to foster mentor relationships among their staff, Ms. Wong says.
“Companies will have to find ways to build connections that they didn’t have to do when people were in the office,” she explains. Those without internal programs, or who are unemployed, need to be pro-active in finding their own mentorship opportunities.
In the early stages of her career, Ms. Wong recalls sending cold e-mails and messages on LinkedIn requesting coffee chats and getting no responses.
“That can be really disheartening,” she says.
Workers can turn a message from “cold” to “warm” by tapping into a past connection, Ms. Wong says, like being alumni from the same school.
“It could even be: ‘Hey, I noticed you were mentioned in this article, or you spoke at this panel,’” Ms. Wong says. “It shows that you truly are interested in speaking with that person. People are way more likely to respond.”
Requesting a short virtual coffee chat of 15 to 30 minutes can also help reduce the time commitment for the potential mentor. It’s common not to hear back from someone on LinkedIn, Ms. Wong says, so expect to contact multiple people before you get a reply.
Online groups, like Monday Girl, are also a good place to make connections. It’s free to join the company’s Facebook group and access its job boards, while a $16.50 monthly subscription grants access to their mentor list to request coffee chats, along with other networking perks. Alumni groups and industry-specific groups on Facebook and LinkedIn are also good places to network virtually and find mentorship opportunities online.
Once you’ve found someone willing to meet, Ms. Wong recommends setting an agenda and preparing notes and questions.
“That way, the mentor doesn’t feel like they have to lead it and you can definitely own it more,” she says.
Mentees feeling anxious about a virtual chat might consider having their questions and notes beside their computer during the online chat, for quick reference.
“That can actually take a lot of the nerves out of the meeting,” Ms. Wong says. Logging in 15 minutes prior gives you time to ensure your equipment and internet connection is working properly.
Virtual meetings can also be enhanced by sharing links and references easily, such as a URL to a portfolio or LinkedIn profile.
As the online chat comes to an end, mentees interested in continuing the relationship with their mentor should propose a follow-up meeting – or, the mentee could reach out again after they’ve completed a task discussed, such as updating their resume or securing an interview with a company.
Ms. Wong says someone nervous about asking for a second meeting during the initial chat could suggest it in a follow-up thank-you e-mail after it’s over.
If mentors don’t respond right away, Ms. Wong says it’s okay to follow up – and that applies to both second meeting requests and cold LinkedIn message send-outs.
Ms. Wong, who now works at a tech company, admits she sometimes needs a reminder message or two to respond to coffee chat requests.
“I will get back to them and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I was super busy. I would love to chat,’” Ms. Wong explains. “It’s definitely not personal.”