Celebrating Mentorship in Honor of Black History Month

Discussing the value of mentorship in bringing diversity and inclusivity to the workplace.

Celebrating Black History Month with Ivayana Liggins, Gabrielle Rosser, Robyn Rouse
Left to right: Ivayana Liggins, Gabrielle Rosser, Robyn Rouse

By Ivayana Liggins

I had a mentor for a long time when I was younger, and throughout middle school and high school I had a variety of mentors that supported me academically and professionally. These mentors shaped my journey and I was left with deep gratitude for the impact of mentorship. 

As soon as I was able, I became a mentor myself. Through SMART I mentored someone from the age of twelve to sixteen. And I’ve mentored through other organizations like Braven. Supporting the personal and professional growth of others, and uplifting underrepresented voices is incredibly rewarding. 

So, today I’m speaking with two colleagues about the value of mentorship in respect to Black History Month and the African American experience. We discuss the impact of their mentorship experiences and the role of mentorship in bringing diversity and inclusivity to the workplace.

My conversation is with Robyn Rouse who was a Greenbook Future List Honoree in 2023 (and Greenbook podcast guest) and Gabrielle Rosser who was recently honored with a QRCA Lloyd J. Harris Memorial Fund Scholarship.

How has mentorship influenced your journey, shaping your personal and professional growth, and how might this reflect on the significance of mentorship within the broader narrative of diversity and inclusion?

Gabrielle: For me personally, having mentors has helped me navigate new situations and things that I find tricky or difficult. Having someone to guide me through different experiences has instilled a lot of confidence in shaping my personal and professional growth. 

Robyn: My mentorship journey started in college. I had no idea what career options could come from the research experiences I’d had. A professor of mine, who was active in the campus community and very easy to talk to, mentored me. Having her provide me with exposure to all the different options was pivotal in me becoming the researcher I am today. 

I’ve also really benefited from and enjoyed the mentorship opportunities that have come from working at Vital Findings. What I love about a place like this is that everyone is a mentor ─ you don’t need the formal title. I can go to anyone and talk about their career experiences and use their insight to help inform where I can go. And I like to pass that on, too. There’s something super gratifying in mentoring other people and being honest about my own experiences.

Ivayana: To add to that, you [Robyn] were my buddy when I first started (a buddy is a peer-mentor). Having a buddy helps promote a supportive work environment and, being from an underrepresented group, I felt that having someone from an underrepresented group as my buddy brought a sense of belonging. Knowing that you’re very comfortable working here made me feel comfortable working here, and cultivated a culture of feeling valued and included.

Gabrielle: Robyn has mentored me as well and I’ve felt the same.

Robyn: Thank you guys. It’s honestly been such a pleasure seeing both of you grow and I’m very proud of having been even a minor part in that. And I’ve learned from you too. That’s an important part of mentorship ─ it doesn’t just go one way. You both help me see things from a different perspective as well. It’s mutually beneficial.

Is it important for your mentors to also be from underrepresented groups? 

Ivayana: The first thing I did when applying to Vital Findings was look at the people page on the company website ─ you want to see diversity because you have a diverse background. The people you hire show that you care about and value diversity. Then I was paired with Robyn as a buddy when I joined. She’s been here a long time, her experience here is great, and she also happened to look like me. It was an added plus.

Robyn: I agree it’s an “added plus.” It’s by no means a requirement, and I have people who I consider mentors who come from different backgrounds. But especially in a mentorship where you’re getting to know the person a little more, there are certain elements and qualities that you don’t need to talk about, it’s just baked in, if your mentor shares a similar background. It creates an even more comfortable connection. 

What makes the mentor relationship special?

Gabrielle: The encouragement I have felt from my mentor. To feel like I have a place to speak about things that are on my mind and to have the encouragement to push me over the hump of feeling nervous to take action. It was Ivayana who encouraged me to apply for the QRCA Lloyd J. Harris Memorial Fund Scholarship. I would not have applied without my conversations with her and now that I’m a recipient I’ll be getting mentorship through that as well.

Robyn: Mentorship feels like such a candid relationship. Having a space where I know they have my best interest at heart is really special and probably really rare. It’s a space where I can be honest, I can vent, and then I get help contextualizing things in a way that makes sense for me. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

Ivayana: For me, what’s special about mentorship is always feeling that someone has your back. You have someone you can talk to, who will provide constructive feedback and who will help you navigate challenges as they arise. 

How do you think organizations can promote and facilitate mentorship opportunities to empower people from diverse backgrounds? 

Robyn: One thing is to recognize that mentor relationships are very different from managerial ones. You can be a manager and a mentor to someone, but if you’re in a solely mentorship-type relationship the stakes are so much lower. At the end of the day, as a manager, there’s a certain expectation that you’re looking for the person you’re managing to meet. There’s a lot more freedom in a mentorship relationship because you really are just imparting what you can to advise the person, and there’s no expectation of an end result. It’s important for organizations to offer mentor relationships beyond managerial ones.

I’ve also had an experience where I connected instantly with a moderator we partnered with for a study. She was phenomenal and we shared a similar background and similar experiences. Vital Findings helped facilitate a mentorship with her which made me feel seen, and helped empower me in an area of study I was really interested in. So listening to what their employees need, and creating an external network of people within the industry more broadly, is a benefit organizations can provide as well. 

Gabrielle: I would echo that and would add that there’s also a personal side to the journey. It’s helpful for organizations to offer opportunities but it can be a personal effort to make new connections and to follow-up on connections made.  

Ivayana: I agree. In my experience, mentorship shouldn’t be rigid or forced. I think that’s what we’re touching on─it should be inclusive and accessible to everyone and should have some guidelines, but shouldn’t be mandatory or overly structured. The organization can provide the opportunity for formal mentor pairings and can also allow space or help facilitate mentor relationships that form naturally.