Shellee Mitchell founded the 1-to-1 Woman Mentoring Program and worked with AACUC to launch the initial pilot in March 2021.
The program matches C-suite white women with young professional black women within the credit union industry and encourages vulnerability and honesty from mentors and mentees alike.
72 women have participated in four cohorts; at least seven mentees have received promotions since their participation.
Credit unions across the country have redoubled efforts during the past two years to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the credit union movement. Many cooperatives are now focusing on creating more inclusive and equitable cultures for employees and members alike. However, according to the NCUA’s latest report to Congress, there is more work to be done.
For example, despite the fact that women account for 51.2% of all CEOs at U.S. credit unions, they represent only 16.5% of CEOs in credit unions with more than $1 billion in assets. Black or African American managers make up only 9%, regardless of gender, of the total management composition at the credit unions who completed NCUA’s voluntary diversity self-assessment tool.
That’s where Shellee Mitchell, a program specialist for NASCUS, is making her mark.
Mitchell is the founder of Sapphire Dimensions, a mentoring organization focused on the professional, educational, and economic development of African American women. One of the organization’s programs — the 1-to-1 Woman Mentoring Program — connects white women in senior leadership positions with up-and-coming black women in the credit union industry to encourage conversation around gender bias and the racial divide.
Shellee Mitchell, Founder, Sapphire Dimensions
“I know from my research that we tend to mentor and feel comfortable with those who look like us,” Mitchell says. “By creating this bridge, white and black women can better understand each other’s different experiences and find we are more alike than we are divided.”
1-to-1 Woman Mentoring launched its first cohort of 18 individuals, or nine pairs, in March 2021 in partnership with the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC). The program paired participants based on both professional histories and shared interests. It selected mentors based on their openness to exploring racial disparities with empathy as well as their experience in the C-suite or as a senior executive.
“I was nervous at first, but I enjoyed building trust and feeling comfortable asking my mentee deeper questions,” says Patty Corkery, president and CEO of Michigan Credit Union League & Affiliates. “I don’t love the term ‘mentor’ and see myself as more of a supporter, but I’m grateful that my relationship with my mentee has evolved into a friendship.”
Mentees, meanwhile, ranged in age from 25 to 35 and held either a college degree or had some college and aspirations to climb the corporate ladder.
“For me, a key benefit was developing the courage to have conversations with executives within the credit union industry and the confidence to speak up and engage,”says Christiana Hancock, a branch manager for SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union who was matched with Patty Corkery in the November 2021 cohort. “My cooperative is large, and even though a lot of our executives have an open-door policy, I was intimidated when Patty and I first started to talk.”
“COVID reduced the opportunities for networking, so our paths probably would have never crossed without this program,” Hancock continues. “Now, I have a connection in Michigan. In fact, when Patty launched a cohort there, I was part of the kick-off, so I’m also now connected with a branch manager there.”
The six-week virtual program begins with a welcome session for all participants to set the stage and encourage open and honest dialogue. From there, mentors and mentees set their own schedule but must meet a minimum of one hour per week.
To help participants build rapport and navigate discussions that require vulnerability on both sides, Mitchell created a workbook. What participants share during their conversations stays confidential and is strictly between mentor and mentee.
“The first rule of being a mentor is to listen and create an environment where it’s comfortable to share,” Corkery says. “It’s a learning opportunity for both sides, and mentors walk away better off than when they started.”
Like many mentorship programs, participants get out of it what they put into it, Hancock says. For this program particularly, however, participants must be open to being vulnerable if they are to benefit from authentic, open dialogue. It can be uncomfortable but is worth the effort.
“You also need to be receptive to hearing comments, thoughts, or ideas that you don’t necessarily agree with because this is a learning space,” Hancock says. “That’s what Patty reiterated to me — we’re here to learn from each other. I was as much a mentor for her as she was to me. She described it as being champions for each other, and I like that idea.”
At the end of the six-week program, all participants reunite for a closing session.
Learn more about 1-to-1 Woman Mentoring and watch a testimonial at www.sapphiredimension.com.
To date, 1-to-1 Woman Mentoring has completed four cohorts with 18 individuals in each for a total of 72 participants. Out of the 36 mentees, at least seven have received promotions at work since participating, and many of the pairs have formed long-term relationships that continued after the conclusion of the official program. Mitchell estimates that half of the pairs have stayed in touch.
“Even though many are located across the country from each other, I’ve had mentors and mentees make lunch arrangements, plan on attending graduation events, and more,” Mitchell says.
For those interested in participating in a mentorship program from either side, Mitchell says it’s important to listen and be genuine in your interactions. She also recognizes that having a mentor is not a saving grace or silver bullet.
“These young women have confidence and ambition, but their voices may have been muffled or their confidence shaken by their experiences,” Mitchell says. “When they are seen and heard by a mentor, that can give them the strength to give it another shot and know they are worthy and necessary.”
She also encourages others to get involved and avoid becoming defensive by truly listening to others’ experiences. Mitchell herself inspired program participants by sharing her story. She set the stage for the kind of vulnerability that would lead to success for all.
“A highlight for me was getting to know Shellee and hearing her experience as a black professional in our industry,” Corkery says. “She was so vulnerable about expressing her concerns, sadness, and frustration, it encouraged the mentees and mentors to be open and honest with one another.”
Perhaps one of the most important indicators of the success of the program, however, is in the word-of-mouth praise it receives from participants.
“I’ve already encouraged two other women to participate in this program and to step outside of their comfort zones,” Hancock says. “As African American women, we don’t always see people who look like us and, when we do, we gravitate towards them, but we won’t be able to get anywhere unless we seek those out who have differences. That’s when you have to break down your own wall and take a chance to trust this individual and hope they will give you that same trust in return.”
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