Mentorship and Networking

By: Dr. Davi Kallman

Thank you for joining this session on Mentorship and Networking. As people with disabilities, we often have to work a little harder at selecting a mentor and building our networks, partly because there are not a lot of resources on networking specifically geared towards people with disabilities. However, organizations like Disability EmpowHer Network are paving the way and providing more networking and mentorship resources for people with disabilities. 

It may also be difficult to secure a mentor because people with disabilities communicate and interact with the world differently. Even though it is important to build a strong network and select a mentor, it is even more important to understand what you want in a mentor and determine how they can help you fulfill your goals. This overview on mentoring and networking will cover: 

  • Identifying your Mentor: How do you identify a potential mentor?
  • Identifying if a Mentor is Right for You: How to know if a potential mentor is right for you?
  • Asking Someone to be your Mentor: Tips and Tricks from the Field
  • Building your Network: People do not just start off with a large network, it takes time to build. 
  • Networking as a Person with a Disability: An overview of how to network if your disability makes the process more difficult.
  • Different Ways to Network: Everyone networks and communicates differently, it is important to understand how you can network in different ways. 
  • Being a Good Mentee: Being a good mentee is crucial if you want to have a lasting relationship with your mentor. 

Identifying Your Mentor

Identifying a potential mentor can be difficult, especially if you do not know what you want or what to look for. The following tips and tricks have been developed to help you identify a mentor that is right for you.

  1. Shared Interests and Goals: Your mentor should share the same interests and goals as you. If you do not have any common interests, then you may want to look at someone who you share interests with.
  2. Have Good Traits: They should be good listeners, they should encourage others, and they should be willing to learn from their mentees. If they do not have these traits, they may not be a good mentor for you.
  3. Experience and Wisdom: A good mentor should be someone who has a lot of experience in something you are interested in or something that you want to do. The amount of time that someone has been in the field is not as important as what they have accomplished in that time.
  4. Accessible: A good mentor is someone who should be accessible and be willing to meet with their mentees and continue the relationship overtime. Do some research first and be looking to see if that person has mentored other people in the past. If they have mentored people in the past, get opinions from former mentees.

Identifying if a Mentor is Right for You

  • Know your goals (do you both share the same goals?): Before you go and reach out to a potential mentor, make sure that the mentor is right for you. To do that, you need to first identify your goals. Be thinking about what you want to accomplish personally and professionally. How will that mentor be able to help you accomplish your personal and professional goals?
    • Pro Tip: Networking experts say that you can use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound) to help you break down lofty ideas into individual goals.
  • Dream Profession: What type of job or profession would you like? When looking for a mentor, be looking at their professional journey. Did you all have similar resources and experiences? If there are no similarities between where they are and where you want to be, they may not be the right mentor for you.

Asking Someone to be your Mentor

Once you have identified a mentor, it is important to have a plan prepared before you ask them to be your mentor. The following plan will help in securing a mentor.

Asking in Person:

  1. Have a Script: Make sure to have an agenda or script detailing what you want to discuss with your potential mentor.
    • Goals: Be upfront about your goals and why you think they may be the right mentor for you. Be up front about what you need from them and what they can expect from you.
    • Mention what you like about their work: This shows that you have done your research.
    • Mention what you have in common: This is a great opportunity to discuss how your goals and interests align.
    • Set up a Recurring Meeting: If things go well and the person says yes to be your mentor, make sure to set up recurring meetings. Be flexible, remember you are working on their schedule. If you will be needing accommodations at your meetings.
    • Note, if you will be needing accommodations from an individual mentor who is not associated with an organization, make sure to provide your own accommodations (ex: an interpreter, CART services, Braille, etc.). However, if your mentor is part of a mentoring program as part of an organization, please notify the program director of your accommodations needs and accessibility requests, the organization should provide those accommodations.

Asking Online

  1. Social Media: Avoid social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter unless you already know the person or you can guarantee that your social media accounts are professional.
  2. Email: Emailing a person or messaging them through a networking platform is often the best and most professional option. There are sample email templates you can use in the supplemental documents portion of this page that will help guide you in drafting a professional email.
  3. Networking Platform: LinkedIn is a great way to build professional relationships. This option is especially beneficial for people who do not like networking through verbal communication.
    • Pro tip: If you do not have a LinkedIn account, make sure to create one. It is important to do your research and see what the profiles of people you admire look like. Make sure to create a catchy tagline that demonstrates who you are. An example: Davi Kallman, PhD: Director of Access Services, Researcher, Disability Advocate and Activist, and Cat Mom. In this example, I put my profession first and follow it by exciting or fun things that define me, such as being a cat mom.

Building Your Network

  1. Build Your Networking List: Identify people who you think can help you. Connect with your friends and family to see if they have relevant contacts that they can connect you with. Also check with local disability services offices, Centers for Independent Living, State Independent Living Councils, etc.
  2. Send out emails or calls (or use whatever platform is easier for you) to everyone that you were referred to: Make sure to mention the name of the person who referred you in the opening line (this will increase your chances of being seen). Be upfront with them, let them know that you are interested in meeting them and that you will meet with them on their schedule.
  3. Establishing Informal Meetings: Once you have several meetings booked; make sure to research the person, what they do, what their company does, etc. Make sure to plan an agenda for your meeting, it shows the person that you are meeting with that you respect their time and that you are invested in learning from them. Here are some tips:
    • Keep the meeting professional: be mindful of your attire, business professionals are typically encouraged.
    • Keep the meeting brief: less than 30 minutes for initial meetings.
    • Bring artifacts: Bringing a resume, CV, business card, portfolio, or anything else you may have will separate you from others.
    • Be prepared to talk about yourself: No one knows about you, more than YOU. Make sure to be able to talk about all the great things you have done and all the great things you want to do. You can help paint a picture of how they may be able to serve as a mentor to you and how they can help you achieve those goals.
  4. Build on the Relationship: It is important to build on the relationship that you established in your initial meeting. There are a few ways that you can maintain the relationships:
    • Monthly Meetings: Offer to schedule a monthly meeting with them if they have time and they are able.
    • Follow up emails: Send them a follow up email thanking them for their time and ask them if they would be willing to meet again.
    • Follow up calls: If you feel comfortable and are able to, call them after the initial meeting to thank them for their time and to establish the next meeting date.
    • Invitations: Invite them to any upcoming events or things that are important to you and them. If you are participating in a disability march or being showcased in an art show, tell them about it. More likely than not, they will come and be happy to support you.

Networking as a Person with a Disability

  • Some Challenges for in-person networking events:
    • Physical space can be inaccessible
    • Sensory overload can at networking events (often space spaces or rooms be not be available)navigating social dynamics can be difficult
    • Lack of accommodations at networking spaces is commonplace
    • People may talk to your personal attendant instead of you, or before they interact with you
  • Tips and tricks for in-person networking events for People with Disabilities:
    • Communicate Accessible Needs: Do not be afraid to contact the networking event organizer early to ask for accommodations.
    • Wing Person: Find a “wing person” at the event, a person who you can tag along with you as needed to help you meet people.
    • Bring a Friend: Come with someone you feel comfortable with. This is different from a “wing person”. This person can be a friend, personal attendant, parent, peer, etc.
    • Have a Plan: Have a mapped out agenda on the kinds of people you want to network with. You can contact the event organizer to see who is expected, you can ask for a guest list in advance as a reasonable accommodation.
    • Be Prepared: Have a list of three questions to ask each person so you do not have to come up with a topic on the spot. You can also come up with 2-3 of fun open-ended questions to get the conversation started. For instance, “What is the best vacation you have ever been on?”
    • Disclosure can be your Friend: Sometimes disclosing your disability can be a positive thing. You can also work to manage questions about your disability gracefully. Know that people may ask questions, you have the right to answer their questions or you can transition into other topics which show your capabilities and range of interests.
      • Pro Tip: One tip recommended is to have business cards ready with your name and contact information. If you can only communicate in a certain way, you can include the preferred communication method on your card so that contacts know how to get in touch with you in the future.
    • Look at Body Language: Approach people who you know will engage. You can tell by their body language (they will often look at you and smile).

Different Ways to Network

  • Change How to Network
    • Choose quality over quantity: You can change how you network by changing the networking platform. You can choose to network online such as through LinkedIn. Some people may feel more confident and comfortable with written communication. Being able to convey your thoughts in a written form in a structured way, may help you network better.
    • Smaller can be Better: Opt to do smaller networking events. 1 on 1’s or small groups can be less overwhelming and it can be easier to build rapport.

Tips on Being a Good Mentee

Even though the hardest part may be securing a mentor, maintaining the relationship can sometimes be just as difficult. It is important that you are able to give as much effort to your mentor as they are giving to you. That is why it is important to consider the following:

  • Meet consistently: To maintain the mentee/mentor relationship, it is important to meet often. Since you are going on the schedule and availability of your mentor, this may be determined by them.
    • Pro tip: If you have not met in a while or meetings keep getting cancelled, make sure to send a gentle reminder via email or give them a call. They may not answer, but it does show you are making an effort.
  • Set an agenda: Remember that your mentor’s time is very important. Be mindful of that and plan accordingly. Make an agenda of what you would like to talk about before each meeting. This will help you organize your thoughts and will help streamline the conversation.
  • Take notes: Mentors can be very busy, it may be beneficial for you to either take notes or record your meetings (with your mentor’s permission) to help you all stay on track and focus on what you plan to do.
  • Goals still matter: If you establish some goals and plans at the initial conversation, make sure to stick to them. You have just as much of a responsibility to your mentor as they have to you.
  • Give back: Remember that your mentor is giving you their time and energy. If you are able, make sure you give back to them periodically. You can give them small gifts or tokens of appreciation such as a gift card or a coffee, but often a thank you note is plenty.