Ping McKenna, an electrical engineer who worked in the space and technology industry at TRW for six years, decided to leave her career after having children to raise and homeschool them. Now that her youngest child has graduated from college, McKenna has decided to reenter the engineering workforce, but found she could use a little outside help in relaunching her career.
With over 23 years of experience in clinical healthcare, Andrea Clayton finished a master’s degree in 2020 with plans to shift into health informatics. But Clayton found herself a bit lost without a network on the tech side of the healthcare industry to help facilitate her career pivot.
Both McKenna and Clayton are part of a rising trend that sees women seeking to enter technical fields, either as a return to a STEM career previously placed on pause or as a shift from a previous non-STEM role. And both have found transitional help from the Women in Technology (WIT) Mentor-Protégé program.
McKenna joined the program after hearing about it from a fellow female engineer. She attended a WIT new members orientation session and felt inspired by the “enthusiasm of the committee volunteers and their dedication to their chosen cause.” McKenna’s daughter graduated with a Ph.D. in materials science engineering, so supporting women in STEM has become even more important to her than ever before.
“I have a passionate desire to promote and support women in the technical field because the innate capabilities of women should be enhanced and guided to careers in STEM,” McKenna says.
In telling her story, Clayton says she joined the Mentor-Protégé program at a “very pivotal time” in her career, noting that the program helped carry her through the job search process. Clayton, who now works as a health data analyst at Apogee Solutions, appreciated her time in the program so much that she’s now a mentor herself.
“I think the Mentor-Protégé program can provide women with the confidence to be more comfortable with leadership, reaching out, building relationships, and networking so that they can be part of the group that’s moving up in the organization,” says Beth Bierden, chair of the Mentor-Protégé committee at WIT.
How the program works
To join the protégé program, candidates must already have at least five years of experience in the workforce. You’ll need to complete an application and be accepted into the program, which comes with a $250 program fee for WIT members. If you aren’t already a WIT member, you will need to pay $350, which includes the membership fee.
Protégés who enter the program meet with mentors over the course of five months. Rather than working with the same mentor for the entire program, protégés meet with four different mentors who they can build and maintain relationships with. The first month’s session includes an orientation, where mentors and mentees can network, listen to speakers, and break off into smaller groups. Mentors are available to work with mentees on anything they want help with within their careers; there’s no prescribed structure for the mentor-mentee relationship.
Mentors and protégés are matched by program liaisons after filling out an application that asks about their interests, goals and experience. While current sessions are being held virtually due to COVID-19, in-person sessions are sponsored by companies such as Microsoft and Lenovo, which provide a meeting space and other amenities for the program attendees. Sponsor companies also have the opportunity to get discounts for protégés interested in the program.
“The events are action-packed, informative, engaging, and a great way to network,” says Valerie Passwaiter, a WIT mentor and director of marketing and communications at Counter Threat Solutions. “The relationships build layer by layer with each session, resulting in an organic support system for women in tech. I liken it to crafting a patchwork quilt: each session adds another square, and the longer you participate, the bigger your quilt gets. When times get tough, snuggling up with a hot cup of tea and that warm quilt can help you get through anything.”
Mentorship and career guidance
When Clayton joined the program, she hadn’t written a resume or interviewed for a new position in over 15 years, so that was her main focus with her mentors. “I had all of this book knowledge and project knowledge but no practical experience yet,” she says.
Each mentor helped Clayton tackle a different aspect of her journey. Her first mentor helped with her resume and interviewing skills; another helped her overcome imposter syndrome and helped her build confidence in her skills and experience; and others helped guide her through the interview and negotiation process, answering any of her questions and offering advice along the way. For Clayton, her mentors served as crucial guides in making her career pivot.
“I think it’s very cool how your goal within the Mentor-Protégé program, even if you’re doing one session, can evolve from very basic into something more complex as you go along,” she says.
McKenna also found she learned unique insights from each of her mentors, and that the diversity of experience and opinions helped build her confidence getting back into the engineering workforce. She says her first mentor helped her appreciate the value of the soft skills she demonstrated while caring for and educating her children; her second mentor helped her figure out ways to update her technical skills through certification programs; her third mentor aided her in honing what type of work environment she was looking for; and her fourth mentor offered insight into how she uses her communication and people management skills to run her department. All four mentors “shared insights into the current business and technical atmosphere in the professional technology environment,” McKenna says.
Mentorship outside your organization
The WIT Mentor-Protégé program offers women the opportunity to find mentorship opportunities outside their organization. While internal mentorship programs can have a lot to offer, if your company doesn’t have women in leadership positions, it might be difficult to find a mentor who can speak to the unique experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Moreover, it can also be difficult asking certain questions to a mentor within your own company — especially if it’s about career opportunities elsewhere.
“The nonaffiliated nature of WIT’s mentorship program augments the mentor’s ability to provide guidance without an agenda,” McKenna says. “Each mentor can then focus on considering the best for the protégé based on her personality and strengths rather than on how the protégé’s strength can benefit the company’s financial health. Because I knew that my mentors were not a company representative, it was easier for me to trust in their guidance and assessment.”
The mentorship relationships are also often two-way; while mentors are set up to help mentees succeed, mentors often find they learn a lot from their protégés as well. Counter Threat’s Passwaiter joined the program because she felt passionate about helping other women in their careers, and wanted to share what she had learned in her 30 years working in corporate America.
“I was hoping to be able to offer advice so that recent grads seeking to make headway or seasoned pros considering switching careers could avoid some of the challenges I’ve faced trying to establish and advance my career,” she says.
But she found that she’s learned just as much from the protégés she’s worked with. Being paired up with women from other industries, or who are at different places in their careers, has helped Passwaiter grow her own perspective.
“In a way, they have mentored my growth, particularly in recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Seeking out differing points of view and understanding cultural differences results in better interactions and end products, as well as a friendlier workplace,” she says.
Bella Trenkova, CEO and president of Ardigent Consulting, joined the program in 2016 while working as VP of software development at a midsize government contractor. After 20 years in IT, where she was often the only woman or the youngest person in the room, she wanted to share what she’d learned with other women in tech.
“At the time, I was working for a company with very few women in IT positions. As their boss, I was already engaged with them in a leadership and mentoring capacity, yet due to the direct-reporting relationship there were some boundaries for what I could and could not share with them. Participating in the WIT Mentor-Protégé program expanded my outreach and reduced the imposed boundaries,” says Trenkova.
The WIT Mentor-Protégé program ultimately offers more than mentorship — it’s about creating a community for women in technology to come together to inspire, support, and encourage one another.
“Having spent time overcoming biases and disproving stereotypes in my past, being with like-minded strong and resilient women made me feel as if I had found a home whose members understood my struggles as well as each other’s and supported one another to foster a temporary respite from the professional conflicts within the working environment,” says McKenna.