How to Mentor From Miles Away

Dispensing with the usual meetups over coffee, two biomedical engineers created a platform to more easily connect young people with professional guidance.

Keshia Ashe speaks to students
Keshia Ashe, a co-founder of ManyMentors (Courtesy of Keshia Ashe)

When people think of mentorship, they probably imagine talking about career advancement over coffee, or meeting over lunch to chat about how a new job is going. But how central should physical meetups be to professional guidance when so much communication is digital?

In 2011, Keshia Ashe and Tiffany St. Bernard, who both work in the biomedical-engineering field, co-founded ManyMentors, an “e-mentoring” nonprofit that connects tech professionals with young people interested in the field. Potential mentees cover a broad spectrum of ages, from middle-schoolers to college students. The organization, which has over 400 mentors and mentees, started in Connecticut and has branched out to New Hampshire and upstate New York.

Ashe compares the program to a social network: Students use an app to pick a track, such as academic success or college prep, and that shapes how they’ll be mentored. For The Atlantic’s mentorship series, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Ashe about how her organization nurtures online-only relationships and how she thinks about networking. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisha Brown: You once said you have a “no excuses” approach to mentorship. What do you mean by that?

Keshia Ashe: We’re in front of a screen, what, 90 percent of the time? You can’t tell me that you can’t take 15 minutes out of your week to connect with someone, to make yourself available to somebody who is not a personal friend or colleague. We’re in the tech age—we have mobile apps, online platforms. You don’t have an excuse as to why you can’t be involved, other than you don’t want to.

Brown: ManyMentors is built as an online mentorship platform. How does that work?

Ashe: There are two main issues for all mentoring organizations: One is recruitment and the other is retention. Technology really helps with those issues—it’s convenient and accessible. But as far as retention, it’s just like any other social network. The technology is really there to help manage the mentorship from a staff perspective and to help the mentor and the mentee manage their relationship.

Brown: Do you worry that the online approach means losing something that people can get out of in-person relationships?

Ashe: You lose some connection not being able to talk with someone in person. There’s so much more information you can get from that type of interaction. The way we combat that is through chapters. Each of our chapters holds a big event at the end or beginning of the year, or a monthly in-person event, to provide that opportunity and that space for the mentors and mentees to connect. A lot of times those once-a-month activities will be related to STEM or college prep, which the high-school students are interested in.

Brown: Common advice for those seeking a mentor is to network. Are you ever concerned that ManyMentors skips the relationship-building step that usually precedes becoming mentor and mentee?

Ashe: ManyMentors is here for you to build a relationship with a person. As much as people talk about networking, they don’t talk about what real networking is. Real networking isn’t having a stack of business cards. People need to actually care about you in order to want to contribute to what it is that you’re doing. Mentoring is a more formal type of networking, but essentially it is networking. It’s all about the intention.

Brown: What made you so interested in mentorship?

Ashe: I’ve been involved with youth development for 20 years. When I was in high school in Hampton, Virginia, we had a robust youth-engagement model, involving community service, giving input to decision makers like the city council, and leadership programs. That is where my foundation for mentorship comes from. When I left that community, I was always actively seeking opportunities to be involved in mentorship.

Brown: What’s the most impactful relationship you’ve had as a mentor to someone?

Ashe: This young woman named Danielle White. I met her when she was in the 10th grade. She told me she decided to major in biology. I asked what made her choose to do that, and she said, “You!” That’s what mentorship does. That’s what inspiration does. That’s what role modeling does. It creates an opportunity for a young person to project themselves into a space that they don’t know a whole lot about or might even be scared of, but they know you, and they know that you’ve done it. They know if they needed help, they could ask you and you’d help them. It gives them that confidence to say, “Maybe I can do it too.”