Juntos: The mentor — job connection

How to find and build genuine professional connections leading to jobs

I remember as a student hearing career advice like “find a mentor,” “network yourself,” and “the best jobs are not advertised.” All are great pieces of wisdom but as someone just starting out on my professional path it was difficult to understand how to apply advice like this to real life.

This is especially true for a first generation college student like myself and many of the members here at SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science). If you’re the first in your family to go to college, there isn’t anyone to make a key introduction, turn to for advice on job hunts, edit resumes, practice presentations, etc. Sure, your university’s career center is available but it’s difficult to find the personalized advice and encouragement you need from centers serving thousands of students and alumni.

So how can you really find a great mentor and create this elusive network of people leading to jobs?

The short answer is find like-minded people and approach them with the intent of learning.

That’s what Rebekah Figueroa did. When you talk to the senior at Purdue University, who is studying chemistry with a minor in plant biology, you get the sense she is bright, kind, motivated, and very busy. Yet somehow she found time to nurture relationships that led her to a permanent position at Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Rebekah at her graduation from Purdue University.

Keep in mind, building a network will require you to overcome your fears and challenge yourself in new ways. It means doing the hard work in and outside the classroom, lab or office. If you’re game to do that, take a look at how Rebekah landed her dream job at P&G.

1. Understand there are people who really want to help you.

Dr. Rafael Ortiz, one of Rebekah’s mentors, has been at P&G for over a decade and is heavily involved with SACNAS . In fact he created the organization’s first professional chapter at P&G along with colleague Dr. Allyn Kaufmann. Discovering talented students and mentoring them on to success is something Dr. Ortiz is passionate about.

“It’s important for me to find great students and diverse students that are really well prepared in the STEM area,” said Rafael. “At P&G we’re very intentional and very proactive in searching and connecting with students, particularly Hispanic and Native American students.”

So there are people ready and willing to help you. You just need to find them, but before you do…

2. Identify what’s important in a mentor

To find the right fit, identify what you’re looking for in a mentor. For Rebekah, it was a mix of things including cultural background, education, professional experience, and communication style.

“I really wanted to find someone who had a PhD and industry experience to help me decide whether to work or go straight into a PhD program,” Rebekah said. She added that it’s nice to have someone in your field but that doesn’t need to be the only requirement.

“I also wanted someone who was Hispanic and understood that point of view of culture when it comes to work…. There are times when you meet someone who you think will be perfect but you realize it’s not clicking. The professional criteria is there, but on a personal level the conversation is not there,” she said.

That’s OK! You can meet 10 or even 100 people before you find someone that clicks with you. If you are a STEM student, Rebekah encourages you to think of the process you went through to find the right research or lab. It takes time but eventually you find what’s right for you.

3. Go to job and career fairs. No, really GO!

This is part of “putting yourself out there.” I get it, job fairs can be a bit awkward and intimidating — go any way! Make sure to prep yourself so you feel comfortable: practice introducing yourself, create an elevator pitch, print out extra resumes to have on hand and, if you really want to go the extra mile, make some business cards.

Once you’re at the fair approach it with a learning mindset versus a pure job seeking mindset. It’s unlikely you will land a job on the spot anyway. Think of fairs as an opportunity to get introduced to an organization and kick off a conversation. You might not meet someone who will be your mentor, but they can get you pointed in the right direction.

Rebekah was at her university’s career fair exploring career options when she first learned about Procter & Gamble and met the company’s recruiting manager Robert Schottelkotte who encouraged her to consider applying for a summer internship. Her time and energy spent at the fair allowed her to explore her opportunities, and make a connection with a company that she would later see again.

4. Join a professional networking group

There are professional networks for just about every industry, and if you don’t find any you can always start a group yourself. At SACNAS we do our best to help our members decode the professional world. We hold an annual conference every year bringing more than 3,700 STEM students and professionals together with inspiring speakers, cultural events, and an exhibit hall with hundreds of organizations looking for top STEM talent. That’s where Rebekah, who was president of her local SACNAS chapter, made a follow-up connection to P&G.

“I stopped by the P&G booth at the SACNAS conference to get a better perspective of what it was like at P&G… I was on the fence with industry versus pursuing PhD. I met lots of people who were willing to share their advice.”
View of 2015 SACNAS — The National Diversity in STEM Conference.

5 . Get over your fear and start conversations

Great! You put yourself out there at a few fairs and conferences. You met someone who you think might be a good connection. Now what? Open up your email and start writing. You might not have the perfect pitch to start a conversation but don’t let that stop you.

“You have to work past the nerves,” said Rebekah. “A lot of times we think of mentors and a sort of pedestal complex sets in. You think this person is so much more experienced than me! Once you learn to get past that it adds a level of maturity.”

Try thinking of questions that will allow people to share their expertise and knowledge with you. Questions like “I’d love to know more about how you started at your company,” or “What kind of work do you do there?” and “What do you like most about your job?”.

6. Nurture those relationships

Think about your closest friends. How often do you talk? Is it only when you need something? Or do you reach out just to say hello? Building a mentor relationship is similar. It requires energy, genuineness, commitment and flexibility. Reach out just to see how your potential mentor is doing. Take an interest in their work. Send over articles you think they might like. Invite them out to coffee — your treat.

“It takes two ends to make it work,” said Dr. Rafael Ortiz of his communication with Rebekah. “We were both very proactive sending emails back and forth over a year and a half. Some of it was just checking in but what that really speaks to me is the need for us to be “juntos” — together.”

In total Rebekah met and nurtured relationships with five SACNISTAs, including Dr. Ortiz, who served as resources to her as she learned more about P&G and eventually interviewed for an internship. They provided everything from research presentation pointers, interview tips, how to work past interview jitters and more.

“A few even called or stopped by to say hi before my on-site interview at P&G,” said Rebekah.

Thanks to those relationships and her hard work, Rebekah landed her summer internship at P&G. She successfully completed the program where she met and exceeded expectations, eventually leading her to a full time job offer. Rebekah now works as a researcher in Beauty R&D Formulation at P&G where Dr. Ortiz says she continues to excel in a challenging field of research.

From L to R: Fellow intern, Rebekah, Dr. Ortiz and Dr. Kaufmann at P&G Beauty.

7. Be ready for opportunity

Rebekah’s journey from career fair, to conference, to interviews, to an internship and a full-time job offer didn’t happen overnight. Her journey shows how small actions will add up over time. So be ready to take action when the right opportunity arrives.

“You can’t expect people to hand you everything on a plate,” said Rebekah. “You gotta just jump in and realize there are people just like you wanting to help you reach your goal.”

If you are doing your best work, putting yourself out there and nurturing your relationships, opportunity will flow your way. And perhaps most importantly, you will meet like-minded people who will serve as role models, friends and trusted advisers for years to come.