KVINFO’s program for immigrant and refugee women in Denmark has helped to start a new trend in mentoring and networking. This article examines standard, well known mentoring models and shows what happens when feminist values are incorporated into the equation.
Mentoring - a buzz word perhaps, but what is it? Most available literature locates the roots of the concept of mentoring in ancient Greek mythology.
 
In modern times, however, there is a wide variety of mentoring definitions, and it seems evident that each definition is based upon the environment, culture and context in which it is written.
 
One can find versions of mentoring in higher education literature, management and organizational behavior, psychology, nursing, sociology, and so on.
 
By most definitions, mentoring is described as a process that involves a relationship of a more knowledgeable individual with a less-experienced individual. In most forms, mentoring provides professional networking, counseling, guidance, instruction, modeling, and sponsoring. And mentoring is understood as a reciprocal relationship, which allows an identity transformation for both mentor and mentee.
 

Formal Mentoring in the business world

American expert Margo Murray locates the starting point of formal mentoring programs in the late 1980s.
 
Companies around the world were witnessing major social and economic trends:
1) They were pressed to innovate and at the same time were experiencing labor shortages;
2) The composition of the work force was changing rapidly;
3) They had to react to the emergence of the cross-cultural corporation.
 
Mentoring was one strategy to deal with these new scenarios.
 
As early as 1991, Murray published her book, Beyond the Myths and Magic of Mentoring: How to Facilitate an Effective Mentoring Program, where she describes the Facilitated Mentoring Model©, a guideline for mentoring program development in companies.
Murray’s formal business model outlines a volunteer-based matching program, where well-established members of an organization who have a genuine desire to help newcomers through the early stages of their professional development are asked to make a commitment of several months to the match.
 
There is a professional team assigned to recruit, train, match, and monitor those who volunteer.
 
The model’s primary goal is to systematically develop the skills and leadership abilities of the less experienced members in the organization.
 
Most of the mentoring programs in the business sector are internal to the organization. Therefore, the mentor is in a strong position to champion the mentee.
 
Mentoring is particularly valued for having several positive ripple effects: a more productive and satisfied staff; individual and organizational goals are more effectively aligned; and the additional exposure to different areas within an organization can create new opportunities for the mentor pair.
 
Companies often define the success of a mentoring initiative based upon its functionality and capacity to meet specific organizational needs.
 

Business Mentoring programs for immigrants

The definition of mentoring adopted by the immigrant-serving sector differs from that of the formal business model. The mentoring experience is seen as an in-depth learning situation regarding another culture’s business practices and etiquette, as well as the opportunity to pass on knowledge to newly-arrived immigrants who are eager to learn.
 
A good example is in Canada, where the successful Mentoring Partnership, an initiative involving multi-stakeholder council TRIEC, works to improve access to employment for immigrants in the Toronto region, in addition to select corporate partners and a number of community agencies in the city of Toronto.
 
The primary goal of the Mentoring Partnership is to help new skilled immigrants overcome barriers and integrate smoothly into the Canadian workplace in their chosen occupation.
 
The mentors have a combination of knowledge and business experience to contribute to the learning process. They are not necessarily senior executives with companies, but have clearly established themselves in their current professional positions.
 
Mentees are people who have the language, knowledge and business experience to succeed in the workplace, but need help getting started.
 
There is a program coordinating team with two clearly separate functions:
a) Promoting the program to business and recruiting mentors from the corporate sector;
b) Screening mentors and mentees, then training, matching, supporting, and monitoring the budding mentor relationships.
 
Once an individual decides to become a mentor, he or she fills in an online form. The information is entered in a database which can be accessed by all community partners. When an agency finds a potential match, the potential mentor is interviewed and his/her profile enters onto the database.
Mentor and mentee are then invited to individual orientation sessions of 90 minutes. Both sessions are held at the same time in the same location, and when they are finished the mentors and mentees meet each other for the first time for about half an hour. In general, mentors and mentees commit to meet for 24 hours over a four-month period.
 
Although, immigrants often join the program looking for someone to assist them to enter their field of expertise, opportunities for the mentor to champion the mentee rarely arise.
 
One explanation is the short duration of the relationship; the mentor may not have enough information about the mentee’s competency to have the confidence to act on his or her behalf.
 
Since practical aspects related to enhancing the mentee’s career advancement are at the core of the mentoring relationship, the model does not contemplate or encourage any additional support. It is understood that mentees have their own social networks from which to draw emotional and/or social support.
 
The Mentoring Partnership has the usual challenge of finding mentors. It is important to make the mentors' experience as rewarding as possible so that they will want to continue.
If one of the corporate partners fails to deliver the promised number of mentors, it may no longer be able to participate in the partnership.
 
Success in the Mentoring Partnership is measured in terms of four categories: the numbers of registered matches; the number of pairs which have completed their four month relationship; the number of mentees who have found jobs; and the number of mentors and corporate partners that remain in the program.
 

Mentoring and Networking program for immigrant and refugee women

Mentoring programs for immigrants and refugee women in Denmark vary significantly from the corporate-based models previously described.
 
In Denmark, the host program is designed and implemented by KVINFO, a modern institution dedicated to bringing women’s politics and research to the forefront of cultural debate in Denmark. KVINFO’s approach incorporates a system of values to the standard practice of mentoring and networking.
 
The main objective of KVINFO’s program, the Mentor Network, is to assist immigrant and refugee women to get a foothold in Danish society and to support their search for relevant employment.
 
The immigrant woman is called a mentee, and her proposals and responses will determine the entire mentoring process.
It is the woman’s dreams and needs, not just her education and training, which are considered key drivers leading her to a different and better situation. All mentees are therefore perceived as women with plenty of resources and great capacities, regardless of whether she is a highly-skilled and/or highly-educated person or someone with only a few years of education, or one who has been out of the labor market for a long time.
 
This particular approach requires that great care be taken to ensure that the mentors fully understand the boundaries of their role. The mentors are strong, powerful, educated, influential Danish women motivated by a desire to change the dominant negative views on immigration and willing to make a personal contribution to that end.
 
Mentors are required to possess good interpersonal and communication skills, to have understanding of the labor market trends in their field of expertise, and to be able to offer time and guidance.
 
In addition, it is a significant advantage if the mentor opens her networks of connections for the mentee. Many of KVINFO’s mentors have lived abroad and understand first-hand that women are at a disadvantage anywhere in the world without professional contacts.
Women's experiences, present in both the definition of mentoring and its practice, are at the heart of the success of this program for immigrants and refugee women.
What truly matters is the number of high-functioning mentoring relationships based on interpersonal trust, rapport and respect, not on protecting and/or championing. It is also a personal relationship, not just a business one.
 
Trust is confidence; confidence in KVINFO as an institution; confidence in the idea that mentees and mentors are equals as peers; and confidence as the foundation of team-building among women in the Network.
 
Gaining emotional and social support seems as important in this model as an intellectual understanding of society and labor markets. Issues related to the mentee’s personal adjustment to her new community with all the accompanying frustrations and triumphs are neither ignored nor avoided. There are always a small number of mentors who will not be interested in assisting their mentees when dealing with non-work-related issues, but the majority will and are encouraged to do so.
 
Respect and understanding similarities are also crucial elements. Mentees may come from different geographical areas in the world but they are never “the other.” To KVINFO’s Mentor Network it is not relevant what a mentee eats, what she wears, who she loves or where she finds spiritual guidance.
 
The focus is on what the mentee can and will do to empower herself by maintaining contact with other women, who are willing to assist her with access, expertise, and, if needed, with emotional support.
 
The steps in the mentoring process itself are almost identical to those used in the previous models. There is interviewing, registering, matching, following up, and so on. Overall, the coordination team matches pairs considering individual needs, interests, educational and professional experiences. However, it is the deep understanding of the significant similarities to both mentor and mentee that enables the team to find synergy.
Members of the coordinating team spend hours daily “mining” KVINFO’s Mentor Network database, a rich information source which allows the most effective fine-tuning of the matching effort.
 
The flow of mentoring interactions will vary from relationship to relationship, but typically involves a minimum two hour face-to-face meeting and additional hours on the phone/email per month. These terms are outlined in a mentor-mentee agreement that both parties complete before starting the mentoring process.
 
Success is measured in the number of couples that complete KVINFO’s mentoring cycle, that is: initiation and cultivation of the relationship; maturation of the mentoring process and achievement of particular goals; and finally separation or redefinition of the relation. This process will usually be complete in 18 months, however a significant number of pairs choose to remain in the Network for a much longer period and redefine their status as friends.
 
KVINFO’s Mentor Network is a network of action. It started in 2003 when more than 300 volunteers who wanted to act signed up in one day! Over the past seven years, more than 5,000 women have become members of the network. This is quite remarkable taking into account that KVINFO’s Mentor Network has never advertised – the information on the program passes from person to person, and women still seek out the project by themselves, on their own initiative. It is a Network bond in solidarity and empathy.
One clear positive ripple effect of this model is that mentors and mentees in their interaction learn to “dismantle” cultural stereotypes and then share their positive insights with families, friends, co-workers, etc.
Another significant effect is that mentoring does not stop once employment has been found. Mentees use their mentors as advisors when dealing with the unique Danish workplace and its seemingly flat corporate structures. There always seems to be a significant amount of invisible and/or hidden information that is difficult to pick up when you come from another country. The mentoring process helps to identify these invisible codes and rules – and often, both mentor and mentee learn as they go along.
Women in KVINFO’s Mentor Network are proud to be part of this program. Many of them mention their membership when building a CV. 
 
For KVINFO, the challenge remains in assisting a larger number of individuals into the wider community and identifying the very door that will lead to a job or to “the dream” becoming reality. In the future, this assistance will not be for women only as two of KVINFO’s offices in Denmark are already offering mentoring and networking for men.