I’m pretty sure that the first time I saw the inside of a professional office I was a 15 year-old high school student in Florida. The child of a single mom working to raise four children, I was fortunate enough to attend a private school on a scholarship. At the time, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in law, so I was quite excited to be reporting for an internship that my school had arranged in a prominent law office. I had no way of knowing then, but the man I would meet in that office, who would later become my mentor (and my boss), would change the trajectory of my career, and my life. Looking back on those early days, I know that without the generosity of others – those who gave of their time and resources, and who took me under their wings to provide access to opportunities that might otherwise have been out of reach – I would not be where I am today.
This week, as I participate in Fortune’s 2015 Most Powerful Women (MPW) Summit in Washington, DC, —a convening that brings together preeminent women in business, along with leaders in government, philanthropy, education, and the arts—that office in Florida seems a world away. Yet, I know that just outside the walls of this Summit there are thousands of talented young people who have never been in an office, never been asked to share their opinion and never had someone tell them that they have the potential to change the world.
That is why I am taking part in Fortune’s MPW High School Notebook Mentoring session, which brings together the extraordinary talents of MPW delegates, the Fortune and Time Inc. stage and the career hopes of 30 high school juniors and seniors from the Washington, DC, area. The idea of democratizing opportunity and giving young people access to resources has continuously animated me throughout my career, and I am so pleased to be able to participate in an event that embodies this principle. For this special event focused on STEM careers, Fortune is partnering with Girls Inc., a national nonprofit that helps give high school girls the right tools to succeed in their careers and educational pursuits.
In a field where women (in the US) are 45 percent more likely than men to leave the industry within a year, as noted by a recent study from the Center for Talent Innovation, we need solutions—now. The same study found that one way to address the challenges facing women in science, technology and engineering careers is mentorship, which helps mentees “crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important to the companies employing them, [mentors] help women get their ideas heard.”
We can — and need to — do much more when it comes to giving young women access to mentors who will help shape their futures and allow them to dream beyond their circumstances. That’s why over the years, I’ve looked for opportunities to mentor, whether through Fortune and the US State Department’s long-standing Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, where I’ve had the opportunity to mentor Ama Pomaa, an incredibly resilient woman from Ghana, who, since first knowing her, has been elected as a Member of Parliament, or through programs like the Georgetown Global Social Enterprise Initiative, and beyond. And that’s why I’m so excited to continue paying it forward today, and urging other leaders to do the same. When more women are supported and empowered to reach their full potential, everyone wins.