Building a life in the field of STEM: ‘RISE’ing to the challenge through mentorship

Published On: 11 February 2022

Picture this: an electronics engineer and a software engineer both working in the broadcast industry sit down to discuss how their careers have played out. They explain how they’ve achieved their success, rising to leadership positions, with one even founding two companies. They share how they were always drawn to the sciences from a young age, how they were encouraged to pursue higher education in STEM, and how they excelled at it. They went on to build successful careers in their respective technical fields, working the long hours needed, consistently building on their knowledge and experience, and being sought out for their expertise along the way.

Are you seeing two women talking? Are you imagining those were girls being encouraged to seek higher education in STEM? If that’s not the picture that immediately came to mind, you wouldn’t be alone. It’s an unfortunate reality that women are still highly under-represented in many STEM fields at any level, let alone at senior management levels, and girls still lack encouragement to pursue education in the area. It’s changing — slowly — but it is moving in the right direction.

Zest Technologies’ Managing Director and Founder, Lorna Garrett, is the electronics engineer in our story. Lorna knows she is the exception to the rule. It’s why she devotes a significant amount of time mentoring women who work in the technical side of broadcasting, helping them to learn how to navigate any barriers they may face and build up their confidence to overcome those barriers create in their own minds.

The software engineer is Kerri Brown, Senior Manager, R&D Playout at broadcast tech manufacturer Grass Valley. When Kerri was looking for a mentor outside of her immediate work environment, she joined Rise Mentoring UK, a six-month programme designed to support and champion women working across the broadcast media and entertainment technology sector. She was matched up with Lorna as a mentor.

We recently asked them both about their experience with the Rise Mentoring programme.

Why did you seek to participate in a mentorship program and why the Rise programme in particular?

Lorna: Last year, I was negotiating the sale of my previous business Garland Partners and hoping that doing so would free up time for me to pursue other interests, one of which was to give share my experience in the Broadcast industry with other women seeking to succeed in it. I went to a Rise breakfast networking event hosted by the BBC where I had the opportunity to meet both mentors and mentees. It was an inspiring experience seeing the positivity, comradery and uplifting nature everyone brought to the day. I was also impressed by how much support many of the major players in Broadcast were bringing to the programme. BBC, BT Sport, ITV, Discovery — they were all strongly behind the programme.

Kerri: To be able to learn from someone else’s experience, especially someone outside of your immediate work environment, can be invaluable particularly as you get a fresh perspective. Having access to a mentor can make a big difference in building confidence, working through career goals, improving management and leadership skills etc.

It’s really beneficial as well if your mentor has followed a similar career path and can advise you based on their real-life experience.  The great thing about the Rise programme is that it’s targeted specifically at increasing gender equality in the Broadcast industry. As women in Broadcast, we often look around us in our day-to-day work and don’t see any other women. We are massively under-represented. So, to get access to a mentor who has operated at a senior level in the industry is an amazing opportunity and one not to be missed. In addition, the Rise program includes training that helps in such areas as assertiveness, confidence, etc.

Was it important to you that you were partnered with a woman in the programme as a mentor or mentee?

Kerri: When I applied for the Rise programme, I would have been happy to have had either a male or female mentor. Having said that, I think a woman is uniquely placed to understand the challenges that go along with a career in STEM for women; male-dominated cultures, lack of role models, stereotypes, etc. A woman who has reached a senior level in the industry must have been able to successfully navigate this environment and will bring a rich experience to draw when mentoring someone on the same journey.

Lorna: With this being such a male-dominated industry, it is vitally important to me to do all I can to ensure women are properly represented with an equal voice.. I’m keen to help women overcome anything that may be stopping them from moving forwards in their chosen career and help them to achieve success and growth more effectively and easily.

I think we all benefit from diversity of all forms within the industry. Diversity of gender, ethnicity and age bring much-needed balance to generating solutions that incorporate differing viewpoints and experiences. By its very nature, the audience of our industry is everyone and so those making decisions about it should also reflect that audience. But I’m saddened when I see schools still letting girls down in STEM, particularly in terms of letting them see STEM careers as an option. Despite all the advances, few young women are pursing technical degrees. Why is that? I think a part of the reason is because girls still need to see people like themselves being successful. We all need to work to build their confidence when it comes to STEM — that they know and believe that they are just as capable as men.

Do you think a mentor and mentee need to work in the same industry for the outcome to be successful?

Kerri: I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent mentoring outside of broadcasting, so I wouldn’t say that it’s always necessary for a mentor to work in the same industry as you. Obviously, there are specific advantages when they do in terms of helping you to gain a broader understanding of the industry, provide networking opportunities and career advice specific to broadcasting.

Lorna: I agree with Kerri. Also, when you are in the same industry you understand the specific pressures and risks within that industry. You know the key players and how they work. You know the direction the industry is moving in and what it will take to keep pace. All that said, someone from outside of your industry can provide a fresh perspective. It’s sometimes good not to bring baggage or pre-conceived notions to a situation.

Kerri, how has the mentorship helped you to this point?

Last year was a particularly challenging one for me in many ways and I faced situations at work that I hadn’t encountered before. Having the opportunity to talk to Lorna about what I was experiencing and to get her advice was invaluable, particularly as she has faced very similar situations during the course of her own career.

From the start, Lorna was extremely generous with her time, meeting with me for about an hour every other week. She immediately put me at ease, so I felt safe sharing my thoughts and issues with her. With Lorna’s experience in broadcasting and management, she was able to help me identify gaps in my knowledge and suggest ways I could bridge those gaps. With each session, Lorna would hold me accountable for my own development, following up on any actions that we had previously set.

Lorna, what have you personally gained from being a mentor?

Running your own company can make you very inward focussed if you’re not careful. For me, it has been important that I take my foot off the gas and concentrate on what else is happening around me. I see my own success as coming with strings attached — it comes with an obligation to give back. And I firmly believe that it has to be more than giving money to causes; I have to give my time, my experience.

While that all might sound selfless, I fully admit that mentoring makes my life richer and has helped me develop my own skills, too. I’ve improved my listening skills and my interpersonal skills by ensuring I am actively hearing what is being said, empathising and redirecting conversations so they are about the mentee. By trying to teach and direct someone else, my own knowledge and skill gaps have come into view to me. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to teach, and I believe this is also helping me to be a better leader with my own team and within the industry as a whole.

Kerri, are you a mentor to anyone yourself?

I haven’t yet been a mentor, as such. However, as a line manager, I believe that my role includes mentoring element, including helping my team learn how they manage their day-to-day work, and supporting them in establishing their purpose and career goals. But being a mentor in a programme such as Rise is definitely something I would consider doing given the opportunity. It would be nice to pass on some of the excellent mentoring that I’ve received.

Lorna, what advice would you give to someone considering becoming a mentor?

You have to take it seriously and take time to prepare for each session. It’s not just a chit-chat or a way to make friends. In fact, I believe it is important for a mentee to know their mentor has their best interests at heart and is independent of their friends and colleagues, who may have other agendas.

You have to be willing to listen carefully and actively. No one’s experience is identical, and so how they react to challenges or obstacles may reflect their experience. You can bring your knowledge and life experiences to the discussions, but you can’t assume this is all your mentee will need in order to change. Understand you won’t have all the answers or be able to directly to relate to all they have experienced. Recognise what you don’t know. You don’t need to offer profound advice; sometimes just being that extra ear to listen is what is needed. Your very presence can often make your mentee feel confident that their experience is valid and that they have within them the ability to overcome any barriers in their way.

Is the Rise Mentoring programme what you expected?

Kerri: I can honestly say that the mentoring I’ve received and the Rise program as a whole have exceeded my expectations. In addition to the mentoring and training you receive, there are real opportunities to push yourself, and the support you get from other mentees and mentors is fantastic. The effort that everyone involved has put into this program is incredible and you can see real changes in the mentees who have taken part.

Lorna: It’s a marvellous programme, and I highly recommend it to any woman in Broadcast. You can be at any point in your career. You may even be senior within your career, and still benefit from a mentor as well as being a mentor yourself. Ultimately, it is about being part of a community that encourages women — and hopefully by doing so we are letting girls and young women see themselves represented so they realise that they are not only capable of succeeding in STEM fields, but that they will bring qualities that are actually essential if the industry is to continue to move forward.

To learn more about the Rise Mentoring programme, please visit their website.