Originally published on Forbes.com
This Trailblazers series takes a look at the pivotal milestones that make up the life trails of inspiring women from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We all know what social media profiles display about the end results women have achieved. This series is intended to take a deeper, more authentic look at the journeys they have taken to get there.
Janice Omadeke is the CEO and Founder of The Mentor Method, an enterprise platform helping companies keep and develop their diverse talent through mentorship. Using a double-blind algorithm, The Mentor Method is closing the opportunity equity gap in the workplace. Janice served as a DC Ambassador at SXSW, was selected to attend The 2016 White House Summit on Building the Tech Workforce of Tomorrow, and was a top 10 finalist in Rent the Runway’s Project Entrepreneur.
After learning more about the trail that Janice has blazed, I got the chance to ask her some questions.
Rebekah Bastian: How did your own experiences in corporate America lead you to create The Mentor Method?
Janice Omadeke: Corporate mentorship has the power to change lives when done correctly. Unfortunately, it’s often a low-priority task that’s manual and challenging to implement. I experienced this when registering for corporate mentorship programs early in my career. It can be awkward, intimidating, and the mentor you’re with may not be a strong chemistry match. Often times I was matched based on demographics and not my goals, who I was as a professional, or where I wanted to go in my career. And the relationships weren’t as strong because of that. The programs felt more like checking a box than a true investment in my career. As millions of professionals can relate, having your employer recognize your strengths and potential and show an investment in refining those strengths to become a leader within the organization is critical in determining if you stay in your job.
“Corporate mentorship has the power to change lives when done correctly. Unfortunately, it’s often a low-priority task that’s manual and challenging to implement.”
Bastian: As a first-time, first-generation founder of color, did you find that you experienced barriers to starting a business beyond what most founders face?
Omadeke: Everyone’s journey is different, and I can’t speak to other founders and their experiences. I will say, however, that the data doesn’t lie. Black female founders face an uphill battle due to a lack of access to funding, bias, and more. I did experience barriers that many black female-led businesses encounter, such as biases and a lack of equity in the distribution of VC funding. And, like most founders I know, I acknowledged those barriers, and then found ways to continue growing my business without letting them stop me. There is power in facing those battles head-on, identifying pathways to your success and working with your team to overcome them, and that’s what I’ve focused on rather than the fact that these barriers were put in place to prevent high-performers of color from reaching levels of success. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong leaders from all backgrounds that share an alignment in my passion for workplace representation and empower me to navigate setbacks.
Having experience navigating these barriers is a unique skillset that has opened up opportunities for The Mentor Method. This understanding is what contributed to our partnership with Deloitte, where I’m an Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the US Consulting Inclusion Strategy division.
Bastian: You shared how a few different organizations — MIT’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, the MassChallenge Accelerator, Backstage Capital and Capital Factory — gave you the support you needed to keep growing The Mentor Method. Do you have insights into how organizations can help support underrepresented founders based on these experiences?
Omadeke: Stop seeing black, brown and women founders as charity cases, and instead focus on balance and representation. Investing in one woman of color per year in your portfolio isn’t enough. Hiring one person from any race, gender or sexual orientation isn’t enough. Instead, focus on how to build the most balanced team possible so that you have representation and visibility into the experiences your customers and stakeholders encounter daily. You can read as many diversity reports as you want, but until you have a balanced team that feels empowered to share their stories and use their experiences to contribute to the success of your company, you’re at a significant disadvantage and leaving money on the table. The organizations I mentioned haven’t treated me a token. They see me for the asset that I am, capable of building and scaling a tech business. This is why these organizations are so successful, have made a significant impact on my growth as a founder, and contributed to the growth of my business.
“Stop seeing black, brown and women founders as charity cases, and instead focus on balance and representation.”
These organizations also put resources behind me to support my goals, which is another thing I recommend. It’s not enough to bring underrepresented founders in. Recognizing areas for growth and pouring resources into filling those gaps is where the biggest value is felt. This includes mentorship, connections for team building or capital and ensuring founders have high-level visibility without tokenism.
Lastly, hold your allies accountable and ask hard questions. If you’re not seeing more underrepresented founders in your pipeline or winning competitions, why is that? Is leadership not selecting those teams? Is there a lack of representation on your own team? Make sure your team isn’t citing “pipeline issues” as the reason. It’s greater than that, and you have a responsibility to ensure the practices you post on your website are met with timely follow-through. Allies within these organizations have been big contributors to my growth and success. They treat me like any other founder with a proven track record of success, see my background as a strong advantage, and actively recognize when they need to provide visibility where I otherwise would have been overlooked.
Bastian: You mentioned some difficult times you’ve been through, including losing your mother to cancer and building out a company as a solo founder. What ways have you found to take care of yourself through the more trying moments?
Omadeke: Mental health is critical and we don’t talk about it enough. I’m encouraged seeing the companies targeting this issue, as it is often ignored in underrepresented communities. For me, it varies day-to-day. Practicing gratitude, calling my father or close friends, saying “no” more often, setting up calendar invitations for tasks on my to-do list, taking breaks, and accepting that I will have moments where I need to reset are all things that have helped. Remembering my conversations with my mother before she passed helps me to power through trying moments. While she was in hospice for pancreatic cancer, she reminded me that every person I help that has been marginalized, seen as less than or not given a fair shot at opportunities, is a way to tell her story and build a better life for people the way she did for us. Knowing that my work is, in a way, the greatest ode to her sacrifices and determination, motivates me to consistently deliver the high-quality experiences I’m known for, even when I’m going through a trying situation.
Bastian: How did you approach the decision to leave your comfortable corporate job to go full time on The Mentor Method? Do you have advice for others thinking of taking a similar leap?
Omadeke: The decision was made for me when I got into the MassChallenge Accelerator, one of the top 20 accelerators in the country.
“I don’t subscribe to the mindset that you’re not all in if you’re not willing to undergo extreme levels of mental, physical and emotional duress for your business.”
My advice for others considering leaving their jobs to go full-time into their business is to save as much money as possible. I don’t subscribe to the mindset that you’re not all in if you’re not willing to undergo extreme levels of mental, physical and emotional duress for your business. You’re a founder — the mental, physical, and emotional toll will happen regardless, so why not find ways to protect yourself. Life happens and having financial padding allows you to focus on being strategic about your business choices without defaulting to a scarcity mindset.
Second, have a support system as you make the shift, and be bold enough to ask for help when you need it. Be prepared to explain what your schedule will look like now and be upfront about time expectations for any obligations. Communication with loved ones is key. Have a date in mind that, if you don’t reach certain metrics 30-days before or after that point, you’ll find other revenue opportunities and decide if you continue growing your business or take the lessons you’ve learned from the journey and allocate them somewhere else.
Inspired to talk mentorship, representation and entrepreneur life? Connect with Janice and start a conversation!