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Geraldine Laybourne

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All It Takes Is a Walk in the Park

Posted: 11/12/2012 9:37 am

It all started about 15 years ago when, in an attempt to encourage me to get more exercise -- and to make me less crabby -- my assistant, Ed Flathers, started scheduling informal meetings for me during my morning walks in Central Park. It helped me to avoid that third cup of coffee or yet another meeting, neither of which I needed to add to my day. So one morning I laced up my running shoes and offered to meet a young woman seeking advice about how to break into the media field. As we made our way through the park, we discussed everything from the skills necessary to succeed in an increasingly competitive industry to the challenges of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field. As we parted ways and vowed to continue the conversation, I couldn't help but feel a sense of connection and more so, a desire to see this young woman succeed, that has stuck with me to this day.

I had always taken pleasure in surrounding myself with incredibly talented, dedicated and ambitious women at Nickelodeon, MTV Networks and Oxygen. We had a very informal mentorship system that grew out of our desire to see the cable industry thrive and for women to do what they do well: run things. But I was increasingly concerned about a stigma that women still face in our society -- mainly, that we don't help each other. So when I was at Oxygen, we started "The Mentor's Walk," a national program for shaping the next generation of leaders -- inspired by those frequent walks in Central Park.

But honestly, my coming of age as a "mentor" happened a few years ago, when I was introduced to the Fortune/Vital Voices Mentoring program, which pairs American business women with young, promising women from all over the world. These women have many of the same business questions that my friends and I have been grappling with for decades. With a heavy dose of laughter and energy, these women learn fast and grab onto ideas quickly. In many ways, they are the mentors and I find myself continually learning from them. After I told this first group about The Mentor's Walk, they asked if they too could take it in their countries. And that is exactly what they have done -- to 25 countries so far. To date, I have been to three: Uganda, Argentina and most recently, India. Each is different and entirely designed by the women themselves.

So how could I say no, when I was invited to become a Global Ambassador as part of the Global Ambassadors Program -- an innovative partnership between Vital Voices and Bank of America, designed to mobilize accomplished women professionals from the private and public sectors, as mentors for emerging women leaders. I was fortunate to participate in this program recently as an ambassador in Delhi and Mumbai, India, where I was paired with my mentee Archana Surana, an incredibly inspiring woman who founded and currently directs the Arch Academy of Design in Jaipur. Archana's mission is to educate the rising creative class in India and ensure this vibrant country owns its rich design capability. Another mentee, Sarika Gupta Bhattacharyya, already has a successful recruitment firm but is currently launching a nonprofit called Biz Divas, which is all about helping women find their voice in business. And entrepreneur, Akanksha Hazari, is using mobile technology to reach the poorest in India to deal with problems inherent in poverty. These are just few stories, but you get the picture: these are women who are smart, driven and mission-led.

As part of the program we held a series of panel discussions and I must say, I have never been in the audience or on a panel where questions were crisper or more thoughtful. In Delhi, we considered ways an organization's leadership can foster innovation, and in Mumbai we turned to the evolving role of corporate social responsibility initiatives in global development. This is a country that is going through great change and where women, in particular, are trying hard to find their place in it all.

Though the entire experience was incredibly exhilarating, it was the opportunity to participate in the Fifth Annual Mentoring Walk in Mumbai with my fellow mentors, mentees and other members of the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network, which truly embodied the purpose of this program for me. To introduce this event to hundreds of women from all over the world and see the special connections they made on this day, is something I treasure.

For me, being a mentor simply comes with the territory of being a successful woman in business. I do it because I like it. I get as much out of it as I give. It is a way of staying close to the next generation. As a Global Ambassador, my role as a mentor now reaches far beyond my office or Central Park and I welcome this challenge openly. If mentoring has taught me one thing it is this: our investments in young women today will yield the next generation of inspiring leaders tomorrow -- and all it takes is a walk in the park.

 
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