I can't remember exactly when it started, but at some point this last year, I started receiving emails from complete strangers who hoped that somehow a few moments of my time might help them with the next step towards their own dreams and goals. At first, I replied to every single email that arrived, but it didn't take long to no longer had the bandwidth to answer every question or to volunteer my time for every invitation.
I was in the midst of determining what to turn down and what to say yes to when I attended this year's Women Entrepreneurs Festival. I posed the question to a group of women entrepreneurs, and Debra Sterling, the founder of GoldieBlox, offered up some advice that helped me gain clarity. "That is the question," she said. "What I do is come up with strategic goals for the company. Then every month I come up with what are my goals towards those greater goals and use that as a filter. So when any opportunity comes in, if it is not hitting those goals that I decided on, I'm going to tuck it away."
I've used that principal to make several decisions since that conference, and it's worked well for me. And when I was asked if I would be willing to serve as a mentor for the upcoming Mentoring Monday, a national initiative spearheaded by Bizwomen, I again used this filter to decide. The event pairs women business leaders with women in their own community through speed-dating style sessions, and this year's event was expected to encompass over 10,000 participants at 40 locations throughout the U.S. Because the local event in my city would host 150 attendees, I saw it as an opportunity to spend a morning sharing whatever insight might be useful with anyone who wanted to talk with me. I will admit I was a bit skeptical that anything of real value could come out of 7-minute conversations that were started and ended by the ringing of a cowbell, but I was willing to try.
What actually happened - at least for me - was profound. When the speed mentoring session kicked off, a woman who was maybe in her forties hurried up and sat down across from me. She wasted no time getting to her point. "Here is where I am," she said. "I'm good at my job and like it, but I've been at it for a long time now. I have this thing I think I really want to do, but I don't know how to get started or whether I should give up my current security to try to pursue it." I was expecting softball questions and, instead, ended up with someone facing a life-changing crossroads. For the next six and a half minutes we talked about life's scary decisions - weighing worst case scenarios against the payoff, how to explore new possibilities without destroying what was currently working. We discussed the need to gain enough reference points to understand if something was a passing interest or a burning passion as well as the option of taking baby steps - and the struggle of knowing when to go all-in and risk our security for the chance to do something that really matters. I have no idea if our talk helped or not, but it certainly inspired me to see someone seriously weighing the cost of pursuing her dream.
The procession over the next hour included women of all ages from college students to retirees, all with unique issues and perspectives. Some wanted advice or access to insights based on my own journey. One woman waited in line for her turn because she thought the event would be the perfect time to sell her product to me. I spent the remainder of her seven minutes talking about strategic sales and customer validation. I'm pretty sure my response wasn't what she wanted, but I'm really hoping she was listening.
I found as I walked back to my car to make my next appointment, that I was energized and inspired by the dreams and goals of the women who had spent their morning talking to me. It's a good thing to remember when our lives get so incredibly busy in the midst of growing our own companies - that while it becomes vital to protect our time to reserve the necessary bandwidth needed for priorities, it is also important to carve out time to give back. Even when we give, we still get. For me, that takeaway was well worth my time.
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