Mentors aren’t saviors. And industry training programs need to understand that.
Programs to advance mentees’ careers often fall prey to faulty assumptions about expertise and the very barriers they profess to want to change.
Philadelphia’s public transportation is known to be unreliable: In 2019, the city was ranked 89th of 100 U.S. cities using factors including safety, convenience, and accessibility. Yet many employers don’t take this spotty service into account when considering the punctuality of workers who rely on this particular public service for their daily commute.
For local restaurant owner and Bāo*logy founder Judy Ni, this “bias for showing up on time” surfaced during a mentorship program in which her restaurant hosted a young worker several years ago. The program offered marginalized youth placements in reputable hospitality businesses, but most of the businesses were located in the “expensive parts” of the city—typically code for areas built for more affluent folks who drive their own cars and need fewer transit options.
As the weeks went by, she learned of multiple mentees struggling with the commute to their assigned restaurants. Although everyone had been supplied an unlimited transit card, some still had to take multiple transfers to arrive at their workplace. Instead of addressing the structural problem of vastly different transport options determined by neighborhood and class—which Ni described as the “unpaid labor and stress of being ‘outside’”—too often the youth were still “dinged for being late” or assumed to lack motivation or “grit and hustle.”
Even with the best intentions, mentorship programs also have an uncanny ability to replicate existing industry problems.
Adding to this pressure was the program’s overall goal to place each youth worker into a part-time (20-25 hours per week) position. This sounds great on paper, but Ni wasn’t sure it was really the best metric for evaluating success. During her experience working with mentees every day, she developed a sense that “the youth weren’t ready for the job because there are so many other responsibilities that go into [having a job] that they weren’t prepared for. Things that many of us take for granted [such as financial literacy skills or tools] were not familiar to them and therefore overwhelming,” and she wondered how long the youth offered a job were ultimately able to stay. “The idea of ‘just going to work’ is a great privilege. What else are these youth dealing with at home, at school, that we don’t see?”
Ni’s observations underpin much of the continuing dynamics within well-intentioned, yet inconsistently executed mentorship programs: the unequal power dynamics between established mentors and supplicant mentees; the glossing over of racial, class, and other differences; and the notion that mentors are able to teach simply because they have reached a certain stage within their own careers. As Ni commented, “It can be difficult [for mentors] to understand [the mentees’ struggles] when they have not necessarily been through the same lived experiences. The mentors who participate in mentorship programs are not saviors. We have just as much to learn from mentees as they do from us.”
Fueled by the shock of the pandemic, and the rising calls for racial and gender equity in the restaurant industry, mentoring programs have become a favorite silver bullet for corporations and organizations to appear in lockstep with progressive industry change. The messaging about mentoring from well-publicized efforts such as the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) Women’s Leadership programs and the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) ProStart program is rosy. JBF’s website explains its “mentorship program makes it easier to access information, resources, and networks to ensure that the next generation of leaders is building back a restaurant industry that is more equitable, sustainable, and resilient than ever before” while the NRA’s Educational Foundation reports that “over 40% of Gen Z state [that] mentors help them build skills and confidence.”
But what of the remaining 60 percent, the flip side of the statistic, and their relationship with mentorship? Even with the best intentions, mentorship programs also have an uncanny ability to replicate existing industry problems. Without deliberate adjustments, they tend to reinforce power imbalances between established, senior mentors and junior mentees—and prioritize individual exceptionalism over community care and change from the ground-up. After I interviewed multiple mentees who participated in everything from corporate training, hotel rotations, leadership programs, BIPOC and other identity-centric mentorships, fellowships, and informal mentoring relationships, it became very clear that not everyone was reaping equal benefits. Unsurprisingly, much of the disconnect came down to the same three interconnected pillars: power, access, and money.
“Not everyone at a certain level deserves to be a mentor.”
Among the mentorship, fellowship, and training program representatives interviewed for this story, it was rare to find organizations with a formalized system to train, educate, or prepare mentors for the “huge responsibility of shaping someone’s career and perspective,” as Ni describes it. While the James Beard Foundation debuted a three-week training program for the mentors in their Legacy Network last year, most mentors in industry programs are assumed to not need further guidance. Instead, much of glossy marketing language and visuals promoting these programs focuses on the mentor’s awards, accomplishments, and clout. While impressive, these factors aren’t necessarily related to an ability to teach and do it well. Rather, this depiction of the benevolent mentor-savior produces an even more intimidating power dynamic between mentor and mentee, as Chris White, a chef who worked for the Union Square Hospitality Group (the company behind Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern, among others), witnessed first-hand earlier in his career.
Courtesy of Chris White
The mentor White received through the company was proactive and eager to help, meeting with him every two weeks (even though the formal cadence was monthly). His colleagues’ mentors, however, were quite the opposite; he saw them frustrated by having to “chase down” a mentor multiple pay grades or levels their senior, helpless to the fact there was “no accountability—all the power was in the hands of the mentor.” A mentee’s experience often “came down to the luck of the draw,” and the corporation’s overall stance was that mentees should just be grateful for the opportunity to work with messages like “you’ll learn what you’ll learn.”
White recognized the same performativity in mentorship programs that he’s seen on a “diversity page where everyone’s smiling, but [the organization] has no controls and no actual stake in their programs actually being successful or not. The problem is that in order for things to improve, we have to consistently reaffirm we are human beings.”
The lesson that “not everyone at a certain level deserves to be a mentor,” as White said, is one that remains to be fully learned. When mentorship programs claim to be creating or enabling change in an industry known to be rife with exploitation, it makes little sense to put more power in the hands of those who are not actively modeling positive behavior.
When the LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative, a nonprofit that has focused on helping struggling restaurants, announced its 2021 mentor lineup, many expressed disappointment at seeing Chef Jessica Koslow of Sqirl on the list, given that she was under fire for hazardous food safety practices and worker mistreatment. As Instagram user @becandall wrote, “Disappointing that there’s a contradiction in [the organization’s] goals with the selection of a mentor who has purposely misled/mistreated staff and customers.” (When The Counter asked about Koslow’s involvement, the LEE Initiative responded, “We discussed [the situation], and as a team [we] believe in people growing from mistakes and we know that it’s important for people at all stages of their career to learn from people who have made mistakes and grown from them.”)
Recognizing how a mentorship program reifies power dynamics in a mentor-mentee relationship requires more than ad hoc mentor education. “It’s important that mentors know their own privileges and biases, to think about their identity in relation to the folks they are supporting,” said Bie Aweh, a DoorDash human resources professional who oversaw multiple accelerator and mentorship programs at the company. For example, “We need to talk about what [mentors] have internalized about Black women, so they don’t continue to perpetuate harm.”
Yana Gilbuena, a chef who participated in the first Stone Barns Exchange Fellowship—a 3-week program to “support the development of a healthy and sustainable food system”—recalled this tension surfacing very clearly during a classroom exchange with chef Rick Bayless in 2017. Bayless is a famous white male chef and restaurateur who rose to prominence for cooking Mexican food and has been the subject of much critique and analysis over the years.
“Some folks asked him about appropriation, and he did not take it well,” Gilbuena recounted. This cycle repeated itself again in a guest lecture that same year with Mark Bittman, whose comments around race eventually led to other fellows using their speech during the Young Farmers Conference—the concluding event for the fellowship—to address what Bittman had said
To Gilbuena, these incidents were indicative of more than just poor choices in guest speakers. She explained how in the program, “injustice was glamorized instead of being addressed head-on. Stone Barns can exist because of Rockefeller money, and not all farms can do that. Not all farms even own their land. It’s hard to put on a sustainability lens when [the organizer] doesn’t address these issues that all go hand-in-hand.”
The final project for the fellows mirrored the industry’s extractive norms: “We were asked to present proposals for reimagining Governor’s Island, when [Stone Barns] was already talking to Governor’s Island developers. This was presented under the guise of a fellowship, [when it] is something that you would pay a company a lot of consulting money to do.”
The process of deriving valuable labor from the fellows, and at a deep discount, was not made clear in the initial program descriptions. Nor was the fact that the project findings would be shared with the developers, who stood to benefit financially and creatively from the fellows’ insights. Gilbuena described how “it felt transactional: There was no sharing of connections nor a semblance of connected community through this fellowship.” Rather, “the tension between organizers and fellows, the microaggressions, the emotional labor … for me, it manifested as physical sickness.”
(A representative from Stone Barns confirmed these proposals were part of the “Design Studio Project” of the fellowship and Stone Barns leadership “had previously met with Governor’s Island leadership.” The fellowship was discontinued after the 2018 program, and the staff who managed the program are no longer part of Stone Barns.)
These types of bad experiences leave lasting impressions on how mentees view their mentors, the host organization, and mentorship as a mutually beneficial exchange. “We need to make young people aware that their time and labor has value,” White said, “but being part of a mentorship program without oversight tells them the exact opposite.”
Rather, it continues to normalize a system where junior-level members have little or no agency over their own experience at work and no formal channels where they are empowered to give upward feedback—good or bad. This echo chamber is further reinforced by the reality that “the more senior a person becomes, the less feedback they hear,” as Aweh explained. Those already in positions of power continue to receive accolades and funding for programs that do not address or mitigate underlying issues of privilege and access.
Carrie Rau, founder of Vinequity, a wine-focused mentorship program for BIPOC, put it plainly: “The job of a mentor is to listen, to understand what it’s like to be in [the mentees’] shoes.” It’s in that vein that Dina Samson and Sylvie Gabriele of Re:HER, a Los Angeles-based mentorship organization for female restaurateurs, approached the development process of their inaugural grant and mentorship program. Before mentors were selected and the program outline finalized, “we spent time doing one-on-one chats with all our grantees to learn what they needed,” Samson explained. Mentors and workshop topics were then chosen and tailored to these findings, not vice versa.
Re:HER’s co-creation process with mentees, coupled with additional feedback loops, also uncovered many other issues that have long gone unaddressed: the needs for child-care coverage, appropriately subsidizing pay during program dates, and inclusive application processes that, for example, accept alternatives to a written or English-language statement. Lindsey Ofcacek of the LEE Initiative added that having transportation partners to offer options like cars and drivers “has been incredibly important so mentees have [covered] transportation in the [location] they are in, even if they don’t have a driver’s license or don’t drive.”
Former mentees wanted answers to questions like: Are the individuals on the selection committee publicly known to applicants? How were they vetted? How is mentee feedback incorporated into future program iterations—and how are mentees compensated for this emotional labor? Do mentors, program organizers, and the selection committee mirror the diversity of mentees they aspire to support?
Without these necessary structures, many prospective mentees cannot realistically shoulder the opportunity costs of a mentorship program, such as unpaid time off or travel expenses. Given star-studded mentor ensembles and the potential for a career-changing opportunity, many mentees find themselves conflicted by a choice that is implicitly exclusionary.
“The pay was not exactly livable,” said Eliza Martin, a chef who went through the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership (WCL) program. Through the program’s run, the weekly stipend for mentees in WCL was $600, meant to cover everything from relocation costs to monthly rent and living expenses. However, Martin remains satisfied with her decision to sign onboard because “what I gained was monetarily valuable. … It was a fast and furious kind of learning, but there was enormous amounts of exposure, and I built connections I can still call up to this day.” (Per the James Beard Foundation, “The Women in Culinary Leadership Program was discontinued in 2019. The Foundation recognized that it was not resourced to have the infrastructure needed to steward the mentees through the process with the level of care and oversight to meet JBF’s standards.”)
Beyond wages for working mentees, funding sources are another avenue where long-time power dynamics can skew the real impact of mentorship programs. For mentee Ariana Diaz, a writer who participated in a mentorship program hosted by the Social Gastronomy Movement, “my biggest reservation is the people [the organization] is getting money from. … I have so much gratitude for my time there, and I’d like to see them choose funders that represent our community.” That is, not huge corporations but those with meaningful connections to the organization and the communities it serves.
This ability to “dictate the narrative” outside of what currently exists is a critical part of Wild Bearies, a mentorship and community program for the Ho-Chunk Nation. Its founder, Elena Terry, emphasizes a cultural kinship system where no one is labeled “mentor” or “mentee,” but rather all are community members looking to support one another in reclaiming history and ancestral knowledge. To raise funds for the program, members contribute to a catering service, while also learning hands-on farming, cooking, and operations skills.
For the LEE Initiative, this sentiment of community-sustained revenue spurred it to adjust future fundraisers to be community-based, where there are always tickets at price points like $20, which is far more accessible than the typical “gala with $250 tickets.” As Ofcacek said, “I don’t want to host events where service-industry folks can’t even attend.”
When mentorship programs purport to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable future, it’s only fair to ask these same organizations to model that behavior in their own actions—especially in light of companies throwing public relations dollars behind such programs to bolster their public image. Chipotle, for example, launched its Chipotle Aluminaries Project in early 2019 to “inspire others to come along with us on the journey and be a force for good in our industry,” according to a public statement from its CEO. Later that same year, the company was sued for violating workers’ rights. While this example may be extreme, the shortsighted approach of granting a few select people special opportunities without overturning the systemic obstacles facing marginalized communities and workers characterizes much of the mentorship landscape today.
Despite these problems, and even for those reeling from past bad experiences, the hope that mentorship programs can encourage real change remains very much alive. Chef Chris White said he had only come across a single mentorship program—the restaurant group-sponsored one he attended—over the course of 15 years in the industry. That simply should not be the case. None of the mentees interviewed wanted fewer mentorship opportunities. Rather, they wanted more transparency and equity as existing ones are retooled and new ones created.
They wanted answers to questions like: Are the individuals on the selection committee publicly known to applicants? How were they vetted? Have former employees of proposed mentors been interviewed for due diligence? How is mentee feedback incorporated into future program iterations—and how are mentees compensated for this emotional labor? Do mentors, program organizers, and the selection committee mirror the diversity of mentees they aspire to support? To program leaders like Terry, who believes that true mentorship is rooted in a communal approach to building a better future, ultimately “we are all mentees because there is always something to learn.”