A Mentee's Journey

by Claire Tann Wilson

My journey as a Gleam mentee has been nothing short of extraordinary. Little did I know a note from a persistent former colleague would lead me to one of the most rewarding mentor/ mentee relationships I have experienced professionally.

Allow me to set the stage…

A former colleague reached out on a day that I was seriously contemplating leaving the food industry to become a female monastic. It had been a trying few months in my role leading innovation and product development for a large food manufacturer that services the restaurant industry. The BLM movement had brought to light many disparities within my company that thrust me into having conversations that I did not feel equipped to lead. My former colleague encouraged me to consider GLEAM and gave me the typical elevator speech about gaining additional support as I continue to push towards the C-suite. After thinking about the opportunity, I decided to apply to the program with one caveat — I would only participate if a C-suite POC (person of color), with a technical background, was assigned as my mentor. I have had my share of mentors who had been effective in coaching me about "Leaning In" and illustrating that nice girls don't get the corner office. If I was going to invest time in the upcoming cohort, it had to fill a gap in my professional village. While the administration was not able to find a POC executive with a technical background, I was assured that my mentor would be a woman of color who was relatable and extremely well versed in the complexities, barriers, and challenges a POC faces in foodservice. Treasa committed to being my mentor in the October GLEAM Cohort.

My first session with Treasa Bowers was good. It was a casual and easy conversation on a Friday afternoon. We chatted about our backgrounds, families and covered the typical "getting to know you questions". Honestly, I didn't waste any time letting down my guard. My initial thought was, this kind woman has committed to help me, so I need to be as transparent as possible. So I peeled back the onion and sliced right to the core. I encourage all mentees to take a similar approach if they are comfortable. Be open and honest when communicating with your mentor, even if you haven't quite figured out what your goals/objectives are. During the initial conversation, it is important to establish the best mode of communication and the frequency of your sessions. Set some tentative goals and agree they may need to be adjusted as you take the journey together. Treasa and I initially decided to connect every 2 weeks, but we eventually allowed communication to happen organically.

During our first 2 sessions, I shared some of the challenges I was experiencing adapting to my company's culture. Due to new awareness around BLM, diversity equity and inclusion (DE&I) had become the new company-wide initiative with a focus on recruitment and retention. I was thrust into conversations that were extremely uncomfortable and was often asked to represent the perspective of all POC. The great thing about Treasa is she is an expert in the area of DEI and proved to be a very valuable resource as I navigated talks with the leadership team and my CEO. She also helped me determine the best ways to influence after being placed on the company DE&I council.

One of my initial objectives was to focus on my agility, but we quickly realized my immediate need was coaching around DE&I and how to navigate being pushed into the spotlight when I typically preferred to lead behind the curtain. Over the past 5 months, Treasa equipped me with DE&I articles and tools, shared books to stretch my thought process, helped me make another professional connection to explore an interest in supplier diversity, opened up her calendar for urgent last-minute sessions, and sent inspirational texts that seemed to pour into my spirit at just the right time. We established goals around setting boundaries and the importance of self-care. We discussed how my 20+ years of working in R&D, QA, and Food Safety could easily translate into other channels of business if I decided to make a transition. Most importantly, she helped me make sense out of a situation that seemed unreal in 2021 terms. Her support allowed me to make peace with parting ways with a company whose values did not align with mine.

My GLEAM mentoring experience has been life-changing. One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is to continue to be my authentic self, be more transparent about my journey while remaining present as the path ahead of me unfolds. I learned to be 100% focused on moving forward even if the path seems unpaved. I have newfound confidence knowing that I have the support of a great mentor/ friend and a vast network of GLEAMERS who are cheering me on. Although my GLEAM journey has just begun, I look forward to the road that lies ahead for myself and for those that I can mentor in the future.

The article was written by Claire Tann Wilson. Claire has 20+ years of experience in R&D, Innovation, QA, Commercialization, and Food Safety.