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What ‘Star Wars’ can teach you about the importance of mentorship

June 17, 2015, 3:15 PM UTC
Photograph by Sergio Villareal

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important to have a mentor? is written by Erin Ganju, co-founder and CEO of Room to Read.

It’s no accident that one of Hollywood’s essential storylines is the mentor narrative. A mentor who can offer wisdom and encouragement is invaluable to someone starting out on a difficult journey — and it makes for a great story. However, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid to Lord of the Rings, it’s no surprise that popular mentor narratives focus on the male experience. After all, this reflects the gender make-up in leadership positions across governments, corporations, and universities worldwide.

And yet, it is arguably because there are so few female leaders that the group most in need of mentoring is women — and, from a global perspective, women and girls in low-income countries. That’s why it is essential for female leaders to offer guidance to promising young women and girls on paths that traditionally have been closed to them. They can act as role models and encourage their mentees to take the next step, to reach for higher goals, and push them to lean in.

During my years working in investment banking, it was rare to meet a female leader or mentor. As a young woman struggling with the same complex issues most working women face, it would have meant a lot to me to have seen more female role models around me — women in leadership positions successfully balancing a career in finance with a family and other life goals.

It would have also been valuable to have had a mentor — male or female — take me under their wing and help me think through the kinds of skills I needed to find professional development opportunities. Instead, I spent my career in finance feeling more like an outsider than an insider. It was, in part, this lack of guidance and of a sense of belonging that motivated me to forge a different career path.

Luckily, I found the best mentor I could have asked for at my next job, Unilever in Vietnam. A 20-plus year Unilever veteran, she provided me with sage advice and many opportunities to grow, such as advocating for me to take on increasing responsibilities and work on projects that exposed me to different parts of the business. We all need someone more senior in our corner to help us navigate the road ahead so we’re ready when an opportunity comes.

It was while co-founding Room to Read that it became clear to me: Female mentorship is invaluable for young women forging nontraditional paths — and doubly so for those in low-income countries where something as simple as going to school is an act of bravery. Mentoring is now a fundamental component of our Girls’ Education Program, which focuses on helping disadvantaged female students graduate from secondary school and acquire the skills necessary to successfully navigate life decisions. The program’s social mobilizers — our term for women employed to serve as mentors to the girls — offer emotional support, practical guidance, and are examples of strong, educated women in their own communities.

Take Mili from Khaichala, a remote village in Bangladesh. Girls from Khaichala almost never make it past primary school, so Mili had no reason to think she would either. Indeed, passing the crucial gateway exam to secondary school seemed like an impossible dream, since the education girls do receive leaves them woefully unprepared. But there is something magical that happens when a girl like Mili is able to see a woman from her own community who managed to persevere and excel in school against the odds. For her, Moli Apa was that woman — her social mobilizer. With Moli’s encouragement and guidance Mili passed her secondary exam and is now working towards become a teacher.

I’ve encountered hundreds of promising young minds that are routinely held back from reaching their potential simply because that mind belongs to a girl. Bringing girls and women together in a safe place where they can talk openly about the challenges they face, where they can seek advice on personal issues and stand together to question societal norms, can have a ripple effect on positive change. Mili may not have a Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, or Gandalf, but thanks to her social mobilizer — and thanks to education — she found her own force within.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Why is it important to have a mentor?

Why this CEO believes in multiple mentors by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

Why young workers make the best mentors by Kim Getty, president of Deutsch.

5 things to know before becoming a mentor by Debby Hopkins, CEO at Citi Ventures.

Here’s one reason why you don’t need a mentor by Shiza Shahid, co-founder and ambassador of Malala Fund.

The do’s and don’ts of an effective mentor by Shannon Schuyler, leader of corporate responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Why you’re never too old to have a mentor by Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, national managing partner of corporate responsibility at KPMG.

How men can step up and help women get ahead at work by Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.

When it comes to mentors, the more the merrier by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Are you qualified to be a mentor? by Sarah Watson, chief strategy officer of BBH N.Y.

Is mentoring necessary for career advancement? by Teresa Briggs, vice chairman and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Do all employees benefit from having a mentor? by Dawn Zier, president and CEO of Nutrisystem.

4 things your boss won’t tell you (but a mentor will) by Penny Herscher CEO of FirstRain.

What qualities make a good (and bad) mentor? by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

Why mentoring is unlike any other professional relationship by Jenni Luke, CEO of Step Up.

Why you don’t need a mentor to be successful by Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at Ernst & Young.

What qualities should you look for in a mentor? by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

4 things to consider before choosing a mentor by Camille Preston, founder of AIM Leadership.

The most important quality a mentor should have by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why women are more likely to be mentors by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

3 reasons every employee needs a mentor by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Why this AOL executive chooses her mentors — wisely by Allie Kline, CMO of AOL, Inc.