Empowerment through mentorship

Empowerment through mentorship

Natalie Robinson, OneUpOneDown

You currently run an incredible global company, OneUpOneDown, using AI to match women to mentors. How did that idea come about? 

Natalie Robinson
Natalie Robinson, OneUpOneDown

OneUpOneDown is the brainchild of three co-founders (now two) and is a product of our collective experiences. For me, it was largely born out of running my first company, Mum’s Garage, where we helped individuals find the confidence and ability to articulate their ideas effectively, giving them a better chance of succeeding as entrepreneurs.

In time, I noticed how different environments affected my own behaviour and confidence – specifically in male-dominated work settings, where I was more self-conscious and less likely to voice my thoughts because of very subtle influences.

A turning point for me was participating in a global leadership programme with 25 women leaders, run by the US Department of State. Surrounded by other like-minded women, I found myself more confident, more articulate, and free to express my thoughts and ideas. It was transformative.

While interacting with the women entrepreneurs at Mum’s Garage, I realised that part of the solution to advancing gender equality lies in empowering women to recognise and embrace their unique values, which may be suppressed in some environments. I also realised that women face unique challenges in the workplace, and other women who have navigated similar paths could provide invaluable mentoring.

That’s when the idea for OneUpOneDown took shape. We aim to empower women by matching them with mentors who can guide them, relate to their unique challenges, and help them fully express their unique value in their professional journeys

Can you tell us about your journey to this point? What initially sparked your interest in entrepreneurship and starting Mum’s Garage?

Although I feel that I’ve always had it in me, it took me 25 years to find a pathway into entrepreneurship. When I found it, it was such a revelation that I wanted to share it with others who I saw were experiencing similar challenges: namely, lacking the environment, people, skills or self-belief to turn ideas into businesses.

Mum’s Garage began as small gatherings – literally in my mum’s garage – discussing how to validate an idea and develop a business opportunity. I then started running larger events and programmes, with input from others who were further along on their entrepreneurial journey.

Mum’s Garage fostered a culture that encouraged open discussions about ideas, challenges and lessons learned, all in the spirit of discovery and growth. While the majority of organisations supporting early-stage business development in New Zealand were focused on capital raising and investment potential, Mum’s Garage offered a more supportive and holistic environment to nurture entrepreneurship from the ground up.

What makes mentorship so important for women? Did you have any notable mentors in your journey? 

I think most people grossly underestimate the importance of mentorship. Mentorship is similar to leadership, in that when you experience a great leader, your perception of the meaning of the word ‘leadership’ changes. And just as a lot of people have only known average leaders, most people haven’t experienced great mentorship. I think the best way to understand great mentorship is to understand the effect of the relationship.

A great mentor brings to the surface something that the mentee has not yet realised. It might be a new insight, an ambition or desire, a buried belief, or a misalignment that is creating a block for the mentee. A mentor can do this by seeing something in the mentee that they recognise in themselves, and so they can ask questions to help the mentee gain clarity. It creates a permanent shift in the mentee, and quite often in the mentor also.

The experience can be conscious and unconscious, through learnt skills and techniques, and through the built-in mechanisms by which we humans learn from others. The key to creating these great experiences is alignment – matching people who are on a similar wavelength. They have shared values and experiences.

Mentorship is important for everyone. It is particularly important for women to thrive in the workplace because the systems, structures and cultures that are dominant in the work environment have been built by men.

We get cues from the environments we work in as to what behaviour is valued and what is not. If we align with the established norms and values, it becomes easier to operate efficiently and get ahead. If we don’t, it becomes exhausting. We have to work extra hard to have influence and get things done. A lack of alignment can grind away at a person’s confidence, self-belief and desire to succeed.

This is how a lot of women feel – exhausted and unable to contribute at their full potential. According to the Women in the Workplace 2022 study women leaders are leaving corporate America at the highest rate in years for the following reasons: they want to advance, but they face stronger headwinds than men; they are overworked and under-recognised; and they want a better work culture.

By matching women into mentorship relationships, these negative experiences are recognised and shared and solutions can be formed and actioned. In addition, women-to-women mentorship encourages women to be open and share experiences. It allows them to express and experience a different kind of leadership, and realise the value of it.

I have had many wonderful mentors since starting OneUpOneDown. My first formal mentor was Cathy Sommerville (previously Scharetg), who is now also our learning and development advisor and lead mentor at OneUpOneDown. Others include Yoram Ben Zvi, Brigitte Bauman and Mikkel Fishman. Mentorship is baked into our operating model. We certainly practise what we preach.

Did you face any challenges or obstacles, especially as a woman in the business or tech world? How did you overcome them?

Yes. The challenges that relate specifically to being a woman have become clearer to me now. Previously I couldn’t see them for what they were. The challenges are personal because of who I am and my experiences, of which being a woman is an important determinant. And they also stem from the factors that shape the environments I am trying to succeed in, which is building technology businesses.

For example, for a long time I felt that I couldn’t effectively get my ideas heard. This was partly down to my own communication skills; and also research shows that, generally, men tend to be taken more seriously than women. Women tend to be interrupted and talked over more. They have to prove their competence, and they feel more uncomfortable in positions of authority.

Here’s another specific example that I think many women will be able to relate to. Research by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart found that, independent of rank, the median female employee spent 200 more hours per year on non-promotable work than her male counterpart. To put that into perspective: women spend more than a month per year on dead-end assignments.

I like to help people and I like to build community and enhance relationships, so as an employee, I would often say yes to things like organising the office Christmas party, organising things for the team, taking on tasks “organising stuff” that was outside of my role and not career-enhancing. This hampered my ability to get my value-add work done – the work I was actually assessed on.

Things like this may seem small, but they happen all the time and can compound to be hugely significant over a woman’s lifetime. It’s important to be aware of them, and to develop strategies so you are taking the actions best suited to how you want to live and work. I make time every day to find out what is mine to work through, what falls to other people, and what other factors are in play. So, is there something for me to learn, or is this someone else’s problem? And how will I respond? I also reach out regularly to formal and informal mentors who help me assess my thoughts, beliefs and actions, and help me to find clarity.

Can you share the process of building a global company from the ground up? What were the key milestones or turning points? 

Within the first six months of launching, we had women signed up from over 20 countries. My first mentee, Dzhuliana Nikolova, was from Bulgaria and based in London (she is now Co-Founder and CTO at OneUpOneDown), and my first mentor was based in the US. The variables impacting our target market are not location-specific, so it made sense for us to go global. Our mentees wanted new perspectives from outside of their existing networks and cultures. OneUpOneDown has also grown almost entirely through word of mouth, too, which is a great reflection of our product and value proposition.

OneUpOneDown has also grown almost entirely through word of mouth, too, which is a great reflection of our product and value proposition.

In terms of key milestones, our big breakthroughs come from the development of mentor-matching technology. We quickly outgrew our minimum viable product and invested in building a system we could scale up. We have progressively been training and improving our model to make better and better mentor matches.

Did you have any previous experience or background in AI and technology before starting OneUpOneDown? If not, how did you navigate that aspect?

I had experience working with technology startups, but not specifically with AI. I was in sales, marketing and business development, rather than product development and engineering. Dzhuliana Nikolova came on board to lead product and tech development. We hired and engaged people with the capability to build the technology we needed, and were supported by our mentors.

What advice would you offer women looking to start a career, or change careers into entrepreneurship or tech?

Your desire for change is important and should not be ignored. My advice is to take action and not allow yourself to feel stuck. Begin with small yet effective actions. If you are not clear on the next steps, reach out to someone who can offer guidance. If you feel you are missing a particular skill, find the three best books on the subject, or sign up for a relevant course. If you need to establish a network of people in the field you want to enter, find a community or event you could go along to.

And of course, get a mentor – someone with relevant experience who can help you find clarity, decide on the next steps and, most importantly, take action. You can sign up for OneUpOneDown to be matched with a relevant mentor, and also offer your skills as a mentor.