This Is Entrepreneurship: Sherry Sims on Mentorship
Sherry Sims went looking for a mentor early in her career. She was ready to grow and make moves, but she struggled to find someone who could help guide her.
Fast forward: Years later, she created a space for other Black women to find and support one another. Built from a deep need, the Black Career Women's Network offers career development and mentorship opportunities so that Black women all over the country can find the support they need to excel wherever they are on their career paths.
There is no single definition of an entrepreneur or the obstacles they face. As part of our year-long series sponsored by Main Street Ventures, our community chose 12 of the biggest obstacles female-identifying entrepreneurs face, and we found 12 women who spend their days conquering them. Explore the whole series here.
What's your elevator pitch?
I'm Sherry Sims. I'm the founder of the Black Career Women's Network. We are a career development organization that supports professional development for African American women. We are a national organization; we support women all over the U.S. We offer mentoring, coaching, conferences, webinars, workshops – we’re well-rounded in the area of providing support.
What we really do is bridge the gap of mentorship and professional development for women – Black women, specifically – who are unable to get that type of support in the workplace.
You were in H.R. before this. How did you get into mentoring?
Oh, that's a long story. I say my journey is divine. In 2008, I started looking for a promotion. I started to really look at myself and said, "Okay, what is missing in me? What type of development do I need?" I was looking for a mentor and was unable to find one. I was living in the South at the time, in a city that is [largely] African American. You would think I’d be able to find someone who was interested in mentoring from the H.R. perspective, but I couldn't find anyone.
Then one day, I was up working late. I went on LinkedIn and discovered LinkedIn groups. I thought, "Oh, I am going to make a group! And it's going to be fabulous. All these Black women are going to come in and we’re going to have conversations. We are going to dialogue. I can get what I need." So I created it. I didn't know what name to call it. I wanted a name that let women know that it wasn't a social group; it was focused on careers. That's how I came up with the name Black Career Women’s Network.
No one joined. Crickets.
So, I ignored it. That was 2008. I moved here in 2010. I was working in H.R. and, after three months on the job, I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore."
H.R. or that particular job?
I wanted out of that job and H.R. I wanted to do something different. I was thinking, “How could I take my experience and use it in a different way?” I didn't know what that would look like. I was clueless.
During this time, I went to a job fair, for my job, that I was not supposed to be at. A lady called in sick and I covered for her. Then, a lady who was there came up to my booth and said, "We’re looking for community partners; would you be interested?" My attitude was not the best at the time, but I said I would do it because it was part of my performance requirements at the time. I met with her. The work she was doing [at Cincinnati Works] – I was like, "Oh, my god, I want to do that. I can help people. I can prepare them for jobs and things like that.”
I asked if they were hiring. She said, "No."
I said, "Can I volunteer?"
She said, "Yes." So, I started volunteering.
One day I stayed after to talk to the staff. I come to find out one of the ladies who was leaving was moving to Birmingham. I was like, "Oh, my god, that's where I moved here from!" Then I was like, "Oop! There's an opening!"
I applied. Got the job – not realizing that nonprofit was definitely different in terms of pay. I took a $30,000 pay cut to do it. I wanted to do something different and meaningful. So, I took the job and became a career coach. I was very excited about that.
Then, I updated my LinkedIn profile with the new job. Suddenly, Black women started calling and emailing me through LinkedIn. I was like, "Why the hell are these women calling me? I don't know anything. I'm just a nobody. I’m a single mom. And I’m just trying to live my best life."
My friend said, "You don't know what you've done. You positioned yourself as an expert and you didn't even know it. You have an H.R. background. Now you’re doing this career coaching for a nonprofit. So, it makes perfect sense."
I didn't put two and two together.
So, I continued to answer the emails and calls. What I realized is that I had been through some of the things these women have been through. That blew my mind. I kept saying, "Wow! All this time, I haven't been alone. There's other women going through these things."
I say my journey is divine.
I started to look at it as a business and put together a model. Something told me to look at my LinkedIn group. By this time it was 2012 and 250-something people were waiting to get into the group. I was like, "Oh, my gosh!"
But then I was like, "I don't know how to run a business." That's when I came to Bad Girl Ventures [now called Aviatra Accelerators]. It all started from there. I kind of became my own mentor, in a way.
You did! And you found a way to push that forward.
Yes. Now I’m able to help other women. I can teach them how to seek out mentors and how to position themselves to make sure they have the right fit. Because I was going about it the wrong way. I didn't know what I was doing back then. I didn't know how to approach someone the right way. Or to send a formal email. I kind of just said, "Would you mentor me?"
Can you give a couple tips for finding a good mentor?
Two tips: One, you can formally seek out a mentor through an organization – whether it's through your industry or a women's group that you are a part of. There are various ways you can do that.
The second is: You can actually just build a relationship with someone who is already at the level you want to be at. They may not even know that they’re a mentor. You’re actually building a genuine relationship with them. I know that may sound a little sneaky, but in a way, it's not. As a mentor, there should be an element of building the relationship. But sometimes being in a mentor relationship can be a little nerve-wracking or scary to them because they feel obligated to be part of the process.
But if you’re just sending an email with a question; if they are speaking and you go to support; or if you’re having an issue and you say, "Hey, I just want to run this by you; tell me what you think"... Be mindful of their time, and keep whatever it is simple, so that they have nothing to commit to but a response.
That's what I've learned. Specifically, I’m looking for people in roles that I would desire to be in.
I was like, "Why the hell are these women calling me? I don't know anything. I'm just a nobody.”
There was a book that I discovered when I first started the journey of building the business. It's called The Little Black Book of Success: The Laws of Leadership for Black Women. I saw the three authors on the back and I said, "These women are so dynamic. There is no freaking way in hell that I would ever be these women."
I sent a LinkedIn request to one of the authors. She replied. I said, "Oh my gosh. She replied to me! I don't know what to say!" She just wanted to know why I connected with her. I explained that I read the book; it resonated with me. I told her I was building this women's organization and, "I just love what you guys have done with this book."
It took us a couple of months from corresponding on LinkedIn to when we got on the phone and started talking. Then a year and a half later she was at my conference speaking.
I always tell her, "You know you’re my mentor, even if you don't say that's what you are." Sometimes it's better to think about it as building relationships versus putting the title of "mentor" on it.
Why do women need mentors?
There’s something I always share with my daughter: There are stages to a woman's life. Who you are at 20 is not who you are going to be at 30. When we get to those stages, it's good to have someone who’s been there and done that who can help guide us through the journey. Or not necessarily guide us, but who we can ask questions and help us to not make the same mistakes that they made before. I always look at it like a cycle of life.
What advice would you give your 13-year-old self?
My journey started out a little shaky. I went to college, but my first semester I was forced to leave for a very personal reason. It wasn't because of me; it was because of someone else. It put my life on a path I wasn't expecting. You know how you think you have it all under control? Janet Jackson's song "Control" is my anthem. I'm showing my age now, but it came out the year I graduated from high school. Right away, I was like, “That is my anthem.”
But, I really think now that even though your life may fall off course or the plans you have may not go the way you want them to, you just have to find a way to reroute the journey and take the path in a whole new direction. It can be toward the same goal. But now you’re going to have to get to the same goal on a different road or a different path. It may take you longer to get there than you anticipated. If that's really where your soul and heart is, it's going to happen eventually.
Are there instances when you've seen a really cool mentor-mentee relationship come up through the Black Women's Career Network?
I can't think of a specific cool one, but what I have seen at every conference or small-group session: There is always a connection made between the women. Usually there is a connection made through social media; then they meet in person and move on to doing some sort of collaboration together. I think what's nice is that they’re able to meet and then they get together to create this whole other element or extension of their relationship.
I admire everyday women because that's who is on ground zero making things happen.
I think the beauty of our network is that these women meet and they genuinely make connections with each other. Not just relationship building; we are talking about things that can help their trajectory and their goals.
What's important for women to know about mentorship?
One of the things I think is important that women need to know, from a mentor standpoint: Not everyone is aspiring to be a leader. Not everyone has the talent or skill set to be a leader. And that's okay. You can be successful in a role that isn't at the leadership level. You can be an individual contributor and still be very successful. You do not have to be the senior leader or V.P. role. You can still be mentored.
I think we put too much pressure on women, so they start to think, "I need to have a mentor so I can be in this leadership role." We need to look at where we are and be successful at that. It doesn't mean we aren't ambitious.
Last, but not least, tell us about an influential woman in your life.
That is always the hardest question for me to answer. I learned very early about myself, in childhood, that I am very self-reliant.
If I had to choose someone, I think I admire the everyday woman. Because I am one. People may see me a certain way because of the network, but I am just a regular woman who is a single mother who struggled.
I admire everyday women because that's who is on ground zero making things happen. When you see those everyday women rise above and become something, do something, be something – that's where my inspiration truly comes from.
There is no single definition of an entrepreneur. Check out our year-long series, "This Is Entrepreneurship." Sponsored by Main Street Ventures.