Profiles in Mentoring: Varsha Waishampayan and her work mentoring professionals

By Meg Fry,

When Varsha Waishampayan traveled to see her parents in India last year while on sabbatical from her job as director of asset and information management at PricewaterhouseCoopers, she got the same advice she has heard at home for years.

This time, it stuck.

Her father, a retired professor, was as insistent as always about her future, she said.

“He always said that I should return to teaching,” Waishampayan said. “He said, ‘You should give back with what you have learned. There is never a bad time to do good — it’s just a matter of priorities.’ ”

Waishampayan had been considering what she might like to do next.

“I thought, how long am I going to keep saying, ‘I will,’ if not now?” she said.

As Waishampayan looked back upon her nearly three-decade career as a woman on Wall Street, she decided the lessons she had learned would be put to better use mentoring women who already were out of the classroom and in the workforce.

“Being able to change direction after you find what you are naturally good at is key,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that one’s strengths and character traits would ultimately be what helped someone be successful.”

Last October, Waishampayan left her path to partner.

In June, she co-founded WINGS for Growth, a nonprofit created to empower and promote women leaders in the workforce.

“PwC initially felt that I was making a mistake,” Waishampayan said. “But once they learned how much progress I already had made, they instead began to ask how they could help.”

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Waishampayan already had proved herself worthy of leading an organization dedicated to providing early career women with guidance.

After beginning her career in education, Waishampayan married and traveled from Gwalior, India, to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago.

“When I came here, I came here with the idea that I would continue teaching — but there were just so many other opportunities in this country that I felt I should pursue whatever I wanted,” she said.

After gaining experience in technology and finance, Waishampayan wanted more.

“One day, while I was working at Merrill Lynch, I asked a senior department manager if I could have coffee with him to discuss how I felt I was cut out to be a manager,” she said.

The man, Waishampayan said, ultimately agreed with her conclusion, but said she would need to give it time, as she only had a few years of experience.

“A few weeks later, he came back and said, ‘I’m sending you to an MBA program and I’m giving you the opportunity to manage a small group,’ ” she added.

The move kicked off more than 27 years of management experience at companies such as Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.

Still, something was missing, Waishampayan said.

“The various talent development and mentoring programs I attended, and subsequently ran, were very good because they gave me exposure and made my talent obvious to senior management,” she said. “But even as I climbed horizontally along the ladder, I felt such programs were very company focused.

“Every time I left a company, I felt as though I had to leave those skills that I had learned behind.”

Waishampayan spoke with colleagues to see if they shared the same sentiment, and, if so, what it was they would instead like to see in an externalized program.

“I wasn’t alone,” she said. “Many of my colleagues, especially women, felt the way I did about such mentorship opportunities.”

For one thing, mentorship often was spotty.

“I’d have an issue or need advice, and my mentor would help me over a cup of coffee every month or quarter before going our different ways,” Waishampayan said. “My colleagues and I were more interested in developing constant ‘career parents.’ ”

Formal mentorship programs also frequently lacked outcomes-based methodology.

“We needed a framework that, every step of the way, we could measure our own success and our mentee’s success,” Waishampayan said.

Lastly, in addition to the lack of a personalized learning environment, employees often felt as though they could not be as honest as they needed to be when participating in such development programs.

“Mentees shouldn’t have to worry about anything getting back to their bosses, or taking too much care in what they say to their mentor,” Waishampayan said. “We wanted to make sure mentees felt no pressure from their work.”

Waishampayan ultimately decided that what younger generations of women needed most was an external talent development program focused on leadership skills over job promotions and internal corporate culture.

“I wanted each of these leaders to look not only at their company, but also, more broadly: their community, their family, their government and beyond.”

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Waishampayan teamed up last June with Mathangi Srinivas, co-founder and executive director, to formally create the WINGS (Women’s Initiative to Nurture Growth and Success) program.

“It is a 10-month leadership program that begins with a clear indication of the goals a mentee is seeking to accomplish within that time frame, and ends with them putting what they have learned from their mentor into practice,” she said.

Waishampayan said she initially believed that recruiting women graduates from college was the right way to build a network of mentees.

“But when we interviewed them, we felt that they didn’t necessarily want a lot of guidance,” Waishampayan said. “They didn’t know what they wanted to do and instead wanted a few more years of exploration, time to figure it out on their own.”

The more Waishampayan thought about it, the more it made sense.

“Organizations spend a lot of time and money on leadership development programs for incoming college graduates, and then also focus heavily on grooming C-level candidates,” she said. “But what they don’t realize is that, soon, they will not have a succession plan, and there is so much potential in the middle.”

WINGS for Growth, therefore, hopes to continue attracting women mentees who have been in the workforce for more than five years.

The organization also currently has more than 20 women and men mentors who have not yet been paired, despite the fact that mentorship is voluntary and unpaid and both mentees and mentors must make a full 10-month commitment.

“Mentors and mentees are required to meet once per week for the first two months, and at least once a month after that,” Waishampayan said. “Then, in the last two months, mentees are required to either pick a nonprofit of their choice in which to intern with, or mentor students at their local community high school.”

WINGS for Growth currently charges mentees an enrollment fee of only $500 to cover operational costs, workshops, future executive leadership coaching, curriculum building and management for the duration of the program, Waishampayan said.

That is only made possible through various grants and fundraising, Waishampayan said, adding that everyone on staff is currently a volunteer.

“I want this program to be available to anyone with potential,” she said.

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WINGS for Growth kicked off its first cohort of five mentees, five mentors and two champions (secondary mentors) in March of this year.

It is currently accepting applications for its second cohort in July, and a third in September.

Competition is fierce.

“We don’t want to have any more than 20 mentees a year, so we can stay focused on quality development at this time,” Waishampayan said.

The program so far has especially appealed to small and medium-sized organizations without large human resource teams or pools of employees in which to manage talent.

“We want their female employees to be leaders, not just in their companies, but, also, in their communities,” Waishampayan said.

The ultimate vision, Waishampayan added, would be to see WINGS for Growth become a leadership institute that would deliver transformational community leaders and change agents.

At that point, Waishampayan said, WINGS for Growth might consider opening the program to men mentees and those looking for training on how to be better mentors.

“We started off focused on women because, at the end of the day, I know what kind of challenges it is that women face,” Waishampayan said. “Women also tend to respond better to mentoring, often striving to find someone who can help them.

“I really feel that women like the support and can feel confident when they get it.”