Scaling mentoring conversations to diversify talent pipelines: An interview with Mentor Spaces’ Chris Motley

By: Julia Freeland Fisher, Christensen Institute

In the corporate world, online mentoring tools are not new. But what used to feel boutique is now increasingly going mainstream, with more companies exploring hybrid and virtual work options. In recent years, a few new companies have emerged that I’ve been watching for their potential to radically expand access to employer networks otherwise out of reach for learners and workers.

One of those is Mentor Spaces, which recently raised $2.5 million in a seed round led by the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact (AmFam Institute).

Unlike many enterprise mentoring software tools, Mentor Spaces is a recruiting tool. It’s specifically aimed at scaling mentoring conversations between underrepresented learners and workers and employers, in an effort to diversify talent pipelines. In other words, the platform’s value proposition for companies is talent attraction and employer branding externally, rather than merely supporting current employees’ learning and development.

That orientation has real benefits when it comes to the sorts of connections Mentor Spaces can enable. “Historically, mentorship has been within the walls of a company. That’s a constraint,” explained Chris Motley, Mentor Spaces’ CEO. “That means some people will never have access to it. What’s different about us is we’re using this concept of mentorship, organized in a different way, to support talent acquisition and retention,” he said.

Motley and I had a wide-ranging conversation that you can listen to here. Below are a few highlights from our chat:

1. Mentors are people with unique knowledge about particular topics. But mentors are also learners themselves. “We define mentorship as simply a conversation with someone “in the know.” Or to say it differently, a conversation with someone who can help you accomplish your goals,” said Motley. That definition has guided how Motley and his team designed the entire platform, building an inventory of peoples’ expertise, their time commitments, and their availability, along with the ability to match that inventory of experts to people who would benefit from having a conversation with them.

Motley further described the idea of mentorship as a practice, rather than a personality type or a role. “When we at Mentor Spaces say ‘mentorship’ we’re talking about the practice of mentorship, which is a very important point. You may play the role of a mentor, and you may also play the role of mentee. It’s all a function of what the topic at hand is. That allows for this bi-directionality of relationships. It allows for scale. It allows for us to deliver value for everyone …. everyone is trying to accomplish a goal in something. And everyone has a lived experience that is helpful for someone else. Our perspective is Mentor Spaces being this environment where people can engage in this practice of mentorship. Recognizing in some cases you may be the learner, and in other cases you may be the sharer.”

2. Mentorship based on affinity is critical to fostering belonging—as well as the confidence to forge connections across lines of difference. I asked Motley about how Mentor Spaces facilitates connection across lines of similarity—in particular racial identity—and also across lines of difference. Motley explained that he sees a deep connection between fostering affinity and building confidence among mentees, particularly mentees of color. “When we were raising money, an investor said, ‘How do you measure impact of improving one’s confidence?’ That’s a great question. I know because I’m Black, that when I see myself reflected in someone else, I feel more comfortable,” Motley said. “There’s a reason why we all sit at certain tables in college in the cafeteria. It doesn’t mean I don’t value the perspective of others. It doesn’t mean that I’m racist or something else. It just means this is where I’m the most comfortable, and where I have my tribe.” Motley and his team have taken this into account in the platform, and focused on scaffolding access to mentors who are “like them” for users’ initial experience on the platform.

But Mentor Spaces is also interested in seeing change over time in whom users seek advice and support from. “If we show five mentors to a user and one of them is Black and four of them are white and the mentee is Black, they will almost always select the Black one first for exactly the reasons I just said,” Motley explained. “If they’re on the app for three months and another mentor is presented to them in the same exact scenario, a different person who is Black and the other four are white—they’ll choose the one who is white. And that is how you measure the improved confidence.” In other words, although Mentor Spaces allows mentees to find and connect with people like them, it’s also an environment to support mentees in branching out beyond their “tribe.” “As you build up that confidence or learn the language of industry, then you say, I’m selecting this person because I want to understand their approach. I want to understand the value of the differences,” Motley explained.

3. Mentoring advocates can learn from what social media got right. Technology for building networks is obviously not new. But as Motley and I discussed, mentoring software has a different value proposition than mainstream social media and networking tools. And yet, he argued, mentoring software can borrow from what the much-maligned social media industry has gotten right. “One thing we’ve learned, and it may cause consternation to some people, but everything that [social media companies] do is based off of dopamine. It’s this fear of missing out that compels you to do all of these crazy things. What if we as entrepreneurs and innovators and technologists try to create serotonin? … If someone has committed 30 minutes of their time and they have a conversation with someone, and we help that individual who did the sharing understand how they impacted that person in less than 30 minutes, you feel what we call a mentor high. And people can be addicted to that,” Motley said. “A lot of patterns in social media are super valuable, because they drill down to psychology. You can’t violate psychology when you’re creating new products, but you can think about it holistically and make your goal be something more than just how many likes I get.”

To access the resource, please click here.