Top 25 Mentoring Relationships in History

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 9.03.44 AMJennifer Merrill, MENTOR Marketing & Communications Manager

Behind every successful person, there’s a mentor who helped them along the way. Some of the most influential people in history were encouraged to succeed by some of the most well-known people of our time. To help celebrate MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership’s 25th Anniversary and 25 years of the youth mentoring movement, we have curated a list of 25 of the most meaningful mentoring relationships in history. Is your favorite listed? Tell us or share others using #MENTOR25Years!

1. Best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah Winfrey was mentored by celebrated author and poet, the late Maya Angelou. “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life,” Winfrey said. “Mentors are important and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship,” she added.

2. Former Apple Inc.CEO the late Steve Jobs served as a mentor to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The two developed a relationship in the early days of Facebook and often met to discuss the best business and management practices for the company. When Jobs passed away in the fall of 2011, Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page, “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.” 

3. Former Morehouse College President, Dr. Benjamin Mays was an outspoken critic of segregation before the rise of the modern civil rights movement and a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The two men first met during King’s undergraduate years at Morehouse College, and remained close until King’s death in 1968. Mays’s “emphasis on two ideas in particular—the dignity of all human beings and the incompatibility of American democratic ideals with American social practices—became vital strains in King’s language and in the civil rights movement.”

4. The first woman to co-anchor CBS Evening News, and the second woman to anchor one of America’s major network newscasts, Connie Chung was a mentor to Fox News reporter Kyung B. Yoon. In an interview on the significant role that mentors play in helping people achieve their professional goals, Yoon explained that she did not view television journalism as a practical career option growing up, but was inspired by Chung’s work later in life.

5. Musician Woody Guthrie, whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children’s songs including “This Land is Your Land,” mentored fellow singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.  As a high school student in the 1950’s, Dylan listened to Guthrie’s music, eventually moving to New York City and befriending the musician.  Dylan played and wrote to his idol, which was often met with Guthrie’s approval.  In 1962, Dylan released “Song to Woody,” an ode to Guthrie.

6. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is largely considered one of the most powerful women in business today. Like most other successful figures, she sought the guidance of mentors at various stages of her career. Specifically, Sandberg’s former college professor, Larry Summers played a pivotal role in her career as both mentor and sponsor. Sandberg worked for Summers at the World Bank and the Treasury Department, and has called him her first and certainly “most important” mentor in various interviews.

7. Former Super Bowl champion Darrell Green was mentored by his middle school football coach.  “I had a coach who in a different way encouraged me that I could be a great running athlete… He was always encouraging me to participate, and I did. And so I think he helped me to identify the possibilities, which–I never even thought about,” Green said.

8. Astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn was mentored by his high school civics teacher.  He is an advocate of mentoring and has spoken about the importance of being a mentor. “I think a mentor gets a lot of satisfaction in a couple of ways. They’re doing something constructive, so they feel good about that. And when they see the results of this, with the young people they’re working with, it’s very, very rewarding,” Glenn said.

9. A landscape photographer and environmentalist, Ansel Adams was best known for his black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park.  He was greatly influenced and mentored by his father, Charles Hitchcock Adams, who he credited with “tenderly keeping alive [his] inner spark.”


10. Mother Teresa committed her life to helping others and was recognized as one of the most admirable people of the twentieth century, operating orphanages, AIDS hospices and other charities worldwide.  She led a remarkable and revered life, but may not have achieved all that she did if it weren’t for her mentor, Father Michael van der Peet.  The two met while waiting for a bus in Rome, and quickly developed a close friendship. They spoke regularly and confided in each other over the years.


11. Retired basketball player and MENTOR board member Bill Russell played center for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969.  His mother was his greatest mentor.  “My mother taught me to stand up for myself, to use my brainpower on my behalf,” he said.  Russell’s mother died when he was twelve, but he continued to live through her guidance.  “More strongly than ever, she stayed with me–in my thoughts, my goals, my aspirations….her presence, her teachings, remained with me when she was not around.”


12. Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was influenced by his high school journalism teacher, Fred Birney.  “He taught me so much in those high school [journalism] classes, and by securing me those early jobs, he cemented my desire to be a reporter for the rest of my life. He was my major inspiration. I always credit Fred Birney for my career,” Cronkite said.


13. Fashion designer Christian Dior mentored fellow haute coture designer Yves St. Laurent.  After he moved to Paris, St. Laurent was introduced to Dior by the editor of French Vogue.  “Dior fascinated me. I couldn’t speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years I spent at his side,” St. Laurent said.  At 21, St. Laurent replaced Dior as the designer of the Dior couture house, sparking his career.


14. An American actress, dancer and singer best known for her roles in musical theatre, Chita Rivera is the first Hispanic woman and the first American Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honors award. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and largely credits her former teacher, Doris Jones, for her success. 


15. Former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Army General, Colin Powell considered his father, Luther Powell a powerful mentor. Powell believes that all Americans should make a commitment to mentoring.  “All… of us have the ability to serve as a mentor – to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to be a mentor, because I want this next generation to take America to a higher level, a better place.’”


16. Baseball Hall of Fame legend Cal Ripken, Jr. looked to his father, Cal Ripken, Sr. as a powerful mentor.  “He tried to give us the value of being a good person,” Ripken, Jr. said.  “The value of a mentor…I don’t know what value you can place on it, but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before…can make all the difference in that youth game,” he added.


17. American business magnate Warren Buffett is often considered the most successful investor of the twentieth century.  The Berkshire Hathaway CEO mentored Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.  Gates first met Buffett at a dinner organized by Gates’ mother, where the two spoke about business and philanthropy.  Gates admits that over the years he has turned to Buffett for advice on various subjects, and has often referred to Buffett as “one of a kind.”


18. Musician Ray Charles mentored music industry legend Quincy Jones. In speaking about Jones, Charles said, “He was just an energetic young kid and he really loved music. You could tell that he wanted to learn, he wanted to know. And because I was able to show him some things, that made me happy, that’s what stirred my heart. I could help this kid.” In turn, Jones has mentored numerous young musicians in his time and has been a long-time spokesperson for National Mentoring Month.


19. Physicist and astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983.  Ride’s graduate school professor, Dr. Arthur Walker was her life-long mentor and initially encouraged her to apply to NASA’s astronaut corps. “He instilled confidence, and made me believe that I could accomplish what I set out to accomplish,” Ride said.


20. A major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, Jackson Pollock was well known for his unique style of drip painting.  Pollock’s first mentor was painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton.  In 1930, Pollock left California before finishing high school to study under the famous regionalist painter at the Art Students League in New York.  Benton’s rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence had lasting effects on Pollock’s later works.


21. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi looks for mentors in all aspects of her life: “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m a product of great mentoring, great coaching… Coaches or mentors are very important.”  She credits the mentoring she received from people around her for helping her break glass ceilings in business.


22. Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson has personally benefitted from a mentor-mentee relationship. Branson asked British airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker for guidance during his struggle to get multinational conglomerate Virgin Atlantic off the ground. “It’s always good to have a helping hand at the start. I wouldn’t have got anywhere in the airline industry without the mentorship of Sir Freddie Laker,” Branson has been quoted as saying.


23. Victoria Rowell is an Emmy-nominated actress who spent the first 18 years of her life in foster care. The love, guidance and support of her foster mother Agatha Armstead, instilled in her the confidence and drive to succeed. Armstead encouraged Rowell’s ambitions and was the gateway to what she would later call her “passion,” which was fine arts. “…Without her mentoring, without her guidance, without her courage, I could never have experienced such a rich opportunity,” Rowell said.


24. Actor and director Clint Eastwood was mentored by his grandmother, who encouraged the Dirty Harry star to always work hard and pursue his dreams. “I’ve had many mentors in my life…my grandmother…was always encouraging. She always thought I was going to be something, when nobody else, including myself, thought I was going to amount to anything,” Eastwood said.


25. A leader of the transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson was perhaps best well-known for his essays concerning individualism and self-reliance. He mentored and worked closely with poet and transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau graduated from Harvard University, the young writer was inspired by the older man’s views on the natural world, which would later influence Thoreau’s writings, most famously his master work on living in natural surroundings, Walden.