Shine Strength drivers (from left) Hannah Coltart, Julie Peterson and Catherine Robinson

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the word mentor has a Latin masculine origin, but the story is better than that. 

During the 10-year Trojan war, Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, left his family to lead the army. To protect and guide his son and heir, Telemachus, he brought in a guardian called Mentor. While Odysseus was away, many noblemen tried to woo his wife to take the throne for themselves. It became apparent that Mentor wasn’t doing a very good job, when Telemachus became too weak and insecure to defend himself. 

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who was watching from above, decided to intervene and shapeshifted into a wiser version of Mentor. With Athena’s guidance, Telemachus killed all the noblemen, proving himself worthy of his claim to the throne. 

Fortunately, this is not the role of a mentor today, but I do want to point out that the real mentor in this story was a wise observant woman, who felt the need to intervene at the most pivotal point of a young person’s life. Hold that thought. 

In modern history, mentoring is seen as ‘one on one guidance’ from a trusted advisor, which often follows the “I know everything, so, you can learn from me” pattern. But life is not linear, and guidance can’t be found in one place or from one person. We learn from many people, and it’s not always structured. How many people have you heard say “wow, that person really mentored me”? 

In indigenous cultures, the young learn from a group of elders, and they learn through narrative. The stories of people who have experienced life before them. Unfortunately, this is something that is getting lost in modern western society, while communities in their traditional sense are becoming fewer and farther between, and the world is getting even more uncertain. Now, we’re more heavily reliant on our teachers than we ever have been before to provide that guidance, and to be all things to all people. 

Historically, mentorship has favoured the male population. While men naturally seek out prodigies; by way of the feminine spirit, women naturally create networks. Hold this thought too. 

Let’s talk about the history of female mentorship. The Women’s Institute (WI) was started in Canada in 1886, as a grassroots domestic education programme. While that might scream sexism, it was a way for women to come together and feel more empowered to contribute. The programme landed in Britain in 1915, focusing on women upskilling each other in response to the First World War. 

Bessie Spencer, former principal of Napier Girls’ High School, traveled to London for voluntary war service, and returned inspired to establish the WI in New Zealand. Spencer, and her friend Amy Hutchinson (touted as the spiritual founder of the WI) held the first meeting of the WI in Rissington, in 1921. Spencer hoped that the WI would increase opportunities for women and train them to take their place in all aspects of New Zealand life. 

While the WI has laid the foundation for many female-led organisations that have followed, be it community or industry, all have placed importance on creating opportunities for women and growing strength in ability. The Agri-Women’s Development Trust and Women in Wine are both industry-based programmes that aim to strengthen the female presence within a growing male-led industry. 

Our very own Kate Radburnd, who was recognized as Industry Leader of the Year for 2021 at the Hawke’s Bay Primary Sector Awards, was one of the founding mentors behind the Women in Wine Mentoring Programme. Her driving passion was to help encourage women in the industry to take up roles of leadership and governance. At the time Kate started in the industry, she was the only female in her graduating year. Despite that, she has never shied away from any leadership opportunity. She is now the chair of Women in Wine who set out to help the women of the wine industry connect and grow. 

The Agri-Women’s Development Trust (AWDT) is set to launch their mentoring programme early in the new year, and yet another Hawke’s Bay woman is at the front of the queue. Hastings District Councillor, Eileen Lawson, who went through the AWDT Escalator Impact Leadership Accelerator, is going to be one of the first mentors in the new programme. 

As a director of a farming business, run by three women, Eileen felt that she’d learnt so much from her experience that she wanted to help other women in the industry find their confidence and voice earlier than she did. Clearly pre-disposed to community service, Eileen was also the chair of the Heretaunga Women’s Centre, from 2016-2018. Through the SuperGrans community, the centre established their own female mentoring programme in March this year, focusing on how they can support wāhine to develop life skills. 

Supergrans mentor Susie Gunn (left) and Julia Crasborn

Julia Crasborn, the service development lead for SuperGrans Heretaunga, wants to see a safe space for women to access support in an environment that is free from judgement. Women often feel intimidated when taking their car in for maintenance, so recently, SuperGrans Heretaunga provided a car maintenance workshop for five women, delivered by female mechanics. The programme extends across all skills, from cooking affordable healthy meals, gardening, and sewing, to writing CVs, budgeting, and applying for jobs, and beyond.

The idea is to empower women to gain knowledge and skills to improve daily living for them and their whānau. More than that, the SuperGrans want to walk alongside every woman and enable them to enhance their own lives. Since March, the programme has seen 8 mentors work with 25 wāhine; ranging from young women looking to grow their own food or start a home business, through to women facing retirement and how to budget for it. 

Female mentorship is a connection between womankind. It’s not a power play. We want to pass on the wisdom we’ve gained from others, or from just muddling along and working it out. We’ve taken big leaps, and we mentor so the big leap becomes a small step for someone else. Eventually we all find our way, but what if we can help others get there earlier? We should be asking ourselves, what do I have and what can I share? What can we grow together? What women are doing when they mentor is informal (or at least it should be) then, what we have is a network. We have emotional support. 

This is what Jessica Knapp was looking for when she started Bay Hive in 2018. Jessica moved back to Hawke’s Bay after being overseas for eight years, and as she’d never lived here as a professional, she didn’t have a network of people to call on for support. Instead of waiting for someone else to draw her in, Jessica built the community that she needed. 

Jessica Knapp

What started as a Facebook group to connect with women in business, is now a network of nearly 400 women, who confidently share their work and support each other. It turns out it’s a community that other people needed just as much. Whether it’s Zoom catch ups during Covid, a safe place to ask for recommendations, or sharing business ideas, Bay Hive has become a platform for women in business to gain confidence and grow as a collective.

To Jessica, an open and honest forum to share struggles and wins is the best way for anyone to learn and connect. Now the CEO of the Hello Cup, life has kept Jessica busy, but Bay Hive has still buzzed away, with something new popping up every week. The platform is now a real community of women in business, offering advice and opportunities, and extending a hand where it’s needed. Jessica wants to see Bay Hive become a springboard for new enterprise in Hawke’s Bay. She could see that whether it was here or overseas, women felt like imposters in the business world. We’re all capable of the same thing, but if we don’t see enough examples of women ‘making it’, we’re never going to think that we can too. 

This is exactly what Julie Peterson, principal of Woodford House, felt was missing in the modern education of young women. As the career advisor at Southland Girls’ High School in the early 1990s, she interviewed over 100 girls, asking what they were planning to do with their lives. It was apparent that there was limited concept of what was truly possible. 

Julie could see there was a whole world out there, yet every girl aimed for one of three degrees, and it all involved a short drive up to Otago University. Even bringing in successful guest speakers to school was just a drop in the bucket. The messaging was not systematic, not consistent, and not embedded. Julie could see there was an incredible need for a much brighter horizon in the mindset of these young women.

It was Julie’s time at Christ’s College that helped her notice the difference between young men and young women. While the young women she taught felt inadequate, lacked confidence, and sought safe success; the young men at Christ’s College were comparatively open, full of confidence, and aimed for scholarships at Yale, or Oxford. While the boys saw no limit to what they could do, fear was driving girls to do less (the wrong kind of do less). Women have been against the tide for centuries, with none of the power or authority. But women are resilient, and our DNA should prepare us for that winding road that we inevitably face, if only we could tap into it sooner. 

When Julie became principal at Woodford House, she wanted all young girls to see that the world was theirs, and they weren’t confined to just the limited horizon that they could see in front of them. The poetic way of putting it is “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. After an inspiring trip to see an international university, Julie felt Woodford House needed a physical space for the girls to grow their horizons, a space with resources to show them what was possible and understand that the strengths they needed were already inside them. 

Motivated to make it happen, Julie found the space, and set out to get the right people on board. Julie met Judy MacDonald Johnston, a technology and education entrepreneur, at a Woodford House fundraising event. 

She was immediately on board with the idea, and in early 2019 Judy got a group of women around author Catherine Robertson’s dining room table to make it happen. Ana Ward, Vicki Lawson, Ali Andrews, Judy, Catherine and Julie all knew they were onto something. If you ask five smart women if they like an idea, and they all want in, then you know you’ve got a good thing. This is where the Shine Strengths Programme was born.

As with every other female mentoring programme, it’s about giving and not expecting anything in return. The process of developing Shine was iterative and organic, and it’s still evolving. Shaping the programme was easy with Julie’s decades of experience in education and Judy’s entrepreneurial background. Everyone understood the assignment, and the momentum was never lost, even though it took a year before the first workshop launched. 

As it turned out, it was never about the physical space. All that was needed was a network of women with different experiences and stories to tell, balanced on a framework of key strengths, and a platform to communicate it all. While Woodford House has been the pilot, the idea is ready to take flight. Nearly three years later, without even trying, there are over 200 women on the mentor list, with Slate, the purposefully rebranded Strengths Programme, rolling out to the community in the New Year. 

The programme is a model that can move and translate into any school or community. Whether it’s Shine or Slate, it’s about finding young people in a place where they’re making decisions about their lives and bringing a network of stories to share with them, so they can see that life is not linear. The mentors are open and honest about their journey. Sharing the ups and the downs. Letting them know that it’s ok to access your feelings, and it’s ok to fail. Things sometimes work out well unexpectedly, just as sometimes they don’t. And that’s ok. 

The most important thing I’ve ever heard is that women can do anything, but they can’t do everything. I’ve grown up in a generation where we are expected to do so much. Marry well, be a super-mum, have a successful career, stay fit, and keep house plants alive. Somewhere in the Girl Boss era, we’ve told every little girl that they can rule the world and something’s gone wrong. All these little girls are now women, and they think that if they’re not ruling the world they’ve failed. What I’ve learnt – that I share with anyone that will listen – is that nothing is permanent. Try ruling the world if you want to. If you don’t like it, stop. Do something else. 

With great power comes great responsibility, and this feels like the reason for women mentoring women. We have realized how much power we have, but who will help us harness it? Who will show us how far we can go if we want to? The women that mentor, get as much out of it as those being guided by them. It’s a privilege and a pleasure, and we do it to strengthen and grow womankind. 

The rising tide lifts all boats. 

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