A little over a month ago, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. As one friend put it, “Lillie, you may have girlbossed a bit too close to the sun.”
The full story is a bit of a saga, but suffice it to say I accidentally got poached from my engineering team to be the Subject Matter Expert on an internal ten-person team developing new technologies and business models, two steps down from the CEO of our 7,000-person company.
It was a tough choice—I loved my previous team, the work was interesting and I loved the people, but this new group was “such a cool opportunity” and a “once-in-a-career experience.”
In true Panicked Lillie fashion, as soon as I got off of what I now think of as “The Poaching Call,” I frantically sent notes and scheduled meetings with my most valued mentors, both inside and outside of my company.
If you know me, you know that I have long been a manic advocate for mentorship. I’m a firm believer that I, despite my best efforts, don’t know everything and really benefit from the input of folks who know more than me and also know me well. I work hard to cultivate and maintain those relationships, and I have often sought guidance from what is sometimes called a “Personal Board of Directors”: people I have tasked with supporting me when I need it, calling me out on my bullshit, and ultimately having my well-being as their primary goal.
In college, two of the most significant mentors in my life were white men named Matt, and while I love them both dearly, their perspective was limited. They continue to listen to me and care for me well, and in fact I called both of the Matts when I was making my big decision last month.
But as I sent very calm emails that belied my wild-eyed terror, I noticed something different: most of my notes were sent to women. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the support of many female mentors in my life, but this was the first time women were in the majority. More diverse perspectives continue to be a goal of mine, and I was delighted to notice that these one-off relationships have started to form a web of support.
In a lot of ways, that surprised me: doing technical work as an engineer does not often lend itself to many female voices. In fact, while having the support of mentors and community like you is one of the surest indications of success in engineering, it is often rather difficult to find.
Admittedly, not all of these women are technical experts: they range in experience from HR to economics to program development with some technical engineering experience decades ago. But these are all women who, in barely a year of knowing them (in many instances just a few virtual conversations over the course of a few months), have stepped up and said, “Lillie, what do you need?”
With different ethnic, educational, and engineering experiences, these ladies all took the time to respond to my notes, accept my meeting invites, and listen patiently while I explained the situation. They gave genuine, thoughtful advice that helped me weigh pros and cons, all while holding space for me to be afraid and excited and uncertain.
It was the support of one of these women (volunteering me for an opportunity that gave me face time with my new boss) that got me poached in the first place, and I knew that whatever happened I would have the fierce advocacy of these women to fall back on. So I accepted the new position.
In the month since I’ve started my new role, I’ve been incredibly overwhelmed by it all, but I’ve continued to reflect on the role of mentors in my life. Especially these women who uniquely understand my imposter syndrome and know how to sanity-check my experience.
It’s thanks to one of these women that I found the courage to advocate for myself and ask for the support I need (and deserve).
Another reached out to just see how I’m doing and to ask if she needs to communicate anything to my boss that I don’t feel equipped to.
Yet another sent me a note to see what it would take to build a better mentor program for my team.
Last week, a woman I haven’t talked to for over a year contacted me on LinkedIn to encourage me to apply for a program I thought I was too underqualified for.
If you read my essay Imposter, you know that I can never unsee the challenges, barriers, and microaggressions that come with the territory. But lately, I’m also seeing more and more the opportunities to build other people up, to construct a network of wise, kind, funny, powerful women who find ways to advocate for each other.
It makes me excited to be part of communities like this, and it invites me to model that same intention and care that I experience from each of my (wo)mentors.
Consider this your invitation to do the same.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY, where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.