Synchronicity Brings Two Women Together for Powerful Mentorship

Feb 15, 2021
Image description: white background, two headshots of women in a yellow frame
Vinutha Seethanadi Bojaraja is a recent MBA graduate from McMaster University, DeGroote School of Business and completed an engineering in Biotechnology in India. She quickly moved to the Information Technology Industry to work as a Quality Assurance Analyst for a tech firm in India. During her MBA, Vinutha was the President of DeGroote MBAs for Impact club. The club had the privilege to support Black Lives Matter, Climate Change and Fight against sexual violence initiatives. Vinutha aspires to be in the financial services industry in strategy, project and product management roles. She aspires to support other women of colour in technology and business through mentorship and believes in paying it forward. Vinutha was a participant at AHF’s 2019 Summit.

Angela White is Director, Role Design, Sales Strategy & Execution for RBC Caribbean’s High Net Worth business. In this position, Angela leads a team responsible for the strategic design of all Corporate, Business and Private Banking roles ensuring alignment to the organization’s strategic direction. Prior to this role, Angela had enterprise responsibility within RBC Diversity & Inclusion and in collaboration with key partners (Recruitment, ERGs, business leaders and Diversity Leadership Councils) for programs aimed at accelerating the inclusion of diverse talent. Angela is co-creator and co-lead of Beacon – an Executive sponsored initiative which advocates for Black professionals and youth, founder of her LeanIn to Self-Esteem Circle for young women, an avid mentor formerly with FWE – Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, and to diverse youth, Black, Indigenous and people of colour including AHF’s Summit and Fellowship Program.

Vinutha, tell us about your move to Canada, why you decided to pursue an MBA.

Vinutha recalled her initial move to the USA being overwhelming. She was in an unfamiliar country and feeling stuck without having an opportunity to pursue her career aspirations because of immigration policies. “I eventually decided to pursue my MBA in Canada because of the co-op education option they provided. And so my family and I moved to Canada a few years ago and I embarked on my MBA journey in 2018!” Vinutha wanted to pursue an MBA because she saw herself in managerial positions. Prior to her MBA, Vinutha worked as a Quality Assurance Analyst, where she gained technical skills, but felt a skills gap in how to navigate her career development to take on bigger responsibilities in order to advance in the company. She added that it would have taken years to reach the position she aspired to, which led her to pursue an MBA.

Vintha recently completed her MBA, and reflected on how “the journey wasn’t easy. There were times when I struggled with imposter syndrome thinking I’m not good enough for business school.” Her yoga and dance fitness certification and practice helped her immensely throughout the program. “I completed my MBA with flying colours, with great co-op work term experiences, and the opportunity to serve as President of my MBA programs Impact club!” Vinutha celebrates her courage to pursue an MBA! “I can tell women of colour that if I can do it, you can do anything you set your mind to!”

Angela, tell us about your passion for mentoring, particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized women.

Angela explained that in her early career, she often heard about the infamous ‘glass ceiling’. This concept was truly foreign to her, likely because she was often given opportunity for career growth. Angela recalled, “Then the day came, you know, that day when you start to question why your advancement is slow and far reaching. You have these reflective conversations with yourself. You know the ones. Is it something I did? Said? Did not do? What changed, you wonder? I am an awarded professional with a strong work ethic.  So if my commitment and contributions are evident, could it be that I’m asking myself the wrong questions.”

Angela added that while she dared not let systemic or racial bias become a crutch, the reverse became real, the mirrored reflection as a Black professional versus a professional who happens to be Black. “That was an uncomfortable conversation with myself and while it was self-talk, it is what makes me different, that and my misunderstood ambition.” This was a pivotal moment in Angela’s career. She added that we may not like the answers we get but what’s more important is what we do next, and for her, mentorship was a certain way to help change the career trajectory for young Black, Indigenous and other women of colour experiencing self-doubt. Angela asserted, “I needed them to learn what helped me push forward, that no-one can make them feel inferior without their consent.” 

Mentoring has been a big part of your respective journeys. Tell us what mentorship means to each of you.

Mentorship for Vinutha is having a support system and knowing you are not alone. “I never had a mentor back in India. The concept of mentorship was alien to me. But after moving to Canada and being in an MBA program, I realized what mentorship is and how important it is in whatever career you choose.” Vinutha also realized that a mentee’s responsibility in the relationship is to showcase their skills, interest and dedication to receive meaningful guidance from mentors. “I’ve appreciated having met Angela. Since first meeting each other, our relationship has organically evolved over time. I see her as not just a mentor, but also a leader who is humble, dedicated, authentic, with an amazing work ethic.”

For Angela, mentorship represents the freedom and courage to let go of imposter syndrome once and for all. Angela explained that to live each day with this burden, this impossible weight of doubt – doubting your skills, strengths, even doubting your purpose – can crush one’s self-esteem and confidence. “It’s stifling!” claims Angela. “Through mentorship, we unleash the power of positive thinking and inspire possibility. As a Black female professional, research tells me I’m at the bottom of the pick list and I carry the emotional tax of what that means every day.”

Angela shared that in her experience, decisions can be informed by false perceptions and the stereotype of a Black woman as angry and entitled, compared to more accurate labels like decisive and ambitious. “Mentorship gives me an opportunity to share what an energized and supportive work environment should look, feel and sound like, and to recommend strategies to achieve success wherever you are.”

How did you meet one another?

Vinutha reflected on her first co-op position where she volunteered and attended the company’s Black History Month event in February 2019. It was also around the time she had listened to Michelle Obama’s Becoming audible book. At this event, she was excited to win the opportunity to see Michelle Obama on her Becoming tour. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity!” It was at the Becoming event that she met Angela, who sat next to Vinutha. “I instantly connected with Angela and made sure to connect with her after the event.” It was destiny for Vinutha later that same year when she attended the Accelerate Her Future Summit. “I was so surprised when I saw that Angela was one of the mentors at my table at the summit. Angela’s words of wisdom and commitment to show students like me that we are not alone are something I will never forget.” 

Vinutha returned to the same company for her co-op in 2020 and met with Angela for coffee chats. “I learned so much about her career journey and she was great at connecting me to her network to help advance my career goals. She has been a great support system for me being new to this country. I put in the commitment and effort toward my career development and getting the most out of my co-op opportunities, and she was there to guide me throughout.”

Angela reflects on what a pleasure it has been mentoring Vinutha. She also stressed that for mentoring relationships to work, the responsibility is as much on the mentee as the mentor, and it takes preparation and clarity of intent.  “Vinutha immigrated to Canada to give herself access to education and opportunity,” added Angela. “Having taken a similar path as an immigrant from the Caribbean, I respect her drive and determination to overcome barriers and limitations that do not serve her purpose.”

What impacted you the most in your mentoring relationship?

Vinutha recalled how being a newcomer to North America was tough, especially during her studies. “I felt I had to put in twice the effort to feel as good as others. I felt isolated thinking like this. I have found meetings with Angela and other communities of women have helped me feel more connected.” One of Vinutha’s most memorable learnings from Angela was that sometimes it is the environment you are in that can make you feel insufficient. It is easy for us, especially as women of colour, to blame ourselves. Recognizing these factors is so important, and support from a community matters to share our stories so we can identify strategies to stand against or come out of the adverse environment. Vinutha explained, “The impact was real and I felt like I was no longer having to navigate things on my own. Mentorship matters, because I could see myself in the women I have gotten to know. Seeing them in future roles I aspire to have, makes dreaming bigger more possible.”

According to Angela, “There’s an old saying, ‘you are the victim of your environment’, but there’s a better truth, ‘you can also be the architect of your environment’ and I prefer to be the latter.” She added that this was the essence of her advice to Vinutha, that we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by the opinions of others. “We must stand strong and stay true to who we are and learn how to recognize when our environment drains us instead of energizing us.”

What has been one thing you’ve each learned from your mentoring relationship that you feel should exist in all mentoring relationships?

According to Vinutha several things should exist in all mentoring relationships. First, mentoring relationships should develop organically. “It is important for both parties to be equally invested and interested in the process.” Second, being an active listener who reflects empathy are skills that need to be showcased by both parties to understand different lived experiences. For Vinutha, mentoring relationships are not cookie cutter in scope. Each relationship is unique based on the lived experiences of each individual. Vinutha added, “Leaders who bring vulnerability and an openness to the relationship including challenges and successes, bring confidence to early career women of colour. Knowing we’re not alone helps us tap into our inner confidence to counter imposter syndrome when it rears its head and to lead with personal power.”

Angela added, “Mentors are sometimes described as teachers. The great news is, to teach is to learn twice. My advice to all of us who’ve made the selfless decision to give of our time to teach others is to remember that we do not learn anything while we are talking.” According to Angela, mentors need to come prepared to reciprocate, listen and learn through which they build mutual trust which is imperative to an effective mentoring partnership. “Being vulnerable is also an important ingredient,” explained Angela. “It opens the door to authenticity and creates an environment of comfort and safety, to share real experiences and examples that deepen understanding.”

What is one thing that inspires you about each other?

“I am inspired by Angela’s humbleness and modesty,” exclaimed Vinutha. “The passion she brings to the table to make a difference in others’ lives also stands out.” Vinutha added that being a humble leader makes the relationship accessible and relatable. “Despite a full personal and professional life, Angela’s passion and purpose motivate her to put her time and energy toward making a difference in the community and to work on things that the world needs the most.”

“Vinutha is a true example of courage,” asserted Angela. “To me, she is someone who has admirably decided so early in her career that failure is not an option and rather than wait on opportunity, she creates and confronts it. Why? Because she knows that to move up that list we mentioned earlier toward her career management goal, she will need every advantage and tool in her arsenal to boldly compete.”

Angela reflected that Vinutha’s tenacity was further exemplified by her initiative to host a Black Lives Matter discussion with her DeGroote MBAs for Impact Club, choosing voice over silence. “I’m thankful to Vinutha for entrusting me to speak with her MBA club and for engaging a diverse group of students including allies in the conversation, recognizing the collective responsibility it will take to create a more equitable society and to level the playing field.”

What one suggestion would you offer for early-career women of colour when it comes to navigating their careers?

Vinutha’s suggestion is to not believe the negative self-talk that can sometimes run through our minds. “Pursue what you are passionate about, step out of your comfort zone, even if you feel fear,” Vinutha encouraged. “Don’t seek perfection, instead focus on the learning. The process of aspiring to dream big or pursue your dream job will become more comfortable with this orientation and you’ll look back and feel proud of the steps you took. Trust yourself and try!”

“Oh what I wish I knew earlier in my career,” recalled Angela. Looking back, Angela would have told herself, “You are enough!” That’s exactly the advice she shares today with all women of colour. “Look to the right or left of you for no other reason than to understand your surroundings. Look to the front so you know who and what’s ahead of you. But don’t spend too much time looking behind because it is only those who do nothing who never make mistakes.”