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Mentoring program has rewards for students and executives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2010 - For most new college graduates, a typical lament is that you can't get a job without experience and you can't get experience without a job.

Thanks to the mentoring program sponsored by the Regional Business Council, student Sarah Shehata got both.

The program pairs local business executives with college students whose interests mesh. The goal: to give the students a taste of what the real world of business is like and to provide the executives a glimpse into how their next generation of employees thinks.

This past year's program began in a business climate hardly encouraging to the students who were starting to look to the point where they would be out on their own. The dim outlook made them all the more determined to make everything they could out of their mentoring relationship. 

For Shehata -- a student at Fontbonne University who was paired with Virginia McDowell, president and chief operating officer at Isle of Capri Casinos -- the experience was particularly rewarding. She wound up with a part-time job -- at the Regional Business Council itself.

Shehata says she was so inspired by a visit to one of the Isle of Capri casinos that she wrote a review for her campus adviser, for McDowell and for others she considers part of her "mentoring team." To her surprise, they sent the review on to Kathy Osborn, the council's executive director. When the council suddenly needed a new staff member, Osborn turned to Shehata to fill the vacancy.

"Ecstatic, I jumped at the position, having always wanted to work in a philanthropic venture," Shehata wrote in an e-mail. "I did not expect that the RBC would provide me with new skills, insights, experience and a job!"

The entire mentoring experience was a true revelation, she said.

"I was surprised at the expanse, reach and connectedness of the business world," Shehata wrote. "As a student in college, I spend most of my time reading about the dos and don'ts of the business world. Although I find the topics, case studies and scenarios interesting and intriguing, they are not actual experience.

"In being a part of the Regional Business Council, I was able to gain priceless, corporate-level experience and insight that I may have gone my whole life without knowing. Furthermore, I have truly expanded my portfolio. Not only do I have a wealth of priceless knowledge and insight gained from a collection of St. Louis' most influential and successful business men and women, but now I have the confidence and networking know-how to tackle the world upon graduation, and embrace my future career with newfound enthusiasm and understanding."

McDowell said Shehata's obvious zest for her career experience helped make the mentoring experience worthwhile.

"The advice I would give is that future students learn from Sarah's focused approach," McDowell wrote. "She made it very clear that she wanted to maximize any opportunities presented by the program and would make herself available as need be to take advantage of any experiences to learn.

"After Sarah visited our casino in Boonville, (I found it) very valuable to have the opportunity to see the property through her eyes, and to get her impressions of our management team and how they conduct business. I doubt that Sarah envisioned this outcome (her hiring) when she started the program, but she was certainly rewarded for her dedication and effort."

Osborn, the executive director of the business council, said both sides of the equation, students and mentors, have been putting in extra hours this year to make the program work as well as it can.

"I was impressed," she said, "because the number of times the mentors are meeting with their students is more than we actually require. Also, it's really just a one-year commitment, but it doesn't necessarily end at the end of the year. The student who had graduated may come back to reconnect with the mentor."

Next year, Osborn said, she plans to work more with the council's young professionals group, made up of people who have entered the workforce. She also plans to cast a wider net for the students for the mentoring program.

She said the feedback from students has been great, but she also values the comments that the executives have.

"This is not kind of thing they typically do in their positions," Osborn said, "so it gives them an opportunity to do something different and see what the new young workforce looks like."

For one member of that up-and-coming workforce, Patrice Johnson, an accounting student at Harris-Stowe State University, the program was a lesson in networking. Meeting with her mentor, Rodney Kinzinger, managing partner for the St. Louis office of Deloitte, she was surprised and pleased by "the genuine interest shown by the mentors and professionals that participated this year. They were all so willing to share their experience and give advice."

Spending a day at Deloitte was a real-world way of focusing her career ambitions, she said.

"Prior to RBC," Johnson wrote in an e-mail, "I knew I wanted to work in accounting, but I wasn't sure of the specific area. During my visit to the office, I shadowed young professionals and was able to determine which areas were definitely NOT for me. Sometimes finding out what you don't want to do is the key in determining what you DO want to do."

Kinzinger found the experience an eye-opener as well.

"I believe I came from humble beginnings and had many obstacles to overcome to be successful," he said. "However, these students from Harris-Stowe make my journey look like a walk in the park."

He was surprised by the range of what he called "business savvy" in the group, and he said mentors need to make a special effort to match students with the executives who can help them the most.

"Some of the students have a skill to know what to do to gain maximum value from the program," Kinzinger wrote, "whereas many other struggle mightily.

"Try to connect with your student. If your business is in real estate and your student is in accounting, introduce your student to your CFO so that they have a resources in the discipline which they are seeking."

And for students who are looking for mentoring relationships in the future, Shehata has this advice:

"Take every opportunity that presents itself, no matter how small or pointless it may seem. Saying 'Yes, I'd love to' can truly make or break your future. And the worst part is, you will never know which until you try.

"Be open and willing to genuinely and passionately pursue your time in the RBC, to never let a conversation go unspoken, to be the first to ask a mentor a question, to be the first one there and the last one gone. If you follow this advice, you are guaranteed to experience some kind of success. The program is designed to facilitate and promote your success. You need only to use it to its full advantage."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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