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From Mentors to Business Partners: The Origins of A Leader Like Me

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Credit: istockphoto.com/SDIProductions

When IABC members join forces, great things can happen — and the story of Priya Bates and Advita Patel, co-founders of A Leader Like Me, takes that to a whole new level. Here, Bates recounts how her connection with Patel went from an informal mentorship to a fully-formed business that fosters a dynamic, dedicated support network for women of color.   

Advita Patel and I started following each other online in 2019, having found one another though similar communication circles, and eventually meeting in person at the IABC World Conference in Vancouver. We remained in touch and, toward the end of that year, Advita asked if I would be her mentor. I agreed to have a conversation with her, and she explained that one of the biggest things she was looking for was someone who could relate to her in a different way — beyond the professional realm.

As she shared her experience growing up as an Indian woman in the UK, it was amazing to me that, even though we are from two different countries — I was born in India and immigrated to Canada — and two different generations, we had very similar stories when it came to working our way up in our careers. On the outside, people see us as very successful — and even though we have these high-achieving personalities, we do feel very much alone. The truth is, even as a consultant and IABC Fellow that has earned my stripes in a lot of different ways, I still walk into a room, be it in my job or volunteer position, and I’m the only person of color at the table.

Through this conversation with Advita, I realized this was not a mentorship relationship — although I was glad to informally mentor her — this was an idea. We identified that there was something missing, that we couldn’t see leaders like us, and it hindered our success.

Priya Bates and Advita Patel

I’ve worked with a lot of corporations that have led diversity initiatives, so we know diverse hires are happening at the bottom, but we haven’t seen it hit the top as much as we should. When you look at PR agencies and communication teams in general, we’re tracking behind. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK did a study that tracked diversity over time — gender, race, sexual preference and more — and in 2018, it was found that although 65% of PR professionals believed campaigns were more effective when practiced by ethnically diverse teams, the industry had remained more than 91% white since 2013. Then, the study last year showed that those identifying as white within the profession had increased to 92%. So as much as these companies have talked about hiring and recruitment practices, they’ve demonstrated the opposite. From a larger perspective, these are the people who are now advising companies on diversity, inclusion and belonging, and it’s no wonder we haven’t seen significant change. I imagine the results are very similar in other countries, like Canada, the U.S., Australia and others. So beyond my and Advita’s personal experiences, the research shows we have a long way to go.

With that in mind, Advita and I set out to create a mentoring program for women of color. A Leader Like Me launched its first cohort in July 2020. We treated it as a pilot test, inviting in 30 women from six countries, none of whom we knew personally. The only marketing we did was through LinkedIn and Twitter, and along the way we gained interest from women who followed us in communications circles and a few who followed us elsewhere.

The cohort focuses on skills development, from planning and defining purpose, to how to bring differences to the table instead of hide them. We also provide a safe space for these women to share their experiences. As they’re facing issues at work, they can come back to the group and get advice from a trusted circle of peers. What we’re really trying to teach them is how to build courage and confidence, manage difficult conversations, and think strategically about their purpose and personal brand.

In the first seven weeks of the new program, about 30% have been featured on industry blogs and podcasts, and they are accepting conference speaking opportunities. Some have had challenges in their jobs, but through working with the group, they have been able to resolve issues, negotiate effectively and move forward by having honest conversations with their leaders. All of a sudden, these women are stepping up, stepping out and being visible in a way they have never done before.

With many companies waking up to the need for greater diversity, driven in part out of concern for brand and reputation, we’re seeing Black and Brown people, along with other diverse individuals, being quickly added to positions and leadership teams — but can they truly be set up for success when they don’t see other people like them in the room? We want A Leader Like Me to create the confidence needed to be successful and help under-represented individuals feel supported even when they feel alone in their workplaces. The truth is that you can’t spend decades being shown that leaders like you don’t get ahead and then expect your confidence to suddenly change because opportunities have now become available. Many feel a sense of imposter syndrome and wonder if they should simply associate their success with affirmative action.

Today, A Leader Like Me is focused on people of color who identify as women. In the future, we hope to add more diverse communities to the mix. The opportunity to drive real change in diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging has never been stronger. We want to create the support network for others that Advita and I relied on to drive our own success.

—As told to Kristin Frankiewicz

To learn more about A Leader Like Me, The Flight 12-week program and The Nest subscription services, visit aleaderlikeme.com. A Leader Like Me will also host its inaugural Diversity in PR conference, that sheds a light on a wider range of misrepresented communities, on 20 October 2020.

Interested to learn more from Priya Bates? Stay tuned to the IABC webinars page for an update on her webinar, hosted this December. 

Kristin Frankiewicz

Kristin Frankiewicz is the senior content coordinator for IABC.

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