On Saturday, May 30th, Toklas Society launched its first class of the Mentorship Program. Little Owl hosted a group of inspiring mentors and motivated mentees and treated them to a delicious brunch. To top off an inspiring day, Charlotte Druckman delivered an unforgettable speech about the importance of mentorship. Find her speech in its entirety below.
“It’s so totally awesome to be here today, talking to all of you, especially because I have a mega fear of public speaking and, possibly more important to note, because I’ve never had a legit mentor.
Yup. I’m here to give the keynote on mentorship and no mentor.
But it’s because of this that I’ve made a conscientious effort to compensate—to attempt to right the karma chain. I’ve quietly been observing how mentorship works, or, more often than not, doesn’t, particularly where women are concerned. I’ve tried to learn, from negative experience and example, how to build and, if possible, behave like a better mentor than I had.
Mentors, to some extent, need to remain objective. They should not be projecting their own hopes and dreams onto their mentees. If you always wanted to open your own restaurant but never quite managed and are now a successful literary agent, you should not see a mentee as a way to, vicariously, live that abandoned fantasy out. Or, to make it simpler, mentees are not mini-me’s waiting to be born. Sure, you may see aspects of yourself in a mentee, but what you should be looking for is the talent—and then, too, the ambition, the curiosity, the eagerness to learn, and, always, the willingness to do the work.
Similarly, mentees, there’s often something to be said for admiring someone from afar. Just because someone is excellent at her job or positioned as an industry leader doesn’t mean she’ll make a good mentor, in general, or, more specifically, for you.
I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe the mentor/mentee relationship and I think it’s something like a professional siblinghood: Professional as opposed to personal, and sibling in that Big/Little Sister way. You are both and equally responsible for the relationship, and for each other, within that specific context.
You’re all going to have unique ways of navigating and forging that relationship, but a few things are non-negotiable. First, the obvious, we’re dealing with the food industry. Within that space, there’s a lot of opportunity and cross-pollination; people can be or do more than one thing, and so can businesses. Flexibility is more important now than ever, so it’s not necessary for you to have a mentor or mentee who does exactly the same thing you do. In fact, it might be more beneficial for both of you if you do very different things, or work in different capacities. If anything, although one of you might have more experience, than the other, you can and should BOTH learn from each other. Having complementary skills and points of view can prove an advantage.
It’s also, and this may not be obvious to everyone, better, most of the time, to have a mentor or mentee whom you don’t work with. As someone’s boss, It’s difficult to maintain the necessary objectivity to steer her; because sometimes, the best advice you can give is at odds with what you need, short-term, to get a certain job done. And, mentees, you can’t always be candid with your boss in the way you should be able to with a mentor. What if you need advice about taking another job? Or what if you’re not sure how to handle a prickly co-worker? Generally, you don’t want office politics to get in the way of this relationship.
Let me tell you what else has no business being part of this business sisterhood: your personal baggage. The same way it’s never Bring Your Problems to Work Day, you shouldn’t be using your mentor time catching up on gossip or unloading your break-up angst. Boundaries, people. No one’s saying there isn’t room here for a friendship. But, again, remember, this is a “professional” situation.
Here’s what also needs to be tabled: networking. Mentorship is not a networking opportunity. If you’re seeking a job or angling to climb the industry ladder—meeting your heroes, breaking into parties, getting special treatment—you’re not looking for a mentor. You’re looking for a connector—a headhunter or an agent. No one’s saying your mentor wouldn’t think to recommend you for a job. But it’s not something you’re entitled to simply because she’s your mentor. And, again, ideally, what a mentor really provides you with is a relatively objective, but invested, ear and perspective.
The flip side of this, future mentors, is that it’s not really yours to tell your mentee what to do or to assume she’ll do things the way you have. It’s more a question of showing her how you did it, and trying to help her figure out what her “how” will be.
When Sue mentioned this program to me, she hit a nerve; I want to ensure that all of you, the women in this room and those who will come after us, have the mentors I didn’t. And it’s not because I’m a Pollyanna; it’s because I’m so sick of hearing people throw the term “girl power” around as some kind of hipster catchphrase without backing it up. What we need is not a cute movement with fun, ironic Sassy-magazine inspired jargon. We need actual empowerment; we need to tap into it for ourselves and pass it along to other women—confidence, skills, and, most of all, money. We have to invest in each other. I’m not telling you to pat your mentees on the heads and write them a check. But you should be willing to answer and encourage questions and conversations about where the money is, how to spend it, how to get it, and, related, how to ask for it. This needs to stop being perceived as a taboo subject among women. Fuck ladylike. No one cares. The days of ladies are over.
There are other valid and necessary kinds of investment. I see women in my and other industries publicly praising and/or sucking up to their female elders, paying their respects to those have come before them sometimes out of legitimate hero worship, sometimes out of self-interest. What I don’t see are those women endorsing the talents and potential of their successors.
This goes back to the idea of a professional siblinghood. One of the many offensive things about that now infamous TIME magazine issue with the BRO chef trio on the cover was that double-page family-tree spread. There wasn’t a single woman on it; not a progenitor, or a protégée. One reason, of course, is just that no one bothered to look for any or picked up on the oversight. The other reason, though, is that we just don’t have as many generations of women in top kitchens to draw from. Male chefs maybe haven’t done the best job of championing female talent either. But, and this is what concerns me now, we haven’t done the best job of paying whatever success we have forward.
I get it, sort of. Before, there weren’t enough of us in high-powered jobs to move the needle. And, because those opportunities were so few and the respective industries and work environments were so male-dominated there was a lot of insecurity if you were the only woman at the table. There was that fear that there was really only room for one of us, so we saw each other as potential threats. And there was also that craziness where women felt the only way to advance was to act like guys—to compensate, somehow, for being female. This isn’t true anymore. If it was ever an excuse, it doesn’t hold up now. Women are breaking into formerly male-dominated industries, including food, in major ways, and we have to assume legions will follow.
We have a responsibility, as far as I see it, if we care at all, not just about each other, but about our professions, to build those legions and make sure they’re solid. We are only as good as our lamest listicle, our greasiest ramen burger, our worst front of house service, our sloppiest pour, our most recent salmonella outbreak and resulting product recall. Having ethics or high standards shouldn’t be an outlier thing or categorized as an “old school” rubric. This stuff has to carry from one generation to the next. The real trick is figuring out how to apply those values and best practices to new media and business concepts.
And this is where this sibling relationship really does go both ways. Anyone who thinks she’s doing the world a favor by being a mentor, that it’s some big sacrifice with all give and no get, is obviously operating under the false assumption that she is indispensable. For you to think you know everything, or enough or to presume that you are not replaceable is not just obnoxious; it’s dangerous. These younger, scrappier, quicker, hungrier whippersnappers may not have your years in the trenches, but they speak the language of now; they are products of their newer time. They are video come to kill the radio star. If you’re a radio star who wants to survive, you’d be wise to pay attention to what they’re doing and what they’re excited about. You’re never too old or established to say “no” to mentoring.
You’re also never too old or established to need a mentor. Not until you retire. A few months ago, after I wrote a profile of Mimi Sheraton for Cherry Bombe, she asked me to lunch. And of course I said “yes.” (I mean, COME ON.) I was nervous going in; Mimi’s not known for her warm-n-fuzzy ways. But you’d be surprised. Lunch was lovely. On Mimi’s recommendation, we had some outstanding shakshuka at a place in the neighborhood I’d never heard of or noticed before. And we chatted about life and food and New York and publishing. At one point she looked at me and asked, fully attentive, “So what do you want to do?” It was a deer in headlights moment for me, for more reasons than one. Most important was that, I realized, in those few seconds I had to reply, I did not, in fact, know. The other reason Mimi’s question caught me off guard wasn’t as instantly recognizable. It was as I was walking home from that lunch that it came to me. No one, in any kind of advisory capacity, with so much experience and professional gravitas, had ever asked me that question in a way that was somehow, simultaneously, objective and sincere. It wasn’t like when you and your close friends chat about this stuff, or how you might discuss it with your collegial peers. It was someone I admire but don’t work with. I teared up there, on Charles Street, because it occurred to me that this is what a mentor would do, and that I really want and need to know how to answer that question. Helping others answer that question has always come easily. But when was the last time I stopped to ask it of myself? I still don’t have the answer. I wonder, though, if I’d had better mentors, I would. Or, at least, I know I’d have people to go to figure it out. Which brings us back to this brunch and the Toklas Society. Just by virtue of being here today, we’re making a pact to have each other’s backs and to guarantee that women in the food industry will have mentors, great ones.”
The Toklas Society Mentorship Program seeks to empower women to forge their own path in the food and hospitality industries. The six month-long program hopes to give women the courage, resources, and experience to make a career change, start their own business, or get a promotion. By pairing each mentee with an esteemed mentor who has established herself in the industry, mentees will receive one-on-one attention and guidance to help them achieve their goals.