Earlier this week I was honored and humbled to speak and be recognized at STEMconnector’s 100 Women Leaders event in Washington, D.C. To be included among a group of such extraordinary professionals, who just happen to be women, was inspiring. As I glanced around the room at fellow honorees, I saw Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as well as government agency honorees from the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many women from various science-based NGOs and not-for-profits who dedicate their time and passion to make STEM disciplines a career choice for so many.

Rhona Applebaum

As background, STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of women enter these fields. In fact, a mere 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, according to a recent U.S. Commerce Department report. As our country’s security, economy and creativity rely more than ever on a prepared STEM workforce, increasing the pipeline of women STEM career candidates is essential. STEMconnector’s celebratory reception honored women who have not only achieved in their STEM fields but are inspiring and encouraging the next generation of women to join them.

The 100 Women Leaders in STEM are recognized for serving as critical role models and mentors for young women nationwide. To address the gender gap, efforts are focused on encouraging young girls to pursue math and science, knocking down the stereotype that STEM fields are more male-oriented, highlighting and celebrating successful STEM women, and mentoring women as they demonstrate capabilities and passion for STEM work.

Senator Gillibrand said, “We need you and we need this generation of women to stand up and serve as role models to encourage young women to develop the critical skills needed for the competitive workforce of tomorrow.”

I couldn’t agree more. However, it’s not just making sure we have more women taking up STEM careers—it’s also vital we make sure future generations of both women AND MEN see STEM careers as a viable, rewarding, fulfilling and yes, lucrative, choice.

STEMConnector

STEMConnector - 100 Women Leaders

While I did not have a female mentor in my career, I was fortunate to have male mentors who were ‘gender neutral’ and assessed people based on their skills, determination and content of character. At this stage in my career, I am building on that mentorship gift, and make mentoring a priority. And yes, I may even be a bit guilty of doing more than my fair share of gently nudging to ensure these ‘young’uns’ seriously consider STEM as a base for their educational and career pursuits to attain future aspirations for management and senior leadership roles.

In speaking with the many fellow honorees, I realized as with many other activities, there’s no proven formula on how best to mentor. Everyone seems to have a certain style. When asked to share my successful mentoring skills, at the top of my list was being an active listener, serving as a solid ‘sounding board’ so mentees can determine what their passions are without too much influence or bias from me. Once mentees visualize their path, then I can help guide them toward success. With a strong STEM base of knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking, I truly believe dedicated candidates can go anywhere—in any sector of society and make a positive difference in whatever career path they choose.

At The Coca-Cola Company, I am far from alone in that belief. Recently, an impressive colleague, Rafael San Miguel, a senior flavor chemist and sweetener scientist, was honored by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for providing education and employment opportunities in STEM disciplines for people with disabilities. Rafael, who has been deaf since infancy, has dedicated much of his life to inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and math – and creating awareness about disability by focusing on ability. The STEM field is fortunate to have Rafael in its corner.

STEMConnector 100 Women Leaders

STEMConnector-100 Women Leaders

Of course, mentorship is important in fields other than STEM—and it can be embraced at diverse levels, not only the senior leader level. Everyone starting a career in any field or at a new company can benefit from a mentor. Mentors can help mentees set and achieve career goals, overcome workplace challenges, offer experienced advice and make introductions to key relationships. But it’s not a one-way street.

As mentors, we also can benefit from these relationships, gaining new insights, new skills (look at me—I now tweet regularly!), discovering new innovations and passing on years of experiences and ‘life lessons’ to ensure what we’ve learned and earned isn’t lost.

Being honored at STEMconnector’s event was about much more than recognition…it was a reminder of the importance of mentorship. Regardless of whether we call it ‘paying back’ or ‘paying forward,’ mentoring needs to be a priority—for all of us.

Rhona Applebaum is Chief Scientific & Regulatory Officer at The Coca-Cola Company.