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Answering the Call: A LinkedIn Employee Leverages His Resources for Good

Jennifer Friedlin

As Coronavirus sent New York City into quarantine and the scourge of racial injustice became increasingly evident, a wave emerged of individuals seeking to respond to the crises with action. One of them was Kapil Dattani, an account executive at LinkedIn, who decided to harness his desire to do good by creating a mentoring program for New York City teens. Dattani’s colleagues immediately jumped on board, while his colleagues, two of ExpandED’s board members, made the connection to the Youth Employment Summer/Summer Bridge, a 5-week work-based learning program for New York City youth that ExpandED helped to design and facilitate.

LinkedIn was paired with United Activities Unlimited, a community-based organization in Staten Island. UAU delivered the teens, and LinkedIn brought the mentors. What came next was a great learning experience for young New Yorkers as well as the realization that corporations have much to gain by forging ties with a broad range of communities.

What made you think about starting a mentoring program?

This year was certainly a wake-up call for everyone to ask themselves what they should be doing to continuously foster an inclusive society. When I self-reflected around what I could be doing better, I realized I had access to so much that I could share, including meaningful relationships with a network of people who want to give and an employer that helps professionals grow in their own capacity. In return, I wanted to learn on a consistent basis about the needs of young people. I took this concept and approached my manager (Rachel Steinberg) and colleague (Michael Levine) - both ExpandED board members, and we brainstormed about a way to bring everything to life. We decided to build a program that centered young people’s needs, set a measurable end goal and offered a consistent schedule to give relationships the chance to develop.

How did your colleagues respond to the opportunity to mentor young people?

We had an over-subscribed list of sign-ups within a matter of hours. Everyone was looking for a way to give more, and they responded to this project with much excitement. Even before we had our kick-off session, people starting sharing ideas of how we could build this program based on our expressed goals.

How did you make the connections between the mentors and the students?

We worked very closely with the UAU and ExpandED, our guiding lights throughout the entire process. They helped us understand what mattered most to the students and the challenges they face, such as an uncertainty of their value for the workplace or the new challenge of how to adapt to virtual education. This enabled us to write a never-been-done curriculum that bridged what we already knew about our mentors with what we learned about our mentees.

What specifically did the mentors set out to do with the teens?

The students worked through a five-week course, focused on learning the basics of how to use LinkedIn to present themselves based on their skills and competencies, which the mentors helped them uncover. Homework was given that was relevant to each week’s lesson and based on the direction of the class. The end goal was to use any format to create presentations that featured their key takeaways ways LinkedIn could better serve students. Four students raised their hands for the final week to present to the senior director of the LinkedIn education team, who was blown away by their presentations.

How did the students react to the program you established?

We got great feedback. One student said, “It helped enlighten me with new things that will help me succeed in future endeavors.” Another said, “I was able to know what it was like to actually have a professional profile which would help me into getting things which I would like to do in the future.”
Based on the stories people shared, the quality of the presentations, and the feedback that both mentors and mentees provided, I believe that the students were largely engaged, took away at least one lesson, and made new connections that they can connect with in the future. 

And the mentors? How did they find the experience?

Inspiring. The students are facing an education system that they did not sign up for - Zoom and Google Class were never part of any student’s expectations of how they would go to school. Our mentors were inspired by their creative ways of adapting through this to produce impressive outputs each week, their vulnerability to let us into their virtual homes, and their openness to forming relationships with us.

Were there any surprises?

The technical implications of not being in-person gave us weekly challenges we did not anticipate. This meant we had to fly the plane as we built it. Each week consisted of taking mentor/mentee feedback onboard to improve the following week, brainstorming how to make the program engaging in ways that everyone felt comfortable with, and writing/launching the curriculum with just one week’s notice.

Beyond doing good, what are the benefits to companies for running the kind of mentorship program you established?

This program showed us how doing something small, but consistent, can go a long way. We got a better understanding of young people’s needs by speaking to them each week. We learned how to be creative with technical challenges that big companies like LinkedIn don’t necessarily have to face. For example –mixed levels of internet connections meant that for five weeks some mentors & mentees never saw each other. Instead, they engaged through the chat function on Zoom. Some people didn’t have access to Microsoft Powerpoint, so we let them complete the assignments using Snapchat Story or Word.

Internally, we also created a wonderful community of givers who built and fostered their own new relationships. And we learned that when you reach beyond your walls, you gain a broader perspective about what life looks like for different people along with a deep appreciation for the raw talent that exists in all communities.

What would you tell other companies interested in creating a similar program to the one you created?

Listen, learn, and apply. Make the effort to listen to a variety of young people, learn what their needs are, and apply their feedback. Do this consistently, share with them what changes you have made purely for them, and repeat the process.

What tips can you offer other companies that are interested in establishing a mentorship program?

Here are LinkedIn’s five key takeaways:

1.       Review what you have: How do your teammates’ interests align with your company’s mission and corporate responsibility efforts. How much time can people dedicate? What resources can you offer?

2.       Set intentions: What do you want to achieve with the students? Sharing this with ExpandED and any other partners will help them guide you to understand their needs and how your contributions could be best received.

3.       Build a solid team: I would suggest that about three people form the “admin team” for a group of volunteers willing to give consistent time. Make sure they are flexible and ready to adapt to change..

4.       Define goals: Decide how you will measure success and generate useful data, either through surveys, feedback, or other qualified means.

5.       Establish an open mindset: There will be extra fun weeks and challenging weeks. You have to learn how to keep focused on the students while embracing the opportunity to build meaningful relationships.

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