“Nobody ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

That is a quote from a young woman who, despite her aspirations, ended up dropping out of school and living off the streets of Philadelphia. At a meeting convened by the White House to discuss youth and economic opportunity, she represented the more than 5 million so-called “disconnected youth” (more aptly recently renamed “opportunity youth”) aged 16 to 24 not in school or working.

My own mentee expressed a similar sentiment early in our relationship. He lives with his grandmother, siblings, and frequently a host of cousins. In describing why he was not used to spending one-on-one time with an adult, he said, “I don’t do anything good enough or bad enough to get attention from adults.’” It was a pragmatic summary of his life to date and as it settled in, it shook me even though I am immersed in this work daily. In fact, there should be nothing surprising about this to me. Recent research illustrated the reality that my mentee represents – the 1 in every 3 young people in the U.S. who are growing up without a non-familial mentor.

Many of us probably remember the times when a teacher, coach, or any number of adults inquired about our aspirations. By taking an interest, showing up, and doing what you say you’ll do, young people feel they matter and their resources broaden. For young people whose families live in economic stress, whose parents hold down more than one job, whose schools are addressing a myriad of pressures, their opportunity to be met with these relationships is greatly decreased. In the recent book Our Kids by Robert Putnam, he powerfully illustrates this widening gap and coins the phrase “social air bags” to describe all the supports that deploy for kids of privilege and correspondingly, depicts the destructive consequences for young people who lack them and are increasingly isolated.

Can a mentor really make the difference? The answer is a resounding yes, and it’s why we at MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR) are proud to partner with LinkedIn on this initiative to activate members to reflect on their mentoring experiences and pay it forward by becoming mentors in their community. We know that the impact of mentoring takes hold early. Last year, a study by MENTOR found that youth at-risk for falling off track are 55% more likely to enroll in college and 78% more likely to volunteer in their communities when they have a mentoring relationship. By being a consistent presence in their lives, mentors show young people they matter. They help young people reach for and grasp those connections to social and economic opportunity. They are an advocate, advisor, and a link to fulfillment. And time and again, mentors say they get as much out of their mentoring relationship as their mentee, if not more.

Immediately evident or not, our success is tied to theirs. Reconnecting young people who aren’t currently in school or working has the potential to return to society $93 billion annually in recovered wages, taxes, and social services while also strengthening the talent pipeline. In a rapidly changing, globally competitive economy, this is imperative. As Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently referenced, one study found that one-third of employers surveyed have trouble filling open positions because of talent shortages, and 43% say those shortages hurt their business.

Innovative companies are leveraging mentoring as a strategy for building the soft skills of their current workforce while also filling that talent pipeline. In our recent joint report with EY, we profiled 18 such companies that successfully make the business case for corporate engagement in youth mentoring. They support and encourage employees to become mentors, providing meaningful connections to the communities in which they work.

It’s vital that LinkedIn’s efforts to generate energy and excitement for mentoring convert to action. Whether it’s through an employer-endorsed effort, or as an individual looking to pay it forward, we must close the mentoring gap for the 1 in 3 young people who are growing up without this critical asset. Mentoring is no longer one size fits all. Diverse mentoring programs offer great support, fit your availability, and allow you to share your passions with a young person. Let’s be the link to opportunity and prosperity for those young leaders of tomorrow.

As for the young woman at that community meeting in D.C., when asked what her answer would have been had someone asked her career aspiration, she responded: an astrophysicist. Langston Hughes’ powerful poem “Harlem” questions the dispiriting and destructive effects of “a dream deferred.” Let’s write a different narrative of a dream realized. It starts with our willingness to take action one relationship at a time. 


AuthorLorenzo Somma