Beacon update: Regional Business Council's mentoring program gives students a competitive edge | St. Louis Public Radio

Beacon update: Regional Business Council's mentoring program gives students a competitive edge

Jan 4, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2010 - The Regional Business Council mentoring program is designed to give students behind-the-scenes insight into how companies work as well as a valuable contact they can use to help further their careers.

Based on the reaction of three students who have been in the program this past semester, the program is working just as intended.

Sarah Shehata, a student at Fontbonne University, was paired with Virginia McDowell, president and chief operating officer at Isle of Capri Casinos, based in Creve Coeur. Isle of Capri does not operate a casino in the St. Louis area, but it does have one in Biloxi, Miss., which is just where Sarah will happen to be in the first week of 2010, on a service project for Fontbonne.

So while she is down South, Sarah will get a comprehensive tour of the Isle Casino and spend time with some top executives.

"Once I have a better understanding of their day-to-day operations," she said in an e-mail, "Virginia plans to bring me into the corporate office for some meetings with the various divisions, in order to see how the corporate team interacts with the properties to drive the programs and initiatives that I will have seen on my tours in Biloxi."

Such insights, she said, are just what she was looking for.

"Virginia has gone above and beyond the call of duty," Sarah said, "offering me a rare look into the inner workings of a successful corporate enterprise. I consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity.... It is safe to say the program gave me an edge and helped to make me an eventual commodity in the work force."

Alexander Dunn, a student in aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, has a similar appreciation for his work with Evans Richardson, the director of government and public affairs for Boeing's integrated defense systems in St. Louis.

Besides their meetings in person, the pair is in frequent e-mail contact, and each time the two have gotten together, there was a definite purpose in mind, Dunn said, such as discussing how Boeing works and how his goals line up with the company.

"I have benefited greatly from the mentoring relationship," Dunn said in an e-mail. "I feel like I have a friend in the business world (who) is willing to help me in any way. I also have seen first hand what it is like to work at Boeing.

"What surprised me the most is how much fun and enjoyment Mr. Richardson and his colleagues get out of their work."

Patrice Johnson, an accounting student at Harris-Stowe State University, has met twice in person with her mentor, Rodney Kinzinger, managing partner for the St. Louis office of Deloitte, as well as corresponding via e-mail several times.

One of the meetings was a shadow day, when Patrice had the opportunity to observe several members of the Deloitte office.

"I learned so much from them," she said in an e-mail message, "and it was indeed a privilege to see accounting professionals working in their field.

"I have been pleasantly surprised with how helpful Rodney and his associates have been. The mentor program has provided me with a lot of insight into my field of study and the importance of networking."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

Evans Richardson is the director of government and public affairs for Boeing's integrated defense systems in St. Louis. Alexander Dunn is an engineering student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla with a strong interest in politics.

The Regional Business Council brought the pair together as part of a mentoring program that is designed to help students get a better idea of what business is all about and to help executives learn more about their next generation of employees.

And if the students end up starting their careers in the St. Louis area, that's a plus for everybody, says Kathy Osborn, the council's executive director.

"We tell students, 'If you want to go to Chicago because of what you can find there, go,'" Osborn said. "We understand they are young and want adventure. But we don't want them going somewhere else because they don't think there are opportunities for them here."

And to make the most of those opportunities, Osborn said, the council wants to make sure that those who are on the bottom rung of the job ladder have the chance to meet those at the top.

"Most CEOs don't meet entry-level people," she said. "This is an opportunity for them to see what is coming out of schools now and how they need to respond to a changing workforce."

About 250 students, educators and executives got together at a Clayton hotel Tuesday for a reception to kick off this year's mentoring effort. The students, in business and engineering, were chosen by their schools, with a heavy emphasis on diversity. Most of the students were clutching some sort of folder; some hung back, looking a bit overwhelmed, but most plunged right in and soon were involved in animated conversation.

The businesses have a lot to share, said Odell Hendricks and Christy Frazier of the Centric Group, including individual experiences, a sense of best practices and what may be the most useful skill of all, how to network.

"They need to educate themselves about the business they want to work in and learn all they can," Frazier said. "That can open up so many doors."

Added Hendricks said: "We didn't graduate from college doing the kinds of things that we do now."

Learning in the classroom is valuable, said Fara Zakery, dean of the business school at Harris-Stowe State University, but real-world experiences can make a big difference.

"This is the practical part," she said. "In the classroom, they get the theory. This is what they need to practice for their future career."

TOUGH TIMES, TOUGH COMPETITION

Mike DeCola, president and chief executive of Mississippi Lime Co. and current chairman of the Regional Business Council, greeted the students by saying out loud what many of them must have been thinking:

"How in the heck do I get a career started in this economy?"

But, he added, the students in the 2009 mentoring program are actually a little better off than those who stood in their places at this time last year.

Then, DeCola said, no one was quite sure how bad the economic plunge was going to be, or how long their companies would suffer. Now, executives can see that the sharp drop in the business cycle, though severe, is similar to what many of them have weathered before.

He told the students that in the current environment, they need to do more than just rely on their schools' career service center -- they need to get out and take advantage of any edge they can find. They can be sure, he said, that their competition will be doing the same.

"Look around you," DeCola said. "Every person in this room is the elite of the elite, and they want to beat you out of a job."

ONE-ON-ONE RELATIONSHIP

Having a good mentoring experience is one way to help come out on top. For Dunn, the student at Rolla, and Richardson, the executive at Boeing, the relationship begins with a shared interest in public affairs and how business can work with government.

Dunn has been a student lobbyist at the Rolla campus, traveling to Jefferson City to meet lawmakers. But he hopes to hone his technique by working with Richardson.

"This program is a great opportunity for a student who is starting a career to meet professionals who have been successful in their fields," he said.

"I really want to make sure I can expand on my networking and meet some business executives in St. Louis who can help expand my contacts."

Richardson appreciates the fresh perspective that students like Dunn can provide.

"They are enthusiastic, they show initiative and they have a hunger for what's out there," he said. "That's what I get out of it. What I try to impart to them is my experience at Boeing over the past 20 years.

"They're all bright, they're all smart, they're all energetic. To limit who they to talk is just self-defeating. This is all about his career and his future. There are tons of people I can introduce him to, and I look forward to doing it."

Not all the pairings were able to get together at Tuesday's reception. Virginia McDowell, president and chief operating officer of Isle of Capri Casinos, was in Florida giving a speech; her mentee, Fontbonne student Sarah Shehata, was sick.

But the pair had already had lunch, and Shehata was looking forward to getting to know the casino executive better.

As a business major with minors in sociology and communications, Shehata hopes for a career in a field such as marketing or human resources. She has already gained some experience on campus in event planning, getting involved with staging career fairs.

"I've learned a lot about my leadership skills, how to network and get things done," she said.

She is glad to be paired with a woman, particularly one who has succeeded in a field that is dominated by male executives.

"She has been asked about that a lot, as if it's a huge focal point," Shehata said. "I know she doesn't think it's that important, but I think that it is.

"She seemed to think I was heading down the right path, which was encouraging to say the least."

For her part, McDowell is hoping to repay a debt she feels she owes to those who have helped advance her own job prospects.

"I have been fortunate to have the most talented and diverse series of mentors that any professional could ever ask for," she said in an e-mail message. "They taught me many valuable lessons that helped me to further my career and broaden my horizons.

"They taught me to take advantage of every opportunity to learn, to network and to grow personally and professionally, but to do so with honor, integrity and a sense of humor. I'm hoping that I can pass the benefit of their wisdom on to Sarah."

And she won't be surprised if she learns as she teaches.

"It is rewarding to have the opportunity to work with talented and dedicated young professionals who are just starting their careers," McDowell said. "It helps to have the next generation more prepared to enter the workforce.

"To the extent that we can inspire them to become involved in charitable and civic endeavors, we benefit as a community from their ideas and energy. Quite frankly, we learn from them as they learn from us."