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The Power of Sponsorship: Accelerating Workplace Equity

I have talked and shared my experiences of navigating my career on many platforms and situations. Often I'm asked what has been a profound shift that effectively changed my career trajectory for the better. I answer without hesitating: I had someone who championed me and my performance and advocated for me to get involved with more high-profile work. In other words, I was blessed with a sponsor.

Usually, this is when folks squint their eyes in curiosity. This is almost a universal response as I quickly learned that sponsorship in the workplace is not very well known, which also tells us it's not intentionally used in most spaces.

At the very least, people often confuse it with either VISA sponsorship or mentorship, which is closer to the terms' meaning, but still not quite. So, what is a sponsor? And why do DEIB folks talk about it just as much as they discuss mentorship? And finally, what's the difference between mentoring and sponsoring?

We'll dive into each of these questions. Let's go:

A sponsor is an individual who believes in your ability, champions you as a skilled employee, and advocates for your success even when you're not around. They are your amplifiers, your cheerleader, your hype person. They know what you can do and when they are privy to opportunities for you to shine, they are the ones who speak your name.

Your success doesn't threaten them, and they are always open to use their social and political capital to support your career journey.

My sponsor did all of those things. He saw my potential long before I became his direct report. He convinced me to consider growing into people management (which I did) and he never had a problem championing me to collaborate on a critical project where I can shine.

I was already doing stellar work as many Black women in Tech are doing, however, I was not getting anywhere in my career. I built an entire team and wasn't even chosen to lead it after my manager left. I worked on a major project that was requested by the CEO himself, yet, after it was completed with bells and confetti, I was not yet "ready" for promotion. My hard work wasn't getting me as far as I was taught, and I'm not alone in that difficult realization.

A sponsor is so key to Black women in the workplace whereas 0.7% make up the entire tech workforce in BCS Statistics 2020. We need leaders and those with influence to recognize our performance, amplify it, and evangelize how we are ready to do more. Contrary to what many folks will say on social media, many Black women do not have imposter syndrome. In fact, it was validating to hear what Jodi Ann Burey wrote about the topic in HBR as for me, it was not a case that I didn't believe I was capable of doing the work. I was just gaslit by leadership for so long who didn't see my excellence.

And that is what it takes to support sponsorship: to acknowledge that our performance is on par if not stellar to the work of others in our space. You're seeing the talent and advocating for us when we're not in the room. That is using your influence and power to raise support of our work.

So, why do DEIB practitioners focus on sponsorship a bit more than mentorship? Well, I can't speak for all practitioners, but for me, it's not that mentorship is not helpful. I believe it is.

However, it would be short-sighted and disingenuous to say all Black women need mentorship. A lot of us simply don't. Since equity is about giving people what they need to succeed (as opposed to giving everyone the same regardless of their specific needs--aka "equality"), it's important to keep that in mind with our Black women professionals. Sponsorship is a valid practice that creates meaningful connections within the workplace and can help elevate a career, build a network, and show leadership chops.

What's the difference between Sponsorship and Mentorship?

Here's a little cheat sheet:

Long story short: Mentors advise, whereas Sponsors advocate.

If you're curious on if you are ready to be a sponsor, take the quick quiz below!

Quiz: Are You Ready to Become an Employee Sponsor?

1. Are you willing to actively advocate for your employees' career advancement?

- A) Yes, absolutely.

- B) I can consider it, but I need more information.

- C) Not sure, I need to understand the responsibilities better.

2. How invested are you in fostering diversity and inclusion in your organization?

- A) Extremely invested; it's a top priority.

- B) Somewhat invested; I believe in diversity but need more guidance.

- C) I haven't given it much thought.

3. Would you use your influence and network connections to help an employee secure high-profile assignments or promotions?

- A) Absolutely, I'm ready to leverage my connections.

- B) I might consider it, but I need to understand the potential risks.

- C) I'm not sure how this aligns with my role.

4. Do you actively seek opportunities to mentor and guide employees in their career development?

- A) Yes, I enjoy mentoring and guiding others.

- B) I do it occasionally but want to do more.

- C) I don't actively engage in mentoring.

5. How comfortable are you in taking a personal interest in your employees' career visions and goals?

- A) Very comfortable; I believe in personalized career development.

- B) Somewhat comfortable; I might need some training.

- C) I prefer a more hands-off approach.

6. Would you actively involve your employees in experiences that enable their career advancement?

- A) Absolutely, I'm committed to providing valuable experiences.

- B) I'm open to the idea but need more details.

- C) I'm not sure how this aligns with my current responsibilities.

7. Are you ready to champion the visibility of your employees using your platform and reputation?

- A) Yes, I'm willing to use my influence for their exposure.

- B) I need more information on how this works.

- C) I'm uncertain about this level of involvement.

8. How do you view your role in your employees' success?

- A) I see myself as actively contributing to their success.

- B) I'm willing to contribute, but I need more guidance.

- C) I see my role as more of a passive supporter.


Count the number of A, B, and C responses.

Mostly A: You are ready to become a powerful sponsor! Your commitment to advocacy and active involvement can make a significant impact on your employees' careers.

Mostly B: You have the potential to become a sponsor, but you may need more information and training. Consider learning more about the responsibilities and benefits of sponsorship.

Mostly C: You may need more clarity on the role of a sponsor and the impact it can have. Explore the potential benefits and consider how you can actively contribute to your employees' success.

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