For the first time this year, EA joined the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership that pairs international business women at the crossroads of their leadership paths with American female executives. Through this two-week program, the mentee shadows an executive to learn about building a business and critical leadership skills while also building lasting connections with powerful women.
Our Chief Talent Officer Gabrielle Toledano was paired with Argentinian fashion designer Paula Ledesma. Paula designs hand knit women’s clothes and employs women throughout Argentina to create the clothes that are sold in her local store.
We sat down with both of them to learn more about the mentoring program.
First things first, how did the two of you get paired up?
Gabrielle: I started attending the Fortune Most Powerful Women’s Conference back in 2009, and I always leave feeling so grateful for the relationships made and motivated to pay it forward. They do so many amazing things for women, it’s truly more than a conference. It’s one event I always make sure to attend no matter what is on my schedule. One year, I sat at the FMPW opening dinner next to one of the Fortune/US State Department mentees and a speaker that night. She had been trafficked as a child in Cambodia and is now crusading against human trafficking in her country. Her message was so powerful, as has been that of other mentees I have met over the years at the conference. Meeting these inspiring women motivated me to get more involved with Vital Voices and the mentoring program. So when the invitation came out this year to be involved, I signed up.
Paula: For me, I was participating in a fashion show of my collection and was invited by a designer from New York who attended to go to a cocktail event at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires. Someone I met there that night at the Embassy told me about the program and nominated me to participate. I sent all my information to them and I got a call just about two months later that I was selected to spend a month in the United States and have a mentor!
Gabrielle: I told Pattie [Sellers of Fortune] that I wanted to be paired with someone in a creative business, because we’re a creative company. I also really wanted to be paired with someone from South America because I lived in Chile for a year and traveled throughout South America, and I love the culture. Paula and I had a Skype call to meet, and I sent a note to Pattie immediately after to tell her it was a perfect match.
What were you both hoping to learn from this experience?
Paula: I really wanted to learn how to expand my business when I get home to Argentina. The people involved with this program are so connected; it’s a powerful network. I want to be able to go back to Argentina and pay it forward by providing more work to the community of knitters who make my products. I’m not just interested in selling my designs but also want to help others and empower and support the women who knit for me. I’m very involved with these women; I mean something to them; I understand them – so that is important.
Gabrielle: My goal is to help Paula network and expand her business to engage more women in her community. Paula’s job empowers a community of knitters and really preserves this art form. I love how it allows these women to work from home and gives them an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. My job has been to build Paula’s confidence and make her realize she can do anything. Also my role has been to introduce her to others who can share their stories of encouragement and share their network to help her reach all of her goals.
What surprised you the most about this experience?
Paula: I wasn’t expecting Gaby to be so much fun! She’s such a wonderful person, she’s not this intimidating businesswoman. She welcomed me with a hug, not a handshake. I was surprised at how much we have in common. When you first learn who you are paired up with, you think this person is so important with so many resources at a big company. They are so different from me. But Gaby showed me that we are more alike than different and that I can be successful being authentic and being myself, as she has done.
Gabrielle: I am hosting Paula at my home during her program rather than having her stay in a hotel. I knew that was more familiar to her from her culture. She’s come to know my family, gone hiking with us, eating dinners together, and she really feels like part of the family. She gets to see what I’m really like. I started with very little. I had a scholarship to get to college, and I had people who sponsored me to help me on my path. If I can do it, she can do it.
What will you take away from this now that you’ve completed your program?
Paula: I need to create an online store. Everyone here has been asking me where they can buy my clothes and I have to tell them to visit Buenos Aires! That’s been a key learning. I am ready to grow my business and give more opportunity to my knitters. And I have more confidence now to do more.
Gabrielle: It’s really been a reverse mentoring situation for me. I’ve learned so much from Paula. Here is a young woman who started what is now a successful fashion design business in Buenos Aires – she did it all by herself. I want my team and my network of friends to learn the value of mentoring. It’s all about sharing our stories, our learnings and our networks to accelerate the paths of those who will follow. A great mentoring relationship helps build the confidence of the mentees.
Paula: Oh yes, confidence! I never thought my work would be so appreciated here. It’s really wonderful. I’ve had so many people tell me they love my work. I can’t believe it.