SMARTgirl Summit: The Merits of Mentorship



More than 50 middle school girls from around the region flocked to The Hyatt Regency, Sarasota this past Friday for the second annual SMARTgirl Leadership and Mentorship Summit, where they met face-to-face with 30 women professionals who would serve as mentors for a day of inspirational activity and female empowerment.

The morning began with the Dream Career Incubator Workshop, seeing the young mentees moving from “pod” to “pod,” meeting women in the workforce and getting an inside look at what they do and how they got there. With focuses ranging from architecture and marine biology to law enforcement and education and beyond, attendees struck up conversation and connections with several local leaders, including Education Foundation of Sarasota County President Jennifer Vigne, Sift Bakery and Five-O Donut Co. Founder Christine Nordstrom, Ivy Ventures Founder Lee-En Chung, Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center CEO Dr. Kameron Hodgens and many more. In addition to sharing their stories, mentors also helped their charges complete their first resumes. With such a varied group of role models, the rule of the day rang clear—anything is possible.

As a special activity for the day, Andrea Cannistra of atLarge presented an Intro to Coding workshop for the entire group, giving the mentees a quick bit of insight and some encouraging familiarity with the concepts and perspectives behind the process. Beginning with the tangible, attendees plotted their dream trip by selecting emojis or symbols corresponding with their chosen destination, travel buddy, mode of transportation and accessory. Each of these then corresponds to a sequence of beads, which the girls threaded together for a souvenir beaded bracelet—but also a code. In the second portion, Cannistra showed them how code works the other direction—reading the beads as instructions and then outputting a specific dream vacation.

The day ended after lunch with a series of speakers, including international mathematician, scientist and musician Ria Persad and author, motivational speaker and educator India White. Both vividly remember the importance of mentors in their lives, whether it be the Princeton professor who took a liking to Persad at an MIT science fair or the pair of women who helped White stay focused and encouraged, even as she was homeless and putting herself through school.

“It forms your self-image—that I can do this, that I am world-class,” says Persad, who still keeps up with several of her old mentors, including a Syracuse University professor named Marjorie Baruch. “A real mentor is always interested,” she says, “even for a lifetime.” White agrees: “A mentoring relationship, if done right, will evolve into something way more than that—I’m talking family.”

“I’m so grateful for people in the community who are paying it forward to help young girls, to strive to overcome any obstacle and to break stereotypes,” White continues. “If it wasn’t for people inspiring me, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

“I want them to start at a higher place than where I started,” Persad says of the young women in the next room. “It’s very gratifying for me to share, so they can go a few notches higher, and go faster and not have to suffer what I did for lack of wisdom.”

Pictured: A SMARTgirl attendee takes part in the day's coding workshop. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

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