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Fostering meaningful connections: Melissa Huizer gives a behind the scenes look into the Mentorship Program

Mentorship remains at the heart of nurturing talent and fostering long-term partnerships within the food and agriculture industry. From words of support to constructive criticism, the bond between a mentor and mentee can contribute to career and personal development. With support from Alltech, we have been able to take the Women in Food and Agriculture Mentorship Program to the next level and focus our efforts on offering more support to women in their careers. Our aims are to allow industry representatives to come together as allies, to build a strong sense of community through diversity, inclusion and the sharing of our varied lived experiences. But what are the keys to a successful pairing and how are mentors and mentees allocated?

With the WFA Mentorship Program in its second year and two cohorts of mentors and mentees being paired this year, we sat down with Melissa Huizer, the  Mentorship Program Manager at WFA for a behind the scenes insight into how she goes about this mammoth and vital task of pairing up representatives from the food and ag industry.

[WFA] Hi, Melissa, firstly can you share with us what you would say are the key elements of your role?

[Melissa Huizer] As the  Mentorship Program Manager, I am responsible for the matchmaking of the mentors and mentees by hand. Once the pairings have been created, I facilitate their relationships and send out all the communications to them. This involves informing them about meetup sessions and sharing what’s coming up. I try to be there to support them as much as possible throughout the process, as I ultimately want their pairing to be as successful as they do. With Alltech’s support the program has grown significantly. We have been able to market it more effectively to not only Alltech’s network, but also to regions that did not get as many applicants last year like representatives from countries in Africa, which is really exciting.

[WFA] It’s great that the selection process has this personal approach. Can you talk us through your matching process and tell us how it all works?

[Melissa Huizer] To start, I read the applications just to make sure I understand what each individual is looking to gain from the program. I filter using basic requirements like language, gender and region preference. I then start to dig deeper into what the mentee is looking for. It may be they would like a mentor that works in a specific industry or a mentor who has the same career path as them, but it is also important to ensure that they share similar values and beliefs. Some mentees are looking to develop their confidence while moving into the next stage of their career and we also have mentees that are completely new to the industry and are looking to learn about our sector. When it comes to our mentors, we find many are looking to develop their leadership skills and give back to someone in the industry. It’s great because there are a range of requirements and desires I have to consider and it is this information that helps me to create a match as close as possible to what they would like. It’s all about investing time and reading the applications as thoroughly as possible to try to truly understand what people want to get out of the program.

[WFA] How does lived experience and gender diversity play into pairing mentees and mentors and what are some of the benefits of considering this?

[Melissa Huizer] I think it’s important to ensure the mentor has that lived experience for the mentee. The mentees are looking for value, experience and someone to share their ideas with. Gender diversity also plays an important role when it comes to pairing mentors and mentees. That’s why we ensure that there are male mentors as it’s important for men to share their experiences with women wanting to progress in their careers. It also helps these male allies to understand some of the barriers women in our sector have to overcome, which is so important to help make a change in our sector.

[WFA] That’s right, it’s all about leveling the playing field and working together to ensure equal opportunities for all. What are the most rewarding aspects of your role?

[Melissa Huizer] I don’t even know where to start – there’s so many! As a woman in the food and agriculture industry I can see the barriers that women face, so to be able to help to change that is great. It’s very rewarding to hear stories of successful matches and hearing that makes me feel like I’ve helped someone in their career.

[WFA] Do you have any positive anecdotes to share about the program?

[Melissa Huizer] A mentee from last year’s program said that they got so much more out of it than they initially thought they would. They also shared that the meetings with their mentor helped them to excel in everyday tasks, as it felt like having a personal cheerleader who had their best interests at heart. On top of that they also made friends with two great women in the industry who they are inspired by. A mentor from last year’s program with over twenty years of experience in the industry, expressed a desire to share everything they have learnt from their mentors. This led them to the WFA Mentorship Program and it was really encouraging to hear that they also gained great insights from their mentee. This positive feedback is exactly why we do what we do!

[WFA] What would you say are some of the key features of a successful mentorship pairing?

[Melissa Huizer] One of the key features is a detailed application. It helps when mentees can provide a summary of what they want to get out of the program and how they think it can add value to them. This aids us in finding a match that is best suited for them. Mentors must also share with us what they want to get out of the program. Sometimes the focus is just on mentees and what they want to gain, but many of our mentors are taking part to develop themselves. If they can share their experience with someone else that can help them grow and develop their skills as well.

[WFA] Do you have any examples of mentorship pairings that weren’t as successful?

[Melissa Huizer] Last year was the first year of the program and we had sixty-two pairings. When it comes to pairings that weren’t as successful, there are two stories that stand out to me as despite these being negative experiences, both these stories reached a positive outcome. Two mentees tried to reach out to their mentors. In one case, the mentor was not engaging with the mentee and in the other the partnership wasn’t exactly what the mentee was hoping for. Despite this, one of the mentees kept coming to our quarterly catchup sessions and she ended up exchanging details with another mentor within the program who gave her as much support as she could. The second mentee also had a positive story as she began to realise her potential as a mentor. The experience meant she learnt that she had the skills and expertise to support someone else, which led her to apply to be a mentor for this year’s program.

[WFA] Those are two very inspiring stories! Finally, can you share any insight into the future mentor and mentee directory and its potential benefits?

[Melissa Huizer] We found that the mentors and mentees coming to our quarterly sessions were keen to meet other people and learn about the different experiences of other pairings. Based on feedback from last year, WFA decided that the program would really benefit from having a directory including names, job titles, companies and contact information of all the mentors and mentees involved who agreed to be added to it. I think the directory will aid in helping women to network within the sector and add even more value to the program moving forward.

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