What does it mean to professionally succeed? That question has myriad answers that vary between individuals. There are countless career tracks, entrepreneurship endeavors, and specific milestones which signify progress and success in their respective fields. However, the pathway to achieve those goals is often murky and nebulous, particularly for women of color. They have to contend with racism, sexism, nepotism, and gatekeeping while trying to attain their goals. And most of them go about these arduous journeys without the guidance, knowledge, and encouragement of a mentor to help them stay the course. Music industry veteran and author Sophia Chang aims to change this narrative with Unlock Her Potential, a free mentorship program for women of color.
“I think it doesn’t occur to many women of color to get a mentor,” says Chang in a telephone interview with Nerdist. “They have never even thought about it. It’s not built into how we think about our careers and advancing ourselves professionally. We are expected to just figure it out.”
Chang’s own story of success is truly phenomenal. As a Korean-Canadian kid in a White neighborhood, she fell in love with hip-hop after hearing Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” in high school. She later moved to NYC and began working in the music industry at Jive Records. Chang met Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and began a lifelong relationship with the infamous hip-hop collective, managing several group members. She’s often referred to as Wu-Tang’s muse and a key driving force behind their music and business moves.
Sophia Chang and Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, photo courtesy of Sophia Chang
During this time, Chang connected with her mentor Michael Ostin. She credits their 33 year long relationship with helping her craft her own career trajectory. “I met [Ostin] in 1987 when he was the head of A&R at Warner Brothers Records and I worked with Paul Simon,” Chang says. “And his guidance has been unerring for that long. So, I actually have experience as a woman of color who benefited from having a mentor.”
She went on to hold several positions including A&R (Artist and Repertoire) at Jive and A&R Administration at UMB. Chang eventually left the music industry of her own volition to focus on family. Later on, she returned to entertainment as a producer for shows like Project Runway All Stars. She has done it all from developing TV and film properties to penning her upcoming memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room, about her experiences. Her expansive career led to her building a solid network with professionals in many industries and disciplines.
Sophia Chang’s own career trajectory combined with her desire to advocate for and build up women of color is why she’s starting Unlock Her Potential. “I had originally conceived of this as a consultancy… that I’ll go into a corporation and I’ll say ‘in order to promote and bring women of color up through the ranks at your company, you have to mentor them,’” she affirms. “So, it wasn’t a fleeting notion. It’s something that I’ve been formulating for a number of years.”
She explains to us why she’s the only person in the world who could pull off such a lofty project. “What makes me uniquely qualified is that I am deeply passionate about empowering and uplifting women of color,” she states. “I’m a producer. Somebody else can have the idea but if you can’t execute it, it doesn’t mean sh*t… Also, my network is extraordinary. There is literally no other person in the world that could have pulled together those people and I did that sh*t in less than four days. Only Sophia Chang could pull that off. No question in my mind.”
Here’s how Unlock her Potential works. An interested person signs up for a mentor via the website. They will receive a mentor in their respective industry when available. The program gives them one hour per month for a year with their mentor to ask questions, map out plans for success, and get the guidance they need to press forward. Of course, the meetings will take place virtually due to location restraints. The rest is primarily in the hands of the mentor/mentee to make the best of this invaluable connection.
Actor and mentor Mustafa Shakir, photo courtesy of Cara Kim
Sophia stresses that a mentee must come to their meetings prepared in order to maximize their time. A mentor may choose to spend more time with a mentee, but it’s not a guarantee. She also wants people to know that this is about getting professional advice. This isn’t an avenue for a mentee to pitch their ideas and works in hopes of getting a big break. Unlock Her Potential’s HR team is also currently working on a list of icebreaker questions to make the initial meetings flow smoothly.
Chang’s initial list of Unlock Her Potential includes 100 mentors in academia, fashion, finance, music, publishing, journalism, TV/film, and other industries. The list includes some serious heavy hitters such as TV producer Mona Scott Young, Luke Cage actor Mustafa Shakir, The Root editor-in-chief Danielle Belton, journalist Kierna Mayo, Audible marketing whiz Sara Moscowitz, music artists GZA, RZA, and Joey Bada$$, and 13 Reasons Why showrunner Brian Yorkey.
TV Producer and mentor Mona Scott Young, photo courtesy of Cara Kim
The entire list came from Sophia Chang’s own network of friends and colleagues whom she trusts to be solid mentors. It’s her way of providing women of color access to people they wouldn’t be able to contact otherwise. However, Unlock Her Potential can only be truly effective if participants are ready to put in the work. Chang meticulously details what it takes to be a good mentee.
“Curiosity. Humility. Patience. Humility is huge. I had a mentee once whom I did not know and she acted in some ways like she knew more than me. And I fired her because that’s not the point of this relationship. The point of it is that in many, many arenas, specifically the one we were talking about, I do know more that you. So I could see it was going to be a waste of my time. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be questioned, of course, and there’s plenty for me to still learn for sure. But in certain arenas, I don’t have the patience to debate with you… So I think that mentees have to know that humility is really important.
And, with curiosity, it’s not just ‘here’s this thing that I am getting [from a person] and now I get granted access to their network.’ That’s not how it happens. The thing that you get is access to knowledge. The access to a network is a completely different story that might not even come… I worked hard to get my network access. And, I would say that it’s important to be grateful. You know, you should have gratitude for the gift that you are receiving. This is a gift because mentorship is a gift.”
Journalist and mentor Kierna Mayo, photo courtesy of Cara Kim
Chang plans to expand the list of mentors in the future with a vigorous vetting process. Unlock Her Potential is a part of her brand and she takes her work (and reputation) very seriously. So, it takes a phenomenal person to be on her mentorship roster. The life-long storyteller has crafted a brilliant Unlock Her Potential narrative to craft the program’s next phases.
“In this first year I will change the lives of 200 people,” Chang states. “I have no doubt about it. The mentors and the mentees… And I will scale it up as much as I can with counseling, funding, resources, and all of that stuff. But, what’s equally important to me is that I turn the gaze of America, specifically white male corporate America, to this issue. In the same way that a lot of women of color don’t think about getting a mentor, I promise you that there are White men in corporate America who don’t even think about mentoring a woman of color. Doesn’t mean they are bad people or racist but we all exist within a racist patriarchy. We all exist under the constraints of white supremacy. So by doing this program, I am drawing America’s gaze towards issues that should be dealt with.”
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MENTOR REVEAL - PAGAN KENNEDY My girl @pagankennedy is one of the best investigative journalists out there. Her curiosity and knowledge of science is astonishing. She was really helpful when I was writing my memoir, having written 11 books herself. Proud to call her a friend and mentor. - @sophchangnyc BIO Pagan Kennedy is an executive producer on a forthcoming TV series based on an article she published in the New York Times. She's also a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her eleven books include The First Man-Made Man, a study of the transgender pioneer Michael Dillon. Kennedy's journalism has appeared in dozens of publications including The New York Times Magazine, where she wrote the "Who Made That?" column. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellowship, a Smithsonian fellowship, and two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships. Edited by @izzyyyywang . . . #UnlockHerPotential #Mentorship4WOC
The ultimate goal is to change the way that both women of color and companies think about mentorship. Chang wants to pave the way and make such a major impact that companies have to take notice. She continues to lay out her vision below:
“In the same way that majority of corporations have a CSR (corporate social responsibility) or DNI (diversity and inclusion) department I want there to be an MWC (mentorship for women of color). I want every motherf*cker at the top of every company to say to their head of HR ‘Look at what Sophia Chang is doing. Look at what they’re doing at Unlock her Potential.
Do that because this is important. WE need to bring women of color up through the ranks not because it’s politically correct but because it actually benefits the bottom line and it’s the right thing to do. We’re f*cking amazing. And we are genius, industrious, and creative. We are original and offer new perspectives.'”
Unlock Her Potential is set to unlock the many doors standing in women of color’s path towards their definition of success. And, with the inimitable Sophia Chang at the helm, it’s set to birth a new crop of women who will in fact be the baddest women in whatever room they are in.
Featured Image: Unlock Her Potential