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When Dionne Williamson first got out of school with a business degree, she didn't know what kind of career she wanted.

No mentors watched out for her when she took the same kind of uninspiring telemarketing job that paid the bills in college.

As soon as she had a plan -- to start a business selling the greeting cards that opened like packages with ribbon that she designed -- things changed.

As she talked about her still-developing business, serendipity and ambition converged. People championed her. Eventually someone offered a recommendation for a job she now loves at the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"When you're kind of just out there floating, how can someone help you do what you want to do?" asked Williamson, 34. "Once you find out what you want to do, people will come into your life."

Williamson's success grew with the help and encouragement of mentors.

Mentors can be people with more experience or peers. They can serve as job coach, behind-the-scenes promoter and sympathetic aide.

Yet career women, who don't have the same golf-course-networking traditions as men, might have to forge their own mentor-finding systems.

It's worth the trouble. Mentors are a route to career achievement and satisfaction that is so successful that small business advocates and companies, such as one local frozen dessert maker, are unwilling to leave the formula to chance.

A corporate approach

At Rich Products, the nearly 3-year-old Women Supporting Women network, which encourages women employees and redefines mentoring as a support network, is used by 129 of about 400 employees who are eligible. The group arranges workshops to plot such things as career goals. Gatherings sometimes end with wine, cheese and Rich Products desserts.

This way, female employees who are on the career track, but who tend to devote more after-work time to home and family, not peer schmoozing, have a chance to socialize.

"There are still too few women at the highest level," said Maureen Hurley, the executive vice president at Rich Products, who modeled the network on other industry groups. Such mentoring is essential for engaged, happy employees and a strong company in a field dominated by men, she said.

The women say they now have more people to turn to for job and child-care strategies, leading to more gratifying choices.

"If you make a call, you get the help that you need," said Cindy Anderson, public relations manager.

New to the family-owned company, Anderson asked human resources director Janice Horn for advice when Rich's consensus-building decision style was new to her. "I knew Janice wasn't going to go running to my boss," said Anderson. And when Horn was overwhelmed to the point of tears by the news that she was having twins, she got calming reassurance: Hurley, who had stayed on the job while raising her children, said they would find a way to make it work.

"I was able to find some kind of balance," said Horn, who now uses both company child care and a home sitter for her children.

Serendipity in the field

Dionne Williamson's passion and professionalism impressed business consultant Jennifer Parker so much that she decided to do more than give Williamson pointers as she launched her New Age Expressions card company.

When Parker heard that the Convention & Visitors Bureau had an opening for a multicultural sales manager, she recommended Williamson.

As the president of the Black Capital Network, Parker makes a point of mentoring.

"I'm of the belief that you don't have to be in a position of power. Why not reach out to another person?" she said. "If you're secure in yourself, it doesn't bother you to help someone else."

Looking back on her own career beginnings as a lawyer, Parker wonders if she would still be working as counsel for a corporation if a mentor had helped guide her through the politics.

Like Hurley, she thinks women are too scarce in business, which might explain why women can seem reluctant to mentor. "When there's a little bit to go around," she said, "people get more possessive."

The mentor-paycheck link

In a survey of 750 male and female business school graduates, Indiana University business professor George Dreher found that mentoring is a key to 15 percent to 20 percent larger paychecks.

People who find an advocate who understands the political landscape can advance their careers further than those who don't. "They can work behind the scenes on your behalf," Dreher said.

The best kind of mentor in his 1996 survey? White males. Society's traditional power holders have the clout, Dreher said.

But seeking only a white, male mentor is unwise, said Kathy Kram, a professor at the Boston University School of Management, who has written two books on the subject.

"I actually think that women benefit from male and female mentors," she said. "It really benefits everyone to have multiple developers, not just one." Still, mentoring women can be complicated, said Kram. Men can feel awkward, fearing romantic attraction or its illusion. Women can fear being accused of playing favorites with other women. Senior women may also feel jealous that their junior counterparts have more options, such as part-time work.

"It's not as easy for them to embrace mentoring other women," Kram said.

Even so, both sexes are becoming more practiced at building work relationships across gender and race lines. "The world is changing very fast," said Kram.

Some workers can have mentors without realizing it. People now change jobs so often that peers and senior and junior employees can learn from each other. "People have to continuously develop new connections and new relationships," Kram said.

Local innovations

To offer extra help, a local women's small business advocacy organization set up a formal year-long coaching program.

"I think that women have had a much more difficult time succeeding," said Loretta Kaminsky, assistant director of the Women's Business Center at Canisius College.

"The business world has been a men's world. There's never been a place in Buffalo where women are comfortable," she said of the city's lack of female-friendly networking spots.

Kaminsky, a former chocolatier who sold her business, used her contacts to match fledgling business owners with seasoned business people.

A young vintage clothing business owner learned learn from an established dress shop owner that she wasn't making enough money to keep her employee on the payroll. And the enthusiasm of the young clothier was so infectious that the older proprietor -- at first reluctant to be a mentor -- started to feel more inspired about her dress shop.

This is how women are, said Kaminsky. Once they connect, they excel at taking advice.

Here is some advice from Kathy Kram, a professor at the Boston University School of Management, on how to search for a mentor:

Seek out someone with an admirable style.

Ask for a half-hour meeting to get feedback on a work project.

Ask the person about how she navigated her career route.

Remember that most professionals who are asked for such advice are flattered by your interest.

"More often than not people respond positively," said Kram. "So it really is the protege's behavior that can set a relationship in motion."