For Deb Mills-Scofield, Mentoring Is A Responsibility And A Joy

Deb Mills-Scofield’s consultancy, Mills-Scofield LLC, is her livelihood and passion; the venture capital firm Glengary, where she is a partner, is her way of giving back. She helps entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground by connecting them with clients and collaborators who are hungry for innovation.

But perhaps her biggest passion is for the volunteer work she does mentoring students at her alma mater, Brown University. In 2012 she began mentoring undergrads and alums — “my kids,” she calls them — visiting Brown once a month during the academic year. She also mentors in Brown’s Women’s Launchpad Program, the School of Engineering, and the Social Innovation Fellowship.

“Mentoring is an awesome responsibility, because these are human lives. Mentoring isn’t for wimps, nor for the faint of heart. It’s serious, serious business, and should be treated accordingly."

About two years ago, Mills-Scofield was invited to share her story, "Life by Design," at Brown University's Creative Mind Lecture series. Ever since then, she says, “my kids started sending other people to me for mentoring.”

As the word got around about Mills-Scofield’s stellar mentoring at Brown, the university took an interest. They wanted to share her work in workshops for all Brown students, and to use it as a more integral part of Brown’s formal mentoring programs, such as the Women’s Launchpad Program.

“Brown asked me to codify my process for mentoring the students, but I didn’t know I had a process,” she says. She turned to her past and current mentees for help in codifying what she does. The final result, “Finding Your Blue Lobster,” will be beta-tested this fall in pilot workshops at Brown. The very rare blue lobster — estimated to be found once in every two million lobsters — is something of a trademark for Mills-Scofield.

That's just one way that Mills-Scofield has benefited by mentoring. She says that, from her perspective, she gets more than she gives from her mentor relationships. "Mentoring is how I keep learning. It’s how I keep my mind, soul, spirit exercised and stimulated. It's how I keep relevant, it gives me an opportunity to "challenge my own assumptions and orthodoxies. It makes me look good with my clients when they hire my kids, and yes, even makes exercise seem easy — I walk several miles a day when I’m on campus, without having to think about it."

“I can’t mentor everyone,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “But I get first dibs.” She says mentoring provides a source of deep love and respect, and that love and respect goes both ways. When her office hours are posted, all slots will up within 2 to 3 hours. “I’m blown away, and I’ve been unbelievably blessed,” she says.

The mentoring program Mills-Scofield is creating at Brown isn’t the first program she has created there. As a student in the early 1980s, she created one of the country’s first undergraduate majors in cognitive science.

Mills-Scofield credits her independence and entrepreneurial drive to her upbringing in Rumson, NJ. She and her sister attended public school, but every Tuesday, her mother took them into Manhattan to visit the museums. The girls were also encouraged to take another day off every week — to stay home and play.

Little wonder MIlls-Scofield grew into a woman determined to take responsibility for designing, and in some cases creating, her own opportunities in education and in life.

Not coincidentally, Mills-Scofield’s interest in mentoring also grew out of her own life experience. She started at Bell Labs when she was 20 years old, fresh from her Brown graduation, and eventually was responsible for engineering the most lucrative messaging-system patent in the history of AT&T Lucent.

“I was incredibly mentored at Bell Labs by men who took the time to mentor and teach me,” she says. “They went above and beyond, because they knew I had talent. And they mentored me because they would want someone to do this kind of mentoring for their own kids.” Such mentoring was not unusual at Bell Labs at that time, she says.

In a world where such mentoring has become rare, Mills-Scofield has been asked to take her process to other schools such as University of Chicago, and has gone through the process with some of her strategy and professional development clients. But, she says, “younger people are more fun to work with — they’re not as constrained.”

Mills-Scofield’s process lies largely in a series of powerful questions and principles. For example, she advises her mentees against making long-term plans. “Make a 10-year plan and put in a drawer somewhere,” she says. “It’s better to consider your life in two- to three-year chunks.”

She also tells “her kids” that their major is not their destiny. And that “nothing you do is irrevocable. There are many ways. You really can’t make a wrong decision.” She teaches them to experiment, learn, apply, and iterate as they consider their career progression.

Mentoring is what led Mills-Scofield to the BIF Summit in the first place. In 2009, Mills-Scofield connected with Saul Kaplan, BIF’s founder, to encourage a student’s interest in local business innovation. She and Kaplan struck up a friendship and she started attended every year. Kaplan invited her to speak at the BIF2014 Summit. Since then, she’s become a BIF board member. She’s also a storyteller at this year’s Summit, BIF2017.

It’s clear that the BIF Summit is aligned with the “process” with which Deb Mills-Scofield counsels her mentees.

“The BIF Summit provides the space — physical, emotional, and intellectual — for you to challenge yourself to think differently, surrounded by other people who are willing to take the risk with you,” she says.

“I first attended the BIF6 Summit, and my network has never been the same since,” Mills-Scofield says. “It’s a gift. I’ve been to every one and I can’t wait to tell my story at BIF2017.”

Nicha Ratana contributed to this story.

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