Silicon Valley: Ageism vs. Dating-App-Style Mentoring

In March this year, New Republic published a searing investigation into the technology industry. Under the headline “The Brutal Ageism of Tech: Years of experience: plenty of talent, completely obsolete” this labelled Silicon Valley “one of the most ageist places in America”.
It is certainly true that many startups tend to be populated by extremely young people. Yet surely this is only half the picture? Established firms necessarily hire people across the age spectrum, whilst learning from experience is a tried and tested method of career development.
Californian-based startup, Everwise, firmly adheres to this belief and has come up with a new, updated approach to mentoring. As CEO Mike Bergelson explains over the phone from San Francisco: “This is a software platform that works not unlike an online dating platform to connect people with their ideal mentor.”
But how is this received?

“I live in San Francisco and I spend most of the week somewhere in between Palo Alto and San Francisco and routinely bump into people who would consider themselves at the vanguard of tech,” says Bergelson. “And when I explain what we do – sometimes, I will admit, people are like ‘what mentoring? Uhhh...’ I do get that from time to time because it is a softer thing.”
“Many of the problems that folks in Silicon Valley are choosing to work on are hard engineering problems where they’re trying to make databases run ten times faster or trying to get a car to run on electricity or something like that. So when we talk about a very human process, people will sometimes scratch their heads and say ‘mentoring, that’s so old school’.”
“But then I explain what we’re doing and how we’re using data to reinvent this process and they’re like ‘oh that’s kind of cool’. And then we’re like forget all that: ‘do you have a mentor?’ 97 out of a 100 people will stop and go, ‘oh I get it’.”
“[This allows you to] do the same as you do on Tinder or eHarmony or, or whatever your favourite dating app is,” Bergelson continues. “Give me seven minutes of your time to tell me about yourself and I will find someone who will be an awesome mentor for you right now and help you through whatever it is you want to work on.”
But does all this fly in the face of heavily reported ageism? Or is it all just a bit silly to use these blanket terms in the first place? “Ageism, it all depends on the organisation that you’re looking at,” says Bergelson. “Some of the larger technology companies are skewed much more heavily towards older workers. HP, Cisco, look at the data. They are great companies. People came in in their 20s or 30s and have stayed. “
“There are aspects of working in startups that lend themselves to folks with boundless energy and no responsibilities,” he adds. “[But] we’re starting to see organisations that are a lot more sensible about work life balance…”
There is a general tendency in the media to break the world down into clear blacks and whites. And Bergelson finds the generational stereotypes highly questionable: “Most people [in the millennial age group] I speak to, who I consider to be sentient, independently intelligent folks will roll their eyes the minute I say ‘I’m going to throw a label out and get your take’. 'The Millenial thing?' I've found that young people dislike being labelled the same way many folks in the American Latino community reject the idea of being lumped together as 'Hispanic voters' around election time here in the US.”
In practice, this app works by drawing on professionals’ LinkedIn profiles. It then asks them a series of questions and matches them to a mentor or mentee based on their requirements. The idea is the system gets smarter over time and, like Amazon, offers tools based on previous learning.
The app is matching people from all over the world. “When we first started many connections were from the same country,” says Bergelson. “Over the last six to nine months they’ve started connecting people from different countries.”
“One of the benefits of the online approach is we can erase geography from the equation,” he continues. It also connects professionals across industries. This means that companies don’t need to worry that their “best and brightest” - who they put into the program – will get poached by the mentor.
“We reject the idea that people who are older don’t have anything to add in the workplace,” stresses Bergelson. “Most of the work we’re doing is helping to enable those cross-generational connections.”
He is also hearing a lot of informal stories about reverse mentoring at present. This is where an older employee learns about new technology and social media from a younger employee. This tends to be ad hoc but he is “starting to see more formalised”.
There will be a massive knowledge transfer required from the retiring boomers. “We’re going to see a lot more cross-generational mentoring coming to the fore as organisations realise the challenges they have ahead of them,” he adds.
“It is cool that we can use modern technologies to re-imagine an age old process,” concludes Bergelson.  “At the end of the day it is about helping to connect people so they can get more out of work where they spend half or two thirds of their daily lives.”

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect

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