In The Odyssey, before he leaves for the Trojan War, Odysseus asks Mentor, a wise old friend to watch over his son, Telemachus. While Odysseus was on the battleground, goddess Athena, also disguised herself as Mentor to watch over Telemachus, creating Western history’s first interpretation of a female-male mentor relationship. Below, Bill Burke-White, Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of Perry World House, speaks of the role of powerful female mentors and role models in his journey to leadership with Associate Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
Q: A body of literature is showcasing how men who grow up with female role models not only support women but perform better as leaders. Can you use your own personal experiences to expand on that conversation?
A: I have been incredibly lucky to have been taken under the wings of a number of extraordinary women leaders, who have served as mentors, role models, and inspiration throughout my life. Their guidance, advice, example, and friendship has been truly invaluable in sparking my passions, shaping my person, and advancing my career. Each of them has gone above and beyond to steer me, to guide me, at times to correct me, and to ultimately launch me on the trajectory of the past decades. Perhaps most importantly, each has become a friend as well as a guide and I am grateful beyond words.
My series of female mentors starts with my mother, an inspirational leader for women’s advancement in her own right. Growing up, mom shared with me her stories of integrating the dorms at Harvard Business School, literally breaking down the then male-only doors of the Harvard Club upon graduation, and navigating the challenging path of being a business professional and single mother. She made a choice when I was four to move from the world of business to the world of academia to be able to drop me off at school in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon. She gave me the gift of the world – studying and learning on her sabbaticals in the temples of Tibet and the youth camps of the Soviet Union, the museums of Italy and the local communities in Bolivia. My curiosity for and respect of the cultures and peoples of the world is directly attributable to mom’s leadership and guidance in these formative years.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work for several amazing women whose own careers have inspired and shaped mine. In law school, I met a professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who has fundamentally shaped who I am as a scholar and leader. Anne-Marie, one of the world’s leading international lawyers and now President of New America, took me under her wing, first as a research assistant and then as a co-author, challenging me to hone my academic work and helping me develop a voice in the field. Over the years, Anne-Maire has hired me twice – first at Princeton when she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and then at the State Department, when she was Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. Over the years, that mentoring relationship has become a close personal friendship. Anne-Marie still gives me guidance, ideas, and opportunities that have a lasting impact. And, today, it means the world to me that I can occasionally reciprocate.
At the State Department, I served one of the great women leaders of our time, Secretary Hillary Clinton. Her leadership, both within the State Department, and on a global stage truly inspired me. Watching Secretary Clinton navigate the most challenging global issues with political skill, diplomatic grace, and hard-nosed strategic thinking was one of the great opportunities of my life and has shaped my own leadership skills.
Today, I’m fortunate to work for another of the great women leaders of our time, Penn President Amy Gutmann. President Gutmann put her faith in me to build Perry World House from the ground-up over the past three years. As we have together shaped Penn’s new international affairs institute and Penn’s global engagement, I’ve watched and learned from President Gutmann. Her mentorship, her commitment to me and Perry World House, and her incredible leadership of Penn inspire us all and give us the examples and role models we need for the future.
Q: Many women you have mentored have spoken about your role as a nurturer and enabler, what lessons did you learn from your female role models?
A: I am deeply committed to advancing the careers of women in academe, in global affairs, and foreign policy. I’m lucky at Penn to get to teach incredible female students and to serve as leader of an institution with many extraordinary female staff members. The mentorship I received from women leaders reaffirms to me the importance of helping all those I work with – women and men–deepen their own thinking and advance their careers. Collectively the mentorship I receive leaves me with three powerful lessons for serving as a mentor. First, gender doesn’t matter. By that, I mean that men and women in positions to lead must mentor others regardless of their gender. It is a great responsibility and opportunity and applies equally to all. Second, time. Mentors give the most valuable thing they have – their own time – and any great mentoring relationship requires time. Time to think together, to write together, to talk, to advise. Such relationships also must stand the duration of time, even if jobs change, people move, and life goes its various directions. Third, have their back. All of the great women I have worked for and with have had my back when I needed them, including when I make mistakes (something we all do). A great mentor has your back, helps you through the rough patches, and gives you the guidance and support you need to do better in the future.