Kathy McKinless, a partner at KPMG Peat Marwick, is discussing how her company is dealing with Y2K issues while eating a steaming baked potato. Instead of a business suit and pumps, she's wearing a baseball cap covered with merit badges. Instead of fielding e-mail from clients, she's answering questions from 15-year-old girls.
This is today's mentoring.
Many companies offer mentoring programs as a way to help their younger employees and retain them in today's tight labor market. But now that mentoring is trickling down to the teenage level.
"I think that today we're seeing companies who know that they've got to recruit early and create leadership opportunities and just dreams that are achievable for teens," said John Challenger, a Chicago-based business consultant who tracks workplace trends. And in addition to simply mentoring, "more and more companies hire teens for jobs at young ages, exposing them to work in a business environment," he said. "It's a lot better summer job than cutting lawns."
In Salem, Ore., for example, teens this summer took part in In2Biz--a summer entrepreneur camp where teens took classes on corporate ethics and business plans and even took golf lessons.
Locally, Patriots Technology Training Center is a five-week pilot program designed to expose about 20 students from Prince George County's high schools to technology-related careers. Campers meet with local executives and participate in a week-long internship during the program.
Camp CEO, being held this week at Camp Coles Trip in Stafford, Va., is a program organized by the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital. Rather than spending a day at executive offices, 28 teens are spending the week side by side with 23 female business leaders, eating, camping, windsurfing, singing and doing chores.
"Our goal is to create an informal atmosphere," said Jan Verhage, executive director of the Girl Scout council. "Girls can ask questions while they're cleaning latrines with the CEOs."
The women and Girl Scouts at Camp CEO, in only its second year, are on equal ground--something easier to achieve when the women are in bathing suits, trying to stay afloat on a windsurfer, rather than in heels.
And while the businesswomen are informally mentoring the campers, they, too, are learning.
"Last year's experience was so fulfilling," said Shireen Dodson, assistant director at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African American History and Culture. She is at the Stafford County-based camp for the second year in a row, despite an emergency appendectomy just a few days before she came to the camp. "It's a mentoring opportunity that works because it's so simple--it's an opportunity that these girls wouldn't usually have."
Every morning the girls sit in on "Dreaming Your Future," an informal presentation given by several of the women, describing how they got to their positions.
"It's good for the girls to hear a big corporate CEO say she didn't have a date for the prom," said Dodson.
Nora Pfeiffer, a 14-year-old Fairfax High School sophomore, agrees. "I like when . . . they tell us how they got to where they are today," she said. "I've learned that even if something really hard comes along, there's always a way to make things better."
Roberta Sims, a vice president at Washington Gas Light Co., said she wants to hear from the campers how she can help them. "I do what I can to support girls," she said. "You've got to give back."
At lunch this week, McKinless fielded a barrage of questions. "Where did you start?" "Have you enjoyed working at your company?" "Do you interact with lots of people?" "What things do you get to do?" "What do you actually mean when you say 'audit'?"
And between those questions, McKinless explained what it meant to her, being a woman in accounting--traditionally a man's world. "Women used to not be in accounting," she said. "I was one of three women out of 100 grads."
Most of the young campers were encouraged by their mothers to attend Camp CEO, but they appeared enthusiastic nonetheless.
Moments later, McKinless was earning another credit for a badge--dancing with a broom to a boisterous accompaniment of 28 girls singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
At the end of the week, the girls take the women's business cards. Last year, there was some follow-up with the mentors--one girl organized a career day at her school with several businesswomen who were at the camp. And some of the women keep an eye on girls with whom they've built a special bond during the week.
Sixteen-year-old LaLena Prior, who will be a junior at Gwynn Park Middle School in Prince George's County this year, had never been to camp before.
"My mother told me I was going," she said. "But it's not as bad as I thought." After a few days of being water-shy, LaLena gathered enough gumption to try her hand at windsurfing. She succeeded, much to the joy of the women who had been prodding her to go for it.
Later, the pupil and the businesswoman paddled off together in a kayak. "I'm glad I didn't go home," LaLena said.
Here are some ways for teenagers to check out the availability of business mentoring programs and other relevant opportunities in the area.
Talk directly to businesses you are interested in and ask if they sponsor mentoring programs, or ask directly if you can shadow a professional for the day.
Talk to local schools and universities about access they may have to mentoring or internship programs.
Ask your school counselor directly for summer programs in your area. Counselors receive lists of internships and mentoring camps, among other things.
Web sites with more mentoring information:
Expect the Best From a Girl (www.academic.org) provides, among other things, a sampling of mentoring opportunities for pre-college-age girls.
InternshipPrograms.com lets you search internships by region or company, and then by topic.
The Women of NASA's Virtual Take Our Daughters to Work Day site (quest.arc.nasa.gov/women/TODTWD98/) features chats with Women of NASA mentors. Interactive events will resume in September. Links that contain information related to women and science are also on the site.