Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This March, we're commemorating Women's History Month by celebrating the amazing women in the Merit community. We chatted with mentor and Merit advocate Leslie Luo about the role of mentorship in her career.
Leslie Luo is a Senior Product Designer who collaborates with teams to strategize and execute user-centered research and design by identifying and creating solutions for the right problems to solve. She’s currently focused on elevating the membership experience with Uber Eats.
She hosts Conversations on her blog, west & ease, where with her guests, she explores themes such as the creative process and identity. She also shares Voice Notes, a series of personal thoughts and anecdotes where she shares questions and answers that she hopes to explore with herself and others.
Leslie is a mentor on Merit! If you have questions for Leslie about design, being a woman in tech, mock interviewing, and more, book some time with her on Merit.
Rachel Spurrier: What role has mentorship (either giving or receiving) played in your career journey?
Leslie Luo: Mentorship has allowed me to reflect and problem solve with someone else who has gone through a similar trajectory and is open to providing or receiving guidance to navigate it together.
One of the most powerful aspects of having a great mentor is someone who can help guide you in the various directions you want to head towards and arm you with the knowledge you need to make confident decisions for yourself. In all the small and big moments, my various mentors have acted as my support system as I navigated my life and career. A few of those moments included life-changing decisions like deciding to move across the country for a new role to small but mighty moments of learning how to meet more people intentionally or what to say in conversations with my managers and peers.
Becoming a mentor has allowed me to continue to grow and refine my skills as an active listener, problem solver, and coach. In addition, I find a lot of joy in helping others realize their potential. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing someone understand what may have initially seemed impossible become possible through a reframe or simply by feeling heard.
As a mentor with Merit, I've met many talented folks eager to figure out what to do next in their journey. Before providing solutions, I spend my sessions understanding context and holding space for folks to voice what they seek help with and, more importantly, why. Mentees will often feel lost in the details or overwhelmed when recounting all the micro-decisions or information they've been holding on to. But, in that process, folks are usually pretty clear on what they want and don't want. As a mentor, being able to reflect those insights back to them, even as simple as saying, "I'm hearing X, is that right?" helps mentees clarify their thoughts. It goes from "It's all in my head" to "Oh wait, this is a valid experience, and I can figure it out."
RS: You're a mentor with Merit. What led you to become a mentor? What has providing mentorship looked like for you?
LL: I owe much of the success of my career to the mentors who took the time out of their days to truly listen and arm me with ideas and tools to empower me to figure out whatever I wanted.
As I grew into a more senior role in my career, I started seeing the switch and desire from myself to practice learning through teaching—specifically through mentorship.
I've intentionally continued the individual contributor path in my full-time role because, currently, the skills I’m practicing give me more energy day-to-day. However, with this decision, I focus less on coaching and mentorship formally, which people managers usually do. That said, I still wanted to continue growing those skills for myself. After all, many folks in design careers can go back and forth between management and IC work. In addition, the strongest leaders I know can tap into a wide range of skills to amplify their roles—no matter their core responsibilities or titles. Thus, practicing mentorship is a no-brainer for me to continue my growth on my own terms.
With Merit, I joined because I was looking for a platform to help me focus on the core parts of what I loved most about mentorship: the 1:1 conversations that allow for fluid sessions to brainstorm and take action together. I was also looking specifically to connect more closely with underrepresented and under-networked communities so that I could do my part in bridging the gap and elevating others as those who have done so before me.
In general, I also find a lot of joy in being able to help someone grow and build their confidence. So if I could help at least one other person feel seen and heard, that's everything.
RS: What is the importance of having a mentor when you're earlier in your career?
LL: As a woman of color who grew up in an immigrant family and raised in a socio-economically disadvantaged community, mentorship, in its many forms, helped lift me from where I was to help me expand my worldview and access to people, places, and experiences that would not otherwise be available for me.
Thus, mentorship can be an incredible experience throughout your career—whether you're early, transitioning, or trying to figure out what's next.
For example, I wanted to pursue a law degree before my design career. One of my first mentors opened up access to the process of preparing for law school and gave me clarity through his experience and shared considerations to help me make my own decisions. He connected me to opportunities, including working at a local law clinic, introducing me to his professor leading to a summer internship, participating as a witness for mock trials for the courtroom experience, and eventually coaching me to apply and receiving an acceptance to a program that focused on elevating underrepresented students to prepare for law school.
Most pivotally, because of our multi-year relationship, when it came time for me to decide whether to commit to pursuing a law degree, he helped me make a firm decision on what to do next. In this case, I decided that I was not certain law was my path forward, and I would rather spend my time learning more about design. And his reassurance and support, which came from a place of rooting for me and genuine care, allowed me the confidence to make the switch.
So whether it's one person or multiple people who become your mentors, and no matter where you are in your career, having someone in your corner can be game-changing. Having someone on your side makes making tough decisions for yourself become more achievable and accessible.
RS: What advice would you give to someone earlier in their career when seeking out mentorship?
LL: When seeking a mentor, remember that a mentor can be someone who comes into your life once or is a recurring character in your career or life journey. I've had a few people in my life that have fundamentally changed the course of my career, whom I've only spoken with once, and that's perfectly fine! On the other hand, some mentors are more open to an ongoing relationship. As a mentee, how receptive and proactive you are to engaging in the mentorship gives cues for the type of relationship you want, and a great mentor can establish the right setup for you together.
When you start a mentorship conversation, get context to better understand why your mentor may provide specific types of feedback. This can be doing research on your mentor or topic beforehand or spending time to do proper intros before jumping into questions. A great mentor will take the time to listen to where you're coming from and then contextualize relevant experience to guide you based on where you are in your journey.
In addition to context setting, I encourage folks to ask questions early and often. And specifically, to craft your questions to be more specific to get more valuable answers. For example, if you’re reaching out through a cold email and want to learn more about someone’s career trajectory, instead of starting off asking “How did you become a designer?”, it could be more specific, such as, “What motivates you to continue designing today? And is that the same answer you had when you first started in your career?” This helps you get the same answer but contextualize where your mentor’s journey might be and connect it back to where you might be.
Throughout your mentorship journey, be open because another perspective can lead to a reframe. A great mentor can help you think of other ways to tackle a problem or thought that might be different or something you've been avoiding. Sit in that feeling and push on it to better understand whether it's a good choice for yourself.
Most recently, as a mentee, I had my first conversation with a new mentor where I came in feeling stuck and worried about whether or not I could go up for a promotion in the upcoming performance cycle at work. I initially expressed that maybe it’s not the right time or I’m not feeling really set up for success at the moment. And the mentor asked me directly, “Well, why not?” Once we talked through my actual fears underneath my initial questions, it made me realize that I had much more control over my future. That, and, I’ve got work to do and know what I could try next. In this case, I went into our conversation with concerns but also with openness to hearing what and how my mentor would approach an experience they’ve also gone through before, thus allowing me to really hear myself and their suggestions to make a decision moving forward.
At the end of the day, no matter what the conversations lead to, use those answers to help guide your decisions, but ultimately remember that you're living your life. The decisions you make are for yourself, and you have to live with them. Mentorship is a lifelong journey for those who genuinely value it. So this advice is a firm reminder for myself and others on their way to continue trying and iterating as you go.
RS: Beyond your work as a senior product designer, you also freelance as a consultant and run west & ease. How do you think about career paths and roles beyond your full-time gig?
LL: I'm inspired by folks who have multifaceted careers because, at the end of the day, we're multifaceted people. We all hold multiple roles and identities for ourselves and those around us.
As a recovering people pleaser, early in my career, I was often given the advice to consider saying "no" to more things so that I could focus 100% on one thing and get really good at it. But, I resonated more with the idea of being able to try a bunch of stuff so that I can figure out what I'm really into and could grow into not just a career but an integral part of my identity. And I've found that I'm into multiple things and want to learn and grow each at a different pace based on the different seasons of my life.
A few years back, I was hyper-focused on achieving the "senior" title as a product designer to prove to myself that I really could do this thing called design. However, after accomplishing that, I started to feel a bit lost and was languishing because I had spent all these years trying to be one thing that came at the cost of my whole self.
When I took a step back to re-evaluate my values, I realized that being creative just for fun and learning purely through curiosity to better understand the world got lost because I stopped prioritizing it for myself. I also love collaborating with others and encouraging more ways for myself to be able to root for others. And so, when I became more intentional about trying and incorporating activities that re-enable those parts of my identity to flourish again, outside of just being a product designer, I could begin to fulfill my whole self rather than just being what I was in my full-time role.
All-in-all, I'm also wholly inspired by multi-hyphenate people and lives. So I hope to live a long life and explore all the variations of myself in multiple careers, identities, and plain old hobbies that honor my values—instead of just being defined by my full-time role.
Have more questions for Leslie about mentorship, design, and careers in tech? Schedule some time with her on Merit!