When Sint Moe was joining a company remotely at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she knew she needed help. The organization, which was headquartered in Germany, hadn’t supported many remote employees before, and Moe was concerned about starting a job in this environment. “I was really anxious and nervous,” said Moe, who is now a product manager. “I really needed to have a mentor or a coach to help me get through this year and this imposter syndrome I had to work 100% remotely.”
But career coaches can cost hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars over time, a barrier to entry that felt too high. A friend posted in a community forum about Merit and its mission to help underrepresented communities break through in tech. “I felt like that mission really stood out to me. I saw these images of [co-founder] Kirk [Fernandes] on the platform, and I felt like I could relate to his experiences.”
Despite having “no expectation whatsoever,” Moe was able to book time easily on mentors’ calendars from an array of backgrounds and disciplines in tech. While other platforms might match you to a mentor, Moe really enjoys being able to find mentors on her own and schedule the calls herself.
Since her first session on Merit, Moe has been able to connect with mentors on everything from working with consultants to learning about the role of researchers on product teams. When she was asked by her manager to create a growth plan, something she’d never done before, she worked with Fernandes, the co-founder, during a mentor session to create a foundation she could subsequently build off.
Thanks to Merit, Moe now has access to a community of hundreds of mentors. She can reach out to this trusted network almost any time, whenever she finds herself stuck or looking to grow her career. And crucially, this network includes tech professionals with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. Moe relayed, “I felt like a lot of them were people of color and were doing such great things. I really resonated a lot with their experiences.” When much of the tech world is still dominated by white men, access to diverse leaders in the space is crucial.
Moe’s experiences on Merit are the culmination of three years of effort by Randy Brown and Kirk Fernandes. In 2018, they were working separately but both found the challenges of helping underrepresented groups succeed and grow in the tech industry. As a Lead Product Manager at VTS, a commercial real estate leasing platform, Fernandes (full disclosure: Fernandes and I were coworkers at VTS from 2016 to 2017) was finding it difficult to manage a diverse team of product managers. Supporting each individual was challenging; much of management is connecting the right people at the right time, and Fernandes wasn’t finding a good way to do so.
Brown, meanwhile, was CTO at Jopwell, a diversity recruiting site. Although the company was successfully placing diverse professionals at good companies, the employees were leaving sooner than expected. Brown wanted to understand why these hires weren’t remaining in their new gigs, in many cases their first or second jobs in industry. The companies wanted their new employees to be successful, but somehow they reached a point where “they felt job-hopping was the way forward,” Brown described. “Clearly, there was a gap in helping folks in their career when they’re in the job.” His hypothesis was that “People who go from junior to senior had some mentor to [do so].” The question for Brown became the same as Fernandes’: “How do we connect people?”
Brown and Fernandes were introduced in 2018 by Belinda Ju, a coworker of Fernandes and a friend of Brown. The two met twice in October of that year — once at The Yard in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and later at a coworking space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Their first discussion covered the tech industry and its problems, like stymied career growth thanks to limited mentorship opportunities. Their second focused on founding a company, their roles, and their goals for a startup. They decided to start working together on small projects and by January 2019 had committed to working together full time.
One of their earliest investors, Donald DeSantis, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Nava, saw the potential in Fernandes and Brown’s newly formed company, Merit. As he wrote to me in an email, “I totally buy the thesis that a huge portion of our talent market is ‘under-networked’ and under-coached. Fixing this is a huge opportunity for everyone.”
Merit tried a series of implementations to fulfill its mission of democratizing career growth and professional networking. Merit’s first life was as an enterprise Slackbot. As Brown put it, “People are in Slack all day anyway, so why not there?” Employees could request mentorship through the Slackbot, installed by the company’s human resources team. But companies seemed to prefer to develop mentorship programs internally within their own organization, and employees didn’t seem to trust a program installed by the HR team.
From there, the pair moved on to a prototype, manually connecting mentors to members. Fernandes said, “The manual days were very fun.” They’d speak to junior people in tech and ask about their problems in their careers. On the other side, they’d reach out to more senior folks and learn why they wanted to help those earlier in their careers. Based on both prospective mentee and mentor responses, Fernandes and Brown would introduce people over email. Over time, the numbers of mentors and members grew to the point where Fernandes and Brown couldn’t do all the work manually themselves.
At that point, Merit decided to scale up its operations and launched a web app in the summer of 2019. Rather than having a full list of mentors on one page (”an open list of faces was too daunting,” Fernandes explained), they decided to create a list of topics based on recurring themes, like product strategy and managing imposter syndrome. That way, members visiting Merit for the first time wouldn’t need to arrive with a fully formed question — they could use the topics as a way to shape their questions and seek out a mentor.
Merit also trialed group sessions during this time but quickly realized that the coordination cost was high — too many schedules to consider at once — and that the format devolved into a presentation rather than a discussion. Merit values meaningful interactions, so group sessions lost that one-on-one connection so central to mentorship. Niko Lazaris, the senior software engineer at Drift who has contributed software development time to Merit, said, “With Merit, what I’ve felt, usually, is a real sense of who that person is. After meeting with them, I feel invested in that network.”
Merit had also realized by this time that mentors were not looking to influence; they were looking to help, so a group format over-indexed on influence but underdelivered on helping folks directly. For mentors, the act of mentorship is intrinsically valuable over creating courses or giving talks — but prospective mentors also face many inbound requests through LinkedIn, Twitter, and resource groups.
How could Merit deliver a great mentorship experience? For Merit in 2020, that meant moving from a manual prototype to a tech-enabled program by providing control and putting the agency in the hands of mentors through built-in safety features: a member must have a session with a mentor before they can send direct messages. Mentors set their calendars and can limit how much time they make themselves available on the platform. Mentors can take breaks to prioritize their mental health and manage the reach outs they receive from prospective members across channels. Leslie Luo, a senior product designer at a large tech company, wrote via email, “As I grow into my career, I often get cold LinkedIn requests for conversations and mentorship. It’s been so easy to refer folks to sign up to Merit for 1:1 face time and they not only get my time but also a whole network of amazing mentors and coaches.”
2020 also saw the world transition fully into the digital space thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because Merit was a video call platform by default, mentors, and members gravitated to the platform, and the company experienced an easier transition. This was around the time that Luo was introduced to Merit by Gary Chou, an advisor to Merit. “Personally, I owed a lot of my career journey to mentors and communities who provided me feedback and guidance as I navigated the tech world,” she wrote. “Merit really gave me the opportunity to continue connecting with folks virtually, and a bit of optimism and hope during such a bleak time.”
Despite the web app, Merit was still doing many steps manually in 2021, so the company needed to up-level its program to a full-fledged mentorship product. Fernandes and Brown were creating mentor profiles, orienting mentors to the platform, performing mock calls (the two performed upwards of 200 mock mentorship calls), and entering mentors’ preferred scheduling and availability. Merit used these onboarding sessions as additional user research, understanding mentors’ motivations and concerns. Armed with this information, Merit simplified and streamlined by building several new features: automatically created mentor profiles based on mentor inputs, in-app tutorials, guides, and programmatically generated schedules rather than through manual data entry.
Later in 2021, Merit began developing content featuring career advice both through its blog and on the platform. This content was then distributed to communities, mentors, and members. Through its research for this content, Merit began realizing that the role of mentorship evolves and cycles throughout our careers: we all move from mentee to mentor back to the mentee. We need help; we give help; we need advice; we give advice. Both Luo and Lazaris have both sought and provided Mentorship on Merit, which isn’t uncommon for Merit users.
Providing advice and connecting mentors, members, and new groups isn’t difficult for Fernandes and Brown. One common theme across everyone I interviewed — mentor, member, investor, friend — was admiration and genuine affection for the people and the mission. Lazaris said, “They’re both very warm individuals,” while Luo wrote, “I was moved by Randy and Kirk’s mission, especially the focus around helping bridge the gap between tech and underrepresented communities.” DeSantis wrote, “I consider both of them friends.” Moe emphasized, “I also love Kirk’s and Randy’s personalities, [they’re] very focused on people’s growth.”
An important but often overlooked aspect of growth is the idea of “debugging” your career. When seeking help from a mentor, we’re often stuck with a seemingly unsolvable problem: we don’t know how to talk to our manager; we have a tense relationship with a teammate; we’re not sure where we want to go in our careers. These blocking moments are bugs in our careers, and as so often with debugging code, they’re not things we can fix entirely on our own. Merit mentors in this sense act like senior engineers, pair programming with junior devs to find a solution.
In 2022 and beyond, Merit is looking to lower the barrier to entry for this kind of help even further, simplifying the process while scaling the number of mentors and members. A major challenge will be maintaining meaningful connections. Many tech resource groups and mentorship programs have solved this problem by curating or closing their communities. Merit, meanwhile, strives to make the platform open and accessible.
The company’s latest launch is Discussions — anyone can post a question, whether it be advice on asking for a promotion or trends in tech. Discussion threads act as a place to give and receive help, learn from the experiences of others, and increase the number of interactions between mentors and members without having to schedule a call. Members don’t always need a video call, and mentors were looking for a lighter-weight way to provide career advice. Fernandes wrote in a Slack discussion with me, “The hardest part of designing Merit is making the human interactions by default being low friction and high impact for the normal tech worker. If we can do at scale, that’s a super valuable system.”
Because mentorship evolves for each individual throughout their career, Merit serves as a revolving door: seek help, grow, provide help; seek help again, grow more, and provide help. Whether it’s a one-on-one call or a discussion on the platform, Merit will continue to help everyone in tech find their way forward.