Can a Woman of Color Thrive at Any Age? Multihypenate Maven Sophia Chang Launched a Mentorship Platform to Unlock Her Potential

Sophia Chang, left, with fashion activist Bethann Hardison and writer/educator Joan Morgan, both Unlock Her Potential mentors.
Sophia Chang, left, with fashion activist Bethann Hardison and writer/educator Joan Morgan, both Unlock Her Potential mentors.

I honestly believe that if you talk to me for an hour, I could change your fucking life.”

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It’s the kind of statement Sophia Chang tosses off without the slightest bit of hesitation or irony—and in the immortal words of Beyoncé, she “talk like this ‘cause she can back it up.” The music industry veteran is a proven powerhouse, having managed hip hop and R&B icons like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, GZA, D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, Q Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, RZA, and Joey Bada$$, the latter two of whom she also ran labels for. It may have been an unlikely trajectory for a Korean-Canadian who graduated college with a degree in French literature, but over 30 years later, the multihyphenate Chang is not only known as The Baddest Bitch in the Room, she literally wrote the book on it.

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As she told The Glow Up, she couldn’t have done it without mentorship; she was lucky enough to find it early on in industry heavyweight Michael Ostin. Chang credits Ostin with providing much of the guidance that has shaped her incredibly successful career in all its iterations since they met in 1987, but it wasn’t until four years ago while giving a lecture at Columbia University that she recognized how rare mentorship is for other women of color.

“My girlfriend Kysha, who is a Black woman, stood up and said, ‘Sophia, I’ve never had a mentor. I really wish I had. Can you recommend how to get a mentor?” That question became a conversation moderated by Chang’s close friend and The Root’s editor-in-chief, Danielle Belton. “Afterwards, [Danielle] said, ‘Sophia, I’m really glad you said something about it because it is very difficult for women of color to get mentors,” says Chang. “I went on the Internet and I started researching it and there wasn’t very much written about it at the time. And it became clear to me that she’s absolutely right; there is a dearth of mentorship for women of color.”

Chang’s findings reflect those of McKinsey & Company and LeanIn’s 2020 Women in the Workplace Study (pdf), which refers to the lack of support Black women, in particular, face in the workplace as a factor in the “broken rung syndrome” that affects upward mobility.

Compared with their colleagues of other races and ethnicities, Black women have always had distinct, and by and large worse, experiences at work. They are promoted more slowly than other groups of employees and are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership. They are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to say their manager advocates for new opportunities for them. And they have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance. Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that Black women are less likely than employees of other races to report they have equal opportunity to advance at work.

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Part of the issue is the lack of support provided by mentoring, an issue Chang once again addressed when she helped The Root host a 2017 panel about mentorship for women of color. By that time, a seed had been planted, and she’d begun to conceive of a consultancy to help companies build mentorship programs for women of color. But in the midst of our COVID-induced lockdown this spring, a news segment about a teen mentorship program compelled her to think even bigger.

“It just lit a fire,” she says. “It just made me go, ‘God, I really want to do something. I’m going to start this program.’”

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That program is Unlock Her Potential, a mentorship program as radically unique as Chang herself. Created for women of color of all ages, Unlock Her Potential grants each of its chosen mentees one hour per month with a top professional in their chosen field, for an entire year, absolutely free.

If that doesn’t sound like enough time, consider the recurrent online debate over the value of a million dollars versus lunch with Jay-Z. “An hour per month for a year will change your life,” Chang repeats.

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This is especially true when that hour is spent with the likes of pioneers and visionaries like Troy Carter, Mona Scott-Young, Yvette Noel-Schure, Bethann Hardison, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Marvet Britto, 9th Wonder, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Skolnik, Karen Good-Marable, Cheo Hodari Coker, RZA, GZA, Joey Bada$$, Michael Ostin, Danielle Belton,and of course, Chang herself; just a sampling of the over 108 incredible mentors across industries (with a majority in TV, film and music) she’s signed on thus far.

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“I secured over 100 mentors in less than three days. Once we opened the website, we got over 400 people signing up for updates within a week before we’d even announced a single mentor,” she shares. As of Thursday morning, Unlock Her Potential had received 1,000 applications.

The site itself explains the demand: “Research has revealed that very few women of color get mentored. Just as bad, many don’t even think to seek mentors. That’s how systemic racism and patriarchy work hand-in-hand.”

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Also working hand-in-hand is Unlock Her Potential’s pairing process, in which each prospective mentee chooses and submits an application to a single mentor’s profile, who then chooses from among their applicant pool a single mentee to work with for the year, for a one-to-one match.

“Unlock Her Potential is not doing any matchmaking. You don’t get a bunch of applicants, and then a bunch of mentors and try to figure out who would be the best with who,” Chang explains. “It is up to you as a prospective mentee to do the research to figure out who you want to mentor you. So you go on the site, you go under the discipline that you think is interesting to you, you read about all these different people and you say, ‘OK, you know what? She’s really interesting to me. I would like her to mentor me,’ and you apply on the website directly...It’s much more targeted that way,” she adds.

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As for the impressive roster of mentors she recruited for an untested format, Chang says the response was immediate and enthusiastic.

“That speaks to two things,” she says. “Primarily and most importantly, the urgency and the importance of mentorship for women of color. That’s number one. Everybody knew...This is important.

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“No. 2, me. I’m Sophia-motherfucking-Chang. People don’t really say no to me,” she chuckles.“They know that if I step into an arena. I’m going to come out swinging. And I’m going to get it done. I am the fixer; I am the professional; I am the cleaner; I am the glue.

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“I’ve worked with, am friends with, or am colleagues with every one of those hundred and seven people,” she continues. “What it means is that I am very clear on what it is that I’m asking. And I must manage expectations. That’s why it was designed so specifically: an hour a month...This is very hard to say no to, as busy as everybody is—and some of those people on that list are insanely busy.”

Newly launched this summer, the application phase for the first round of mentees closing swiftly on Monday, Oct. 5, at 11:59 p.m. PT. With such an overwhelming response and an applicant pool currently boasting a ten-to-one applicant-to-mentor ratio, the process is understandably competitive, meaning all applicants will not be accepted. While potentially discouraging, it’s nonetheless indicative of the program’s massive potential—and again, just one of the many expectations Chang hopes to manage in the mentor/mentee relationship, even for those lucky enough to be placed with a mentor this cycle.

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“What Unlock Her Potential aims to do is to provide professional guidance and counsel...That, in and of itself, is a gift,” she says.

“So it’s really about offering people the opportunity—but again, boundaries—it is so critical for both the mentors and the mentees,” she continues. “Don’t think that you signed up for a mentor and they’re gonna get you a job; that’s not what happens here. Don’t think that they’re going to read your 300-page manuscript of your science fiction novel. They’re not doing that shit, either.

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“This is about coming to them and in that hour, asking them specific questions about your path, about your professional development, and how to best navigate the world that you’re in and how they can guide you in that? This is not about access—it might turn into that, but it’s not the expectation,” she concludes.

All that can happen in an hour a month?

“In one hour—shit, I could probably do that in half an hour,” she laughs. “I believe that for all of the people on the list.”

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As a manager-turned-record industry exec-turned-producer-turned-author-turned-screenwriter, Chang also believes in second, third, fourth, and even fifth acts in life. (As a teacher-turned-model-turned-musician-turned-writer-turned-editor, I’m inclined to agree.)

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“I didn’t even write my memoir until I was 52—52!” she exclaims, explaining why there’s no age cap on the mentorship offered by Unlock Her Potential. “I believe that we should all have many acts in life, if that’s what we want...[but] I think that there are so many women who feel trapped in their roles and they don’t know how to transition. So that’s my idea about having no ceiling on the age because women at a certain age are invisible; women of color are totally invisible. Nobody’s thinking about us. Nobody is checking for us on the professional front or the personal front. So that was really important to me.”

And then, there’s the fact that as a single mother of two, Chang knows intimately the challenges of trying to strike a personal and professional balance while raising children. “I think that’s a common experience,” she says. “My issue is for a lot of women, they pour a lot into being mothers—that’s real, and it’s a good thing...[but] that whole thing of you can be a tremendously engaged mother and have a super high-performing job? I think that’s bullshit.”

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Cutting through the bullshit that impedes the success of women of color is at the core of Chang’s next act. Even with Unlock Her Potential still in beta phase, her always multitasking mind is already planning an ancillary project, turning her attention back to creating programs to address corporate America’s treatment of women of color. Specifically, the lack of retention that makes climbing the ranks within companies nearly impossible; a crucial barrier to success Chang says was brought to her attention by PR professional Chelsea Fuller of Blackbird. In response, she intends to launch RAWC—an acronym for “Retention and Ascension for Women of Color.”

“How we usually ascend within an organization is that we start at a certain level and ascend within it,” she explains. “So you hire a woman of color as an assistant. How long does she stay with you? How high does she rise?

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“I am trying to force white male corporate America’s gaze on this dearth, this terrible dearth that exists within its structures, and that is that there is so little mentorship for women of color,” she adds. “I know this—we know this. We need to address this...If you mentor women of color from the gate, there will be retention and ascension. So, it’s all wrapped up into one.”

As a seasoned mentor, Chang explains the process is mutually beneficial.

“With Unlock Her Potential, what am I doing? I’m going to change the lives of 216 people: 108 mentees and 108 mentors,” she says, including herself in the number. “And that is edifying for me. That is instructive for me and it is illuminating for me. And it also feels really, really, really good to see your mentee succeed. It feels tremendous.”

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For more information or to apply for mentorship through Unlock Her Potential, visit their website. The deadline for this year’s applications is Monday, Oct. 5, at 11:59 p.m. PT.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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