You might call Soraya Darabi a dream wrangler. In 2011, she co-founded Foodspotting, a photo-focused app that she later sold to OpenTable. Two years later, she co-founded Zady, an e-commerce destination for ethically-sourced fashion. Since then, Darabi has become a prolific angel investor, helping entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality. In 2017, she co-launched Trail Mix Ventures, which invests in consumer and technology brands that focus on what she calls “the future of living well.”
Darabi is genuinely interested in using her knowledge to help others grow, and, at age 33, she has a world of knowledge to share. In addition to being on several “Most Creative in Business” lists, she’s also thrice been named “mentor of the year” by Techstars New York. Here, we asked her to share why mentoring has become a big part of her life and how to do it well.
LESSONS FROM SHERYL SANDBERG
What led me to become a mentor was feeling at times in my career that I was lacking guidance. Now I have amazing mentors, but for a long time I was swimming aimlessly — with unbridled ambition, of course.
In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg writes, "Find not just a mentor, but a sponsor,” somebody who's going to feel almost accountable if your career is not going the way you have both planned. After reading that, I decided it was time to not only find a sponsor, but to also be a sponsor. I'm the daughter of a college professor, and I grew up in a house where teaching was a viable part of our daily conversation, so the role of coach is natural for me. I began to meet more regularly with a handful of young women, and I decided to be on call for them, to make sure that I was pushing them in a direction that they wanted, and to make solid introductions that could help them further their careers.
“Sometimes you forget to stop, breathe and take stock of all the beautiful life lessons you’ve learned, because it's so easy to only look forward. But mentoring helps put everything into perspective.”
I think that just blossomed into what I do today, which is advising and investing in businesses — and ultimately investing in people. Along the way, I try to be their friend and guide, but I won’t pretend to know everything. Being an early-stage investor is less like teaching a class and more like being a football coach, where you're carving out plays in a metaphoric strategy book and saying, "This is the play that we're going to learn today. Let's execute well."
I have a mentee who really wanted to break into media and leave her corporate job. She was destined to become a top-tier consultant, on her own terms. I walked through what it would look like ahead of the big jump, and made some introductions to potential employers who were slightly more flexible than the big company she left behind. She came back to me two years later and said that she craved working for a startup. I introduced her to a great friend who had recently launched a startup agency where she would be able to create her own role. A year later, she decided to go to business school to push her career even further. I’m writing her recommendations. When she graduates, I will help her land a dream role.
GETTING STARTED AS A MENTOR
Being a mentor is incredibly rewarding. A good way to start is to have office hours one day a week, for three hours, max. In the beginning, maybe nobody will come. Try sending an email around to younger women you work with, or post on social media and just say, "I don't have the answers to everything, but I've accomplished some things in my career, and if you'd like to learn from me, here’s when I’m available. Come by and I can answer any questions for you that you have on your mind." I began that several years ago, and I now host office hours at The Wing, a co-working and networking club for women that I invested in.
Working with mentees reminds me what it felt like at age 26 to leave a big company to join a startup. I was so nervous. When you meet with young women, it reminds you that their goals are very similar to what your own goals were at that age. Sometimes you forget to stop, breathe and take stock of all the beautiful life lessons you’ve learned, because it's so easy to only look forward. But mentoring helps put everything into perspective. I'm so proud of them, and I’m grateful for the knowledge and fulfillment they given me.