How I Started a Military Mentor Network

Lt. Col. Erika Cashin, 44, started a Lean In Circle to mentor other women in the air force.

By Nicole Ng on July 25, 2013.
Lean In Northern Lights meets on the second Wednesday of every month in Minneapolis. Photo by Erika Cashin (below).
Lean In Northern Lights meets on the second Wednesday of every month in Minneapolis. Photo by Erika Cashin (below).

When Erika Cashin joined the U.S. Air Force in 1996, she was prepared to be outnumbered by men. But she never gave much thought to the fact that she’d likely never have a mentor – let alone a female one. “While the military has formal career mentorship programs, forming close and personal relationships can be restricted,” says the 44-year-old, now a Lieutenant Colonel for the US Air Force Reserve, based in Minneapolis. “At times, this can create a vacuum for junior officer or enlisted women seeking a close mentorship relationship.”

Cashin wanted to change that. And so, about three years ago, she started talking with female colleagues about reaching out to younger recruits. She started conversations about mentorship, and organized meetings to discuss the stigma that women are often against each other. Cashin wanted to make sure her younger staffers had the kind of support she hadn’t.

Today, that drive has taken the shape of a local Lean In Circle – one she fondly refers to as the “Lean In Northern Lights.” Each month, on the second Wednesday, she and a dozen or so other federal staffers have lunch at a local restaurant, or at a club for military personnel, to talk about navigating the federal workplace. She calls it “professional networking.”

Cashin spoke with Lean In about what makes her Circle work.

Lt. Col. Erika Cashin

Lt. Col. Erika Cashin

Host: Erika Cashin

Age: 44

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Profession: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force Reserve

Circle Motto: “Bloom where you’re planted.” The initial impetus for forming the group was the Madeline Albright quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Value of the circle:At its core, the military is a competitive entity. My vision for our circle is to ensure this competition isn’t a part of the interpersonal relationships between the women we serve with. The Lean In Circle concept lends a great structure for allowing participants to provide mutual support in issues specific to the military and Federal workplace. We all appreciate having a venue to open up to through the circle, since it really isn’t appropriate at work.

Challenges of being a woman in the military: In the military, if a man provides discipline, it’s regarded as discipline and appropriate. When discipline comes from a woman, it’s often perceived as personal – that she’s being negative. I believe you have to act in a professional manner. Above all, always do the right thing, and that may mean holding people accountable for their actions and decisions. Don’t be a “female” officer, be a “military” officer, and just focus on the mission. And if what you’re doing is for the mission, that’s exactly what you have to do.

Favorite circle moment: After our first meeting, I [learned of] another circle in our area and sought out the host. We’ve since become members of each other’s circles, and it’s been very enriching. There is a different and complimentary flavor in each group—my group was primarily military women in uniform, or Federal employee women in heels, while this group was much more relaxed and less reserved and focused more on the personal side. These differences influence the underlying tone of the Circle goals and even the discussion.

Impact of the circle: It’s not just about the mentorship we give through telling our stories, but also what we receive from listening to each other’s experiences.  No matter what age, or stage of life and career, we’re all able to gain insight on something we weren’t aware of or didn’t know. There’s mutual benefit, and the circle’s an open door to start discussion.

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