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Mentorship and Access are Keys to Promoting Diversity Across Industries

Mentorship and Access are Keys to Promoting Diversity Across Industries

USC Marshall Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab connects undergraduate students with business professionals, providing support and access for pursuit of social impact-oriented careers.

Color photograph of USC Marshall students Katherine Owojori and Ameca Reali.

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Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Katherine Owojori witnessed and experienced firsthand the struggles of low-income, immigrant families like her own. A few years earlier, on the opposite side of the country, Ameca Reali experienced a similar reality in a small city in Upstate New York that was once economically booming and later, was on a steady decline in terms of economic opportunities and growth.

Citing endemic issues facing her hometown such as overpolicing, oversurveillance and overincarceration, Reali leaned into a culture of care she saw reverberate throughout her community and through three generations of women in her family. Inspired by her desire to help folks access better legal advocacy and counsel, she pursued a law degree. But it took years for her to figure out how to use her legal prowess to have the impact she desired. “I stumbled into everything,” she said.

Reali, membership director of LAW FOR BLACK LIVES, is hoping that people like her can have more support along the way than she did. Owojori and Reali are just one of 12 mentorship pairs working together as part of USC Marshall School of Business BRITTINGHAM SOCIAL ENTERPRISE LAB’s (BSEL) SOCIAL IMPACT SCHOLARS program. A nine-month intensive aimed at juniors and seniors committed to careers in social impact, BSEL Undergraduate Social Impact Scholars provides students with tools, including practical experience and advice, to pursue work that helps solve the world’s most pressing and vexing issues.

Owojori, a 2022/23 BSEL Social Impact Scholar, is studying political science at USC with the hopes of adding a law degree to her already impressive resume. As the first in her family to pursue a pre-professional degree, she often felt daunted navigating options in terms of potential careers and impacts on her own.

"The [BSEL] Scholars program has not only allowed me to be with like-minded people who have similar visions but has also given me a chance to connect with someone who has chosen that career path and figure out what it could look like for me in the future.”

— Katherine Owojori

“Until college, I didn’t know anyone who had a law degree or anyone pursuing a law degree, so things like navigating relationships with employers or even law professors and just how to conduct myself in a space that quite obviously wasn’t meant for me has been quite daunting,” she said.

This statement is something Reali understands all too well. Without a mentor, this work of figuring out what steps to take, what careers and positions were possible and how to have the impact she wanted to have was a burden she spent years grappling with. “To be honest, I didn’t know this [social impact] was a job you could do. I don’t have generational wealth. I couldn’t afford to not work for money,” she said.

Without a clear path forward, Reali followed her passion and gut, changing course whenever she felt she wasn’t on exactly the right track. One of her first steps was collaborating with a law school classmate to apply for a grant from Echoing Green. The project aimed at helping folks obtain expungements. “That’s how I really started in the social impact space. I didn’t even have language for it at the time. I just knew I was doing something to help other people and I was doing it for my job,” Reali said.

Mentorship to Fill a Gap in Opportunity

For Owojori, who is also a WARREN BENNIS SCHOLAR and will be graduating USC this May, the value of a mentor is in helping illuminate all the future possibilities for her career. “When I was younger, I had an instinct to be a community servant in a small capacity, whether volunteering at shelters for the unhoused or with my local church,” she said, “but I didn’t realize how possible social change was until I was in a space where it was clear that was an option. The [BSEL] Scholars program has not only allowed me to be with like-minded people who have similar visions but has also given me a chance to connect with someone who has chosen that career path and figure out what it could look like for me in the future.”

Reali said: “It’s hard to fashion a career. I did a lot of feeling around in the dark. My wish is that for people like me and like Katherine, there will be more support and resources, and they won’t have to do what I did in finding my own way forward.”

The BSEL Social Impact Scholars experience has proved invaluable to Owojori, who is a first-generation Nigerian-American, in defining how she wants to approach her passions. “It’s allowed me to ask really pointed and important questions to myself about what I envision myself doing,” she said. “It’s also nice to have someone as a sounding board who is doing the kind of work I want to do, someone to admire and look up to.”

Ongoing Challenges to Career Discovery

Said Reali: “It surprises me that law schools haven’t really done anything to be more inclusive and welcoming. Outwardly there is all this effort to include more diverse populations in the field and in law schools, but there’s actually no infrastructure to make sure that that happens.”

“Emerging leaders across disciplines often have to navigate a realm where growth can be correlated with who you know,” adds Christina Fialho, BSEL’s managing director and herself a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow, where she met Reali. “The BSEL Social Impact Scholars Program is focused on helping our students surmount these barriers to their social impact careers by creating spaces for community building and culturally responsive mentorship.” Reali is happy that there is at least one space that is a supporting students like she used to be. “Young people want to be involved in this work,” she said. “This program at USC is a way to help students do that.”

BSEL Social Impact Scholars was launched in 2010 as the BSEL Undergraduate Scholars Mentorship Program and reignited this year under a new name. The program has supported 145 students from diverse backgrounds and majors across the USC community. Past cohort members have gone on to work at organizations such as Black Women for Wellness, Code for America, and IDEO.