In addition to her roles as a partner and VP of product management at Carbon Five, Courtney Hemphill was also the company’s first female employee. In our first post in a series celebrating 21 years of mentorship in honor of Carbon Five’s 21st anniversary, Courtney discusses her passion for empowering women in tech by volunteering with organizations like Techstars and why she still has a mentor after working in the industry for 20+ years.
How did you first get interested in being a mentor?
In 2005, when I started working full-time at Carbon Five, I had my first opportunity to do full stack development in Ruby on Rails. I ended up getting involved with a group of women that were also learning Ruby at the same time that I was learning it, and a couple of them started a nonprofit called RailsBridge. We would host them over at the Carbon Five offices, and we’d get food and talk about the projects we were working on — we would code, and we would pair on projects sometimes.
I continued mentoring and collaborating with RailsBridge as a tutor and at their weekend workshops for a while, and my involvement led me to realize that mentorship was also a way of networking and getting involved in the community. A lot of the time I would learn something during those workshops, and that’s when I discovered there is an amazing give-and-take with mentorship.
How has your role as a mentor changed over the years?
In addition to RailsBridge, I also ended up doing some events with Women Who Code and Girl Develop It back then, but my mentorship has since shifted away from development since I don’t do as much coding anymore. Now I’m more focused on mentoring start-up founders, which has mostly been through an accelerator called Techstars.
It’s been fun mentoring companies and building my network. I’ve also really enjoyed having the opportunity to select the companies I want to mentor, and I have been especially trying to help companies whose cofounders are women, and other groups that are marginalized in tech.
And finally, I’m part of the San Francisco CTO group. There’s also a subset of that group that’s made up of all women, and we get together separately once a month. Frankly, this is more of a situation where I’m getting mentored by everybody else, and it has been great because it can be hard to find groups that can help with some of the challenges at the executive level — management, versus business, versus coding, and so on.
What’s Carbon Five’s approach to mentorship?
I think Carbon Five has always benefited from our involvement in mentoring groups that we think can use our help, and that has really helped us become known to communities from which we often eventually hire from. It’s also helped us get exposure to a diverse set of companies that we get to work with. It pays to build our networks around a really diverse set of thinking and types of personalities in the industry.
Mentorship, really sponsorship, has allowed us to branch out of the very isolated Silicon Valley tech norms. And by doing that as early as 2005, it allowed us in every subsequent year to tap into those networks and be able to hire really great talent and get to work with cool people.
Carbon Five has always looked out for opportunities where we’re not just going in and telling a group a thing — but where we’re spending time with them; contributing to the development of the community and individuals in that community so that they can get better at their jobs and have better access to a better career. For example, we are giving folks exposure through Code2040 to actively work on projects so that they can develop the skills of working on larger teams to help further their careers. For us, mentorship is a foundational aspect, but without being able to provide value to those that you’re mentoring, you miss out on the more important aspect, which is the sponsorship.
You can show up and talk to a bunch of people, which may or may not have much of an effect, but if you can actually enact change for someone, that’s sponsorship. And that’s better than mentoring.
“You can show up and talk to a bunch of people, which may or may not have much of an effect, but if you can actually enact change for someone, that’s sponsorship. And that’s better than mentoring.”
What are some common questions or issues you’re hearing from the young people you mentor today? And are they much different than the questions that you had when you were starting your career?
So much of what people are thinking about these days has to do with how technology has become so much more complex. You’re no longer necessarily thinking through the complications of how to set up the full system — you’re thinking about what third party services you should use, how do you negotiate your service level agreement, and what does the dev tooling look like? It is kind of fascinating in that it’s now less of a conversation about the software problems, and it’s more of a conversation about people problems and system problems. I think the struggle now for some people is around how to retain great talent, how to hire great talent, and how to set up the company’s brand.
A lot of your outreach involves helping younger people from underrepresented groups succeed in tech. Why is this important to you?
When I showed up at Carbon Five, I was the only woman, and I was super nervous. I had done some development before, but not a ton of it. And although I was very intimidated, everyone told me that if I was ever stuck on something, I could just raise my hand and I would immediately have someone to pair with. I personally benefited a ton from pair programming, and once I realized how much I learned from that experience, I wanted to pass on that knowledge.
And secondly, tech is a great career. It’s flexible. It provides a lot of opportunities. It’s still growing. And we are just at the beginning. I believe that by not allowing a more diverse group of people to get into it and to seize that opportunity, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Products won’t get created as quickly, they won’t be as robust because they won’t have the diversity of thinking that is needed, and we will miss out on system changing, value adding new ideas.