What mentors can learn from their mentees and the importance of ‘unconditional accompaniment,’ with Steve Toben ’78

Blog | August 18, 2022
Steve Toben ’78 is the immediate past president of the Flora Family Foundation in Menlo Park, California, and a Morehead-Cain Mentor

I suspect most Morehead-Cain Alumni often ask themselves, “How can I repay the debt I owe the Morehead-Cain Foundation for the extraordinary experience I had at Carolina?”

Many would likely agree that the scholarship launched them on a trajectory in life that they otherwise would never have known. That’s indeed a very large debt to repay.

The Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program provides one great vehicle for alumni to give back. Through monthly calls or visits over the course of a year, alumni have the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with a current scholar and to offer whatever support may be useful.

The program is thoughtfully designed and structured for conversations at depth, with feedback forms after every session. Each call is enhanced by suggestive prompts by Emily Olson on the Morehead-Cain staff, who has combed the mentoring literature for articles on best practices.

I found this information relevant not only to my sessions with my mentee, Sam Sands ’22, but also in my interactions with younger colleagues at work. One particularly helpful insight was the importance of refraining from advice-giving and instead simply offering unconditional accompaniment that can lead in any number of fruitful (or fanciful) directions.

It was highly gratifying for me to watch Sam navigate his senior year at Carolina, moving from a state of unknowing about next steps after college to just recently landing an outstanding job in Washington, D.C. . . . but only after experiencing the challenges and rewards of extended meditation retreats in Nepal, New York, and Florida, all in six weeks. This came about partly from stories I shared with Sam of my longtime interest in mindfulness meditation as a counterbalance to the rigors of professional life.

“At the end of my first Morehead-Cain mentoring experience, I think I gained as much as I gave in the course of the year.”
  • Steve Toben
  • 1978

There is abundant opportunity for mentors to learn from scholars who are immersed in studies at the frontiers of knowledge. For example, I have long been active professionally in the area of impact investing in order to advance social and environmental objectives while generating financial returns. It so happened that Sam took a course on the topic this past spring in the business school, and I was able to get great downloads from him on the best ideas from the class.

The time required of mentors and scholars is quite reasonable, and I found that I was often in touch with Sam in between our scheduled monthly calls, purely for the enjoyment of some extra exchange that we both found beneficial. Sam and I plan to remain in touch as he launches his career.

So there you have it: a richly rewarding program with the prospect of new friendships across generations of Morehead-Cain Scholars. The world facing the scholars today is far more complicated than it was when I was an undergraduate, and everyone can use an older ally who can offer the perspective of years.

—Steve Toben ’78

Connect with a mentor

The Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program is designed to leverage the power of the Morehead-Cain network by cultivating connections between scholars and alumni, and providing structure and support to these relationships so they can develop based on shared values and interests. All rising juniors and seniors are eligible to participate.