Speak Up but Stay Grounded: How My Mentor Taught Me to Survive in the Workplace
My mentor, Marla Conley, told me once that as a woman in a still primarily male-driven workplace, you have to be unafraid to ask.
“For a pay raise?” I asked.
“No, for money for Girl Scouts,” Marla continued matter-of-factly. “Although people were confused as to why I wasn’t asking for a pay raise.”
Because she wasn’t afraid to ask, Marla was able to get the law firm where she worked to match her annual contribution to Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania. Doing good, Marla taught me, should go hand in hand with my other career goals.
I met Marla during my two years as a girl advisor to the Board of Directors of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, where Marla served as a board member. All the board members were amazing, accomplished women, but I asked Marla to serve as my advisor for my high school internship. Sure enough, she immediately agreed.
As a senior in high school, I spent a month at Schnader, Harrison, Segal, & Lewis, Marla’s firm. She brought me to meetings, took me out to lunch so that we could connect in a more informal setting, and explained in detail the extra cases that she took on in the foster care system.
Too many lawyers, Marla explained later, are anxious only to defend the status quo and work for their own well-being — and it takes another lawyer to stop them. Marla told me the defining moment that convinced her to become a lawyer. She was interning with Cory Booker for the summer, back before he was the mayor of Newark, let alone a senator. Booker was working to take back the city by bringing job fairs and housing pamphlets to the worst drug corners. Marla said that she remembered a hotshot young lawyer walking in and spinning his best legal jargon at Booker, telling him “the law” this and “the law” that.
Marla paused, smiling, and said, “Booker looked at him steadily and said, ‘I don’t know where you went to law school, but I went to Yale. The law says I can do this.’ And that’s when I realized that unless you’re the lawyer in the room standing up for what’s true, whatever the other guy says goes.”
That’s why Marla decided to enter the arena of law — to use the force of law for justice and social good.
Now at Harvard, I’m taking criminal justice classes to prepare for law school. I hope to be like Marla, to be someone who not only has a successful career but also uses her spare time to take on pro bono cases, volunteer, and pay it forward in her community.
At Harvard, it can be hard to stay grounded in who I am and focused on what I want to change in the world. I often remember one particular moment with Marla, standing on one of the top floors of a tall, glass building in a room full of filtered corporate air, looking down at the street. Marla said, “It’s strange to think that in some cities, lawyers can walk straight from underground to their elevator, without ever setting foot in the actual city.”
I pondered that for a moment, remembering how Marla and I had gone the previous week to a community philanthropy planning session. Everyone in the room looked to her leadership in this venture. She was a force in this world, paving the way for good and for girls.
When I graduate and enter the workplace, I’ll always remember the lessons that Marla taught me: It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Never be afraid to speak up. And last, the unstated lesson that she demonstrated in everything she did, you must be a mentor and give back.
Meet Fearless Feminist YingYing Shang
YingYing speaks about her first time standing up to social injustice (in fourth grade), her most influential teacher, what the Student Advisory Council has meant to her, and more.
This post was written by National Student Advisory Council member YingYing Shang, who is generously sponsored by Eileen Shelley Menton.