My Business Mentor Is Pulitzer Prize Winner Katharine Graham (The Washington Post)

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By Shannon McClenaghan (Co-Founder & VP Corporate Development, Vectiv) Mentors are important at all career stages, especially if you are an entrepreneur.

My mentor was Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, and was one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.

I was introduced to Katharine Graham just after selling Vectiv, the software company I co-founded in 1998. After $23MM, we needed another round of capital and our investors had stepped up with a term sheet. We were thrilled. Then, as the closing approached Accenture, the parent of our largest investor Accenture Technology Ventures, announced that they had sold ATV to CIBC. It was mid-2002. With the sale of ATV, our Series C close date was delayed week after week, until it was cancelled and we had to sell the company in 2003.

It was probably the worst year to sell an enterprise software company if you wanted a positive, or even neutral, ROI. Following the sale, or “gifting” of our company as I thought of it, I was depressed. I felt like the quintessential “complete failure”. I think I slept for a month.

Shortly thereafter, I skeptically started working with an executive coach. The first weeks’ exercise was to imagine my older self reflecting back on my life -- what did I really enjoy about it, what had I accomplished, where had I traveled, etc. It seemed a little hokey.

I thought Katharine Graham and her amazing life. She had grown up in an influential and affluent family in New York. She traveled among their many residences and had an accomplished education. She lived in San Francisco and worked as a reporter for a short time.

Once she married Phil Graham, he took over her father’s paper, the Washington Post, and eventually became its owner. Katharine became a hostess, the mother of four children and ran a society household. Notwithstanding all of those seemingly perfect life-things, looking back on certain aspects of her life, she said that she had really just been “a doormat wife”.

In 1963, Katharine’ husband, committed suicide after struggling with severe depression. With his unexpected death Katharine became the owner of her father’s paper. She decided to go back to work instead of looking for a new husband, the role most people thought she would assume. She committed to learning the business, as she didn’t have any experience running a paper or any understanding of what it would take. She insisted that the current chairman work with her as partners, the same way he had with her husband.

“I‘m not sure how I dared to suggest equality, considering my lack of credentials” she recalled. With great insecurity and uncertainty, she began a new stage of her life.

Most people remember her as having the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers and Woodward and Bernstein’s articles on the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. But there are many other incredible achievements she created and orchestrated both before and after Watergate.

Katharine became one of the most influential women in the country, possibly the world. Remarkably, even in her later years she noted that was still nervous at parties, not sure that she really had anything interesting about which to converse.

During her tenure as the publisher, she decided to seek out a mentor. She was fortunate enough to obtain the advice and guidance of Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway eventually became an investor in the Post. He acted as a champion, sponsor, sounding board and friend.

Katharine’s Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, Personal History, reveals the transformation of a person through many different stages of life. She recounts with brutal honesty, introspection and candidness the evolution of her life as well as her mistakes, insecurities, struggles and triumphs. The Wall Street Journal described Personal History as “actually a half-dozen stories, one more engrossing than the next”.

I never actually met Katharine Graham. I don’t recall how I came to read her autobiography at that time but I read it in a day or two. I loved it. I read it again. While my life is quite different and less fancy than Katharine’s life, I found a person who I could relate to and really want to emulate. I find that rare.

In those 625 pages of Personal History, Katharine accomplished what a great mentor can and should do -- she kindly shared with me her extraordinary life and in doing so, provided perspective, guardrails and encouragement on how one can learn, change, evolve and demonstrated that there are always more interesting things to come.

There is nothing more valuable. She is my mentor and will continue to influence my life. I have and will continue to have others. But she is my favorite and I often go back to her, try to get inside her “older-self” head and imagine what she would do, feel, advise.

When I had that weekly follow up with my executive coach in 2003, I had done my homework. I knew what my older-self wanted to see and feel reflecting back on a long life. It was obvious. I wanted to have my own personal history in which I could look back and have “a half-dozen stories, one more engrossing than the next.”

Mentors can come in strange packages. If you’re smart, you welcome them in. I only got to know Katharine after her death by reading Personal History. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Shannon McClenaghan is a serial entrepreneur and successful leader of early stage companies with over 15 years of experience with branded consumer product and technology companies. Shannon is an advisor to Modewalk, StartX and LARK. Most recently, she was CFO and President of Jimmyjane. Prior to Jimmyjane, Shannon co-founded Vectiv Corporation, a leading SaaS business for large retail companies. She began her career as an attorney with Preston Gates & Ellis.