Photo by Joshua Ness.
Filmmaker Katherine Macnaughton and dancer Ashley Werhun know how difficult it can be to find a mentor in a creative field.
Sometimes, the issue is access: How do you begin to connect with an artist you look up to? Or, it could be timing: You need advice sooner that your network can provide it. Or maybe you find a mentor, but it’s not a great match: Turns out that starchitect you thought would be the perfect adviser is not exactly the nurturing type.
Over the course of their burgeoning careers in the film and dance industries, Macnaughton and Werhun experienced these scenarios—as did their peers in visual arts, acting, writing, music, comedy, and other creative professions. Often, the search for a mentor would come up disappointingly dry.
“It can be really difficult to find an established artist who’s accessible, and who has the same or a similar path that they can share insight on,” Macnaughton tells me over Skype from Montreal. Werhun chimes in: “And in talking with more and more artists, we discovered that this is a wide-ranging problem for all creatives—and no one was solving it.”
It was a subject the two friends discussed often. So, after enough conversations about the dearth of access to mentorship in the arts, they decided to do something about it.
Founders of Mentorly, Katherine Macnaughton (left) and Ashley Werhun (right).
This past summer, Macnaughton and Werhun launched Mentorly, a website that connects creatives looking for guidance (or mentees, in the site’s parlance) to established members of their fields (or mentors). The company is the first of its kind in its focus on artists and other creatives, and since its launch has amassed 515 users—a number growing by the day.
The site works similarly to Airbnb, except “instead of booking an apartment, you’re booking a session with a mentor,” explains Macnaughton. Mentees can join through a simple sign-up process, after which they can begin to browse potential mentors in a broad range of fields, from visual arts, film, design, and music, to art history, comedy, dance, and writing, among others.
Searches can be further refined through subcategories that describe a mentor’s profession or area of expertise. In visual arts, for instance, you might choose a painter, illustrator, or street artist. In the film and video category, you might narrow your search by selecting an actor, cinematographer, or someone working in casting.
A mentee can also choose the level of mentorship they’re looking for. All mentors are vetted by Macnaughton and Werhun and must have at least five years of experience in their field, as well as proof of professional work online. Beyond this baseline, they’re organized into three levels—Bronze, Silver, and Gold—depending on their experience and renown.
These categories also distinguish the cost of a hour-long mentorship session, which clock in at $45, $75, and $150 respectively. (Mentorly takes a 30 percent cut of this cost.)
While the concept of mentorship isn’t often associated with a fee, Macnaughton and Werhun established this payment structure based on feedback from their initial group of mentors. “We had many, many conversations with artists who said that they really want to give back, but they could also see a value in being paid for their time,” explains Macnaughton.
The fee also responds to an chronic issue across creative professions: the expectation that artists will work for no cost. “So often artists are expected to make work for free, and we want to play our part in making sure people really value artists for their time,” she adds.
If those costs sound hefty for an emerging artist, however, Macnaughton and Werhun offer alternatives. For one, mentors can choose to donate their payment to a scholarship fund, dubbed the InKind Fund. (Ariana DeBose, a Broadway star known for her role in the musical Hamilton, gives all money she makes through Mentorly back into the InKind pot.) Every month, Macnaughton and Werhun choose two mentees who’ve applied to the program to receive a free session with a mentor of their choice. The founders note that often, mentors slotted into the Silver or Gold level will also choose to lower their tier on order to be more accessible to artists who need guidance.
A mentor profile from Mentorly.
Accessibility and ease of use, for both mentees and mentors, were of utmost importance for Macnaughton and Werhun as they conceived of the site. “We wanted to create a channel that would enable mentors to give back in a really easy manner, so they wouldn’t have to run around through all of these different hoops just to manage their mentorship requests,” explains Macnaughton. “And the fact that all the mentors are accessible on our platform takes away some of that intimidation factor for mentees reaching out.”
So far, the response from Mentorly users has been overwhelmingly positive. Because of the vetting process, the caliber of mentors is high and, most importantly, each is enthusiastic to share their experiences and expertise. Take Kathryn McCormick, a professional dancer who earned fame from appearances on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. “You’d think she would be completely inaccessible, but she’s our most prolific mentor,” notes Macnaughton.
“Our hope is that we’ll be able to pull down the curtain and communicate to people that a career in the arts isn’t out of reach,” explains Werhun. “These established artists want to help you, and you can pursue this as a career.”
In addition to introducing young artists to the very established, the platform is also connecting creatives across the globe: Recently, a mentee from Oman booked a session with a mentor from the United States, while an Australian artist met virtually with a Canadian.
“We’re trying to make mentorship more accessible even on every level,” says Macnaughton, “because everyone in the arts is thinking about these same questions all the time: How do I get my work out there? How do I market myself? How do I do basic things like accounting? We really just want to equip them with all the tools they need in order to have confident, successful careers.”
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that mentees can create a profile on the site. They cannot; they can sign up to browse and book mentors.