Medtronic mentors in India reach back to Minnesota

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2012 - 10:12 PM

A growing e-mail mentorship program connected Medtronic workers from half a world away to Buffalo High School.

It's certainly not unusual to find Minnesota high school students being mentored by professionals from a Minnesota company. So it was this past spring with Fridley-based Medtronic Inc. and students at Buffalo High School. But there was a twist. The Medtronic employees mentoring Brenda Diekman's accounting class weren't local. In fact, they are halfway around the world -- in Mumbai, India.

Now, thanks to positive feedback and a positive experience, Medtronic's Mumbai employees are thinking of mentoring students across the United States.

"Why not? It would be nice to mentor students all over the world," said Maneesh Shrivastav, head of strategic market development for Medtronic in Mumbai. "It's always good to give back to the community."

Fridley-based Medtronic's participation in BestPrep's eMentors Program, which connects business volunteers, didn't start out globally. When Shrivastav first got involved in the program, he was living and working in the United States. The program connects volunteers with students through weekly e-mails. Then once, about halfway through the term, the mentors and the kids get together for a face-to-face meeting.

But, about 14 months ago, Shrivastav moved to Medtronic's operations in Mumbai. Not yet ready to give up the mentoring, he had an idea: "When I got here, I wanted to continue that relationship."

Logistics challenge

Medtronic, the world's largest medical device company with operations and workplaces spanning the globe, is no stranger to bringing people in vastly different time zones together. At its world headquarters in Fridley, there is a large videoconference room with three large screens on the wall. That is where the Buffalo students finally got to see their Mumbai mentors' faces.

"We just had to set it up with our IT people," Shrivastav said.

The logistical issues of cramming 18 students into the videoconference room were less challenging than the fact that Mumbai is about 12 hours ahead of the Twin Cities. Weekly e-mailed questions from Diekman's class sometimes took a couple days to get answered.

But, to Buffalo students Michelle Lang, who has since graduated, and Emily Spier, what they learned about Medtronic and India overcame any inconveniences.

"It was interesting to think about how other countries do business, but it's really not that different. They have a 7-to-4 workday, and they commute to work, although it can take hours," said Spier. "But it seems like India's culture is just so different. They have different traditions and everything."

Lang said her mentor talked about learning multiple languages growing up and showed her a picture of her wedding dress, made of beautiful red fabric and covered with gold beads. Lang also loved what she learned during her tour of Medtronic.

"It was a great experience," Lang said. "I think these guys should do it more, maybe even with employees from other countries."

Diekman, who has taught at Buffalo High School since 2005 and has participated in the eMentor program involving U.S.-based employees, thought it would be a great idea to add an international component.

She mentioned it to Bonnie Vagasky of BestPrep, which has administered the program since 2004, and it was a match made in e-heaven.

"I thought it went pretty well," Diekman said. "The time difference was pretty hard. ... The students got a little itchy. They are used to instant response."

Diekman said she would like to keep the international connection going, although she is not sure if an accounting class is the right group. "We didn't talk a lot about accounting," she said. Perhaps a college and career prep class would be more appropriate, she said.

It seems likely eMentors will keep growing. It has bloomed from a first-year pilot of two companies and 62 students and mentors to, nine years later, 3,550 students representing 66 schools connecting with e-mail mentors from 49 companies.

BestPrep offers the largest e-mail mentoring program in Minnesota, Vagasky said.

At Medtronic's Mumbai offices, a dozen mentors volunteered their time. Shrivastav said they enjoyed it so much that they are eager to hook up with the next batch of students.

"Mentoring is a two-way street," he said, noting that the Mumbai employees, who all are from India, were fascinated by their Buffalo students' school day, their educational system -- their lives.

"One wanted to know, 'What is prom?'" he said, smiling.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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