Building Social Capital Through Corporate Mentoring

ImpactED & Christensen Institute: Corporate volunteerism programs can open social networks for students

This piece was co-written by Claire Robertson-Kraft, Executive Director of ImpactED and Julia Freeland Fisher, Director of Clayton Christensen Institute.

In a recent study of Capital One Coders, an exciting finding came to light.

Just as Capital One suspected through years of qualitative feedback, the evaluation showed that middle schoolers participating in the program reported experiencing higher levels of knowledge and interest in technology careers. But participants also reported social, not just academic, gains: over 80% of district and organizational partners reported that the Coders program contributed to increases in students’ personal networks (85%) and professional networks (81%) to a moderate or large extent. As one partner shared with us, “Capital One’s biggest impact is the people that they are recruiting are able to build relationships with our students.”  

Network gains matter more than people might think. “Social capital” describes the fact that our personal and professional networks contain value. Our relationships can lend us resources, offer support, share information, and even broker additional connections. For young people, positive and diverse networks drive everything from healthy development to better grades.1 Moreover, networks are a critical ingredient to students’ career planning and growth. In fact, an estimated half of jobs come through personal connections.2 And a recent survey of college students found that more than half of all students initially learned about internship opportunities through personal contacts such as professors, families and friends.3

Many corporate mentoring programs focus on helping students develop valuable skills and knowledge. But social capital research illustrates that, in no uncertain terms, access to opportunity is about more than skills. Opportunity sits at the cross section of what we know and who we know. 

Additionally, students from families of different income levels, parental education and race don’t experience equal access to networks — particularly professional networks. For example, young people from lower-income households are less likely to report close relationships with non-family adults and informal mentors (like coaches and teachers) than their more affluent peers.4 Among college students, students of color are 34% less likely  to cite having a professor as a mentor compared to their white peers.5 Particularly for employers trying to diversify their talent pipelines, it bears remembering that students inherit very different professional networks based on their parents’ own educational background: students’ parents with a bachelor's degree are more than twice as likely  to know CEOs, professors, and a host of other members of the knowledge economy.6 

These network gaps that begin early on can cost students’ access to professional opportunities down the line.

Networking the next generation of mentoring programs

Can corporate mentoring programs start to curb these access gaps? Capital One Coders’ early data suggests they might. With the right ingredients and metrics, mentoring may be an effective strategy for tackling both sides of the opportunity equation: what students know and whom they know. 

Doing so well requires, however, a deliberate approach to how companies design and evaluate their mentoring initiatives honoring both of these lenses—the what and the who. Most mentoring programs set bold goals around learning and student success. But that framing can inadvertently situate mentoring relationships themselves as inputs towards, or means to, those ends. Programs focusing solely on inputs for skills learned run the risk of sacrificing the critical outcome of networks gained. Measuring social capital flips that script. It acknowledges that in effective corporate mentoring programs, relationships can be outcomes in their own right. 

What data can help reveal the degree to which mentees’ social capital is, in fact, being built? 

For ImpactED, the external evaluator of Capital One Coders, addressing these “missing metrics” meant asking a series of questions that helped researchers get under the hood of the relationships young people were gaining in the course of Coders. ImpactED surveyed partners across seven markets and 18 school districts and organizations, and conducted in-depth interviews with a subset of partners, students, and their parents. They asked partners to report the extent to which Coders contributed to increases in students’ professional networks and to discuss why these networks are so valuable to their students. Students said that after participating in Capital One Coders, they felt that they had someone they can reach out to with questions about computer science and technology.

For organizations looking to integrate social capital metrics into their program designs and evaluations, The Christensen Institute has documented a number of strategies for measuring social capital in a report called the Missing Metrics. The report details creative ways to measure the quantity, quality, and structure of students’ networks, along with their confidence and ability to mobilize those networks in service of their goals.

Looking ahead, relationship-centered approaches like these could lead the way to a whole new set of social capital outcomes in both community and corporate sectors. Companies are eager to engage employee volunteers in programs that help their communities and address long-standing opportunity gaps. To do so, mentors can help foster students’ interests, knowledge, and know-how across a variety of careers. They can also provide the networks students will need to pursue and break into those careers down the line. Moreover, by intentionally integrating social capital metrics into program designs and evaluations, community and corporate sectors can contribute to a growing evidence base for closing the social side of opportunity gaps, and ensuring all students are supported in their path to economic prosperity. 


1 Defining and Measuring Social Capital for Young People. Search Institute (2020).
2 Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers (2nd edition). Granovetter, Mark (1995). 
3 Exploring online internships amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: results from a mixed-methods study. Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions and Wisconsin Center for Education Research. (May 2021). 
4 The real mentoring gap - and what to do about it. The Chronicle of Evidence-based Mentoring. Rhodes, Jean (2015). 
5 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, Mentoring College Students to Success. Strada Education Network and Gallup (2018). 
6 Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam, Robert (2015). 

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