The spirit of mentorship instilled by Ernest Solvay from the get-go
The year 2023 marks Solvay’s 160th anniversary. A lot has been said about our company’s long-standing values, first and foremost its dedication to scientific curiosity, innovation and fundamental research, all part of the legacy of its founder, Belgian science enthusiast turned social entrepreneur Ernest Solvay. But another, lesser-known trait of that legacy deserves some attention as well: the spirit of mentorship, in other words a learning partnership, influence or guidance provided by a mentor.
A tradition of building relationships beyond business
In the spirit of socially minded owner-management of the late 19th century, mentorship was something Ernest Solvay was passionate about. And in fact, in his company’s early days, all his family members had a role. His sons were pushed towards civil engineering, and it was customary for expected successors to undertake a full traineeship under the wing of an elder.
Beyond that inner circle evolved what Ernest Solvay called his “great industrial family”, in which each employee was considered as part of a family, along with the entrepreneurs from different countries that contributed to the company’s internationalization. Through this network – not to mention the famous Solvay conferences that brought together the brightest scientific minds of the early 20th century (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Henri Poincaré, Martin Knudsen…) – Solvay maintained friendly and lasting relationships that went well beyond business, and this legacy of respect for partners and employees endures to this day. It may have taken other forms, but it remains a pillar of our corporate culture, and something that we of course strongly encourage and support.
Mentoring students through experience sharing and learning in real-life settings
But how does mentorship manifest itself? It is the quiet encouragement that often takes place offstage, the sharing of experiences to push the next generation forward – beginning with students. As such, it is something that many Solvay employees practice on a daily basis. “As a corporate mentor, I’m able to not only provide professional guidance to students, but also feel the vitality of the young generation,” says Shen Wenting, Technical Leader, R&D Fabric Care at our Novecare site in Shanghai, who actively participates in an internship program with several universities. “To me, the happiest thing is helping interns successfully complete their graduation thesis and get the approval of their fellow students and professors.”
Working with students is something that Sylvain Arnal, R&D Implementation Foreman at our Specialty Polymers site in Tavaux (France), also does every year, when he presents the plant to local second-year chemistry students. “I work with colleagues to teach them management notions, and we organize practical role-playing workshops,” he explains. “I enjoy passing on my experience. The students don’t have the same relationship with us as with their teachers, and it’s great for them to learn outside the classic school curriculum.”
As these examples demonstrate, mentorship is not loud, but it is rewarding. And since the days of Ernest Solvay commitment, it has been the ember that ignited Solvay’s purpose to bond people, ideas, and elements to reinvent progress for generations to come.