A Thank You to My Mentors

I have been ridiculously lucky.

You see, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last four years with some amazing folks who help to shape me into the human being and professional I am today. Friends, family, teachers, the list goes on. Many of these members of my personal community have stepped forward and taken on another title, one that I hold in very high esteem in my neurotic little corner of the universe: mentor.

In the last four years, I’ve had six paid internships. Each of these opportunities has happened because of one person (or more) deciding that I was worth their time, guidance, and hard work. And many of these mentors’ roles in my life spread beyond the realm of career development.

I was 17 when I got my first gig in marketing. I was the “media go-for” for the company my mom worked in, managing literally hundreds of thousands of pages of trade show print material. I developed a conversational friendship with Matt DeYoung, the gentleman running the fledgling e-commerce department. He brought me over to his department as his first team member. What started off as a job designing print material turned into a job managing social media outlets, blogs, and content. Because of Matt’s patience, guidance, and nurturing, I found a knack for social media.

After I got involved with Twitter’s growing agriculture community, it became clear to both Matt and I that this little health food company was not where my heart belonged. We parted ways. I still turn to him for advice and encouragement to this day.

Some of the first friends I made in Twitter’s farm community are still mentors to this day. Life lessons, hands-on-experiences, and encouragement find me often these days. Mike Haley, Ray Prock, Jeff Fowle, and Janice Person have all played a role in helping me build valuable professional networks. They have guided me through the murky waters of handling disagreements, adversity, and cyber-bullying. More than once, they’ve bailed me out of un-fun situations, after which we sat back and reflected on it. I have to thank Mike for getting the ball rolling, because I probably would not have grown to know these other characters…I mean…mentors…without him.

Mike and I, at the first AgChat Conference in 2010. Inside jokes from Twitter about pink John Deere shirts became real life in this picture. Mike is a truly good friend and amazing mentor, and never misses a chance to help me gain experience and contacts in my career field, digital communications in agriculture. I like to think I've helped guide him in the past, too, so it's a mutually-beneficial mentorship.

Mark Gale is another one I’ve been fortunate enough to glean some valuable experience from. I still remember the night he contacted me about some freelance work for a project his family runs known as AthleticFoodie, which would eventually lead to an internship at his agency, Charleston|Orwig. (I still get a thrill out of telling people that my former employer is an Olympic gold medalist!) Mark and his family, as well as the Charleston|Orwig family, have been amazing to me. No matter where life takes me, I feel like there will always be a home and a gentle source of advice in Wisconsin.

Ray Prock, who I mentioned earlier, likes to introduce me to people. One of these people was a lady he referred to as “Kat Pinke” before correcting himself to refer to her as “Katie.” Turns out, Katie worked with a gentleman named Josh, who I had met at the first AgChat Conference and had casually said, “Let me know if you’re looking for any internships.” So I did. Together, Josh and Katie laid the foundation for the biggest life-changing career opportunity I’ve ever experienced: a 3-month internship at AdFarm Sacramento. I drove 33 hours across seven states to get there, and had the adventure of a lifetime. Comfort zones were left in the midwest, boundaries were broken, and new paths were forged. (Pictures from the California experience can be seen here.)

Katie stands out to me as one of the biggest professional influences; this isn’t meant to belittle any of my other previous mentors, by any means. I think Katie’s set aside from the rest because she dared me to pick up the pieces of my life after the end of a six year relationship, and build something bigger and more amazing. She gave me what I needed when I needed it most. Her encouragement, gentle guidance, occasional tough love, and personal insight continue to be instrumental in my journey to become a stronger, more confident and successful young woman.

Katie: bold, outspoken, and passionate. Here she sports a shirt promoting ethanol as an alternative fuel, unapologetically standing up for American ag. She knows how to stick to her guns and I aspire to have that sort of solidarity and confidence.

AdFarm has brought many valuable mentors into my life. Along with Katie and Josh, I can also thank Libby and Cheryl. They’ve all played roles of immeasurable value in furthering my abilities as a professional and my decency as a person.

I realized tonight that I’ve stumbled across a new mentor to thank. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully grasp the value of that relationship until today. This mentor takes the shape of my Typography teacher. (Habit says I should call him a “professor.” But academia’s standards, he isn’t one. I feel like he’s more than that, though.) Mr. Kolbe is a creative director for an agency here in the Naperville area who saw a need for more practical, hands-on, career-driven teaching in the field of graphic design. So, he started teaching night classes at my college.

I have this theory that there are people in the world who just have a “spark” to them that makes the people around them better. Dr. Van Oyen, the North Central concert band director, is one of them. In fact, my roommates and I refer to these people as “Van Oyens.” If we really appreciate someone’s impact on the people around them, we refer to them as a “Van Oyen.” Mr. Kolbe is one of these people. He also “gets” students. He understands the intricate ways that personal lives, social situations, work, class, and the impending “real world” can influence a student. He approaches his job with enthusiasm, but also a level of empathy.

He doesn’t have a PhD. He hasn’t had any major research published in academic journals. He doesn’t wear a funny hat and gown in stately academic ceremonies. What he does, to me, is just as valuable as anything those tenured veterans of academia do. He goes into the world each day and turns his practical experiences as an active professional into useful lessons for us, his students. And he always does so with a smile on his face. Even last year, in the Digital Illustration class I took with him, he was ceaselessly patient…even when Adobe Illustrator had all but rendered me to a usefless heap of tears. (I’ve since come to love the program thanks to him!)

Mr. Kolbe does not like the font Zapfino, and Rachel (the other student) and I enjoy teasing him about it. As a parting gift, Rachel and I presented him with a hand-painted Zapfino shirt at our last ever class with him. It was a bittersweet class session.

He also recognizes the individual strengths of his students. Recently, he gave me the opportunity to come to his agency and teach him and another of his designers about Facebook fan pages and the new Timeline format. I loved having the opportunity to share my area of interest, and I think it gave me a much-needed boost of confidence in the face of a few very trying weeks. I also strongly believe that through teaching we often learn more about ourselves and the topic. He claims it was helpful for them, but it was also a useful experience for me.

To the Scott Kolbes, Katie Pinkes, Mark Gales, and Matt DeYoungs of the world, thank you. Thank you to the Cheryls, Libbies, Mikes, Jeffs, Rays, and Janices of the world. Thank you for taking chances on the young, inexperienced, and unsure, and allowing us to grow into seasoned, adaptable, productive members of our respective industries. You folks stand as the foundation to tomorrow’s successful professionals, and the next generation of mentors who will shape those to follow.


4 thoughts on “A Thank You to My Mentors

  1. Kelly, giving gratitude and thanks is something I should have done more of in my career. Mentors pave a path and give us teachable moments. I have only tried to be a friend to you the way many of been to me. You are talented and have a bright future. I love your squeaky voice but most importantly I love your passion and tenacity.

    • I feel the gratitude for my mentors each and every day, but I’ve realized I may not show it as well asI could. My career has been so much more amazing because of all of you.

      And like you said, we’re “friends.” I think the friendships that grow from many of these mentoring relationships are just as valuable, if not moreso, than the professional ties. I’m a better person because of it!

    • Thanks for all of the advice over the past few years, Mark. Your guidance, both in business and life, has been much-appreciated. Please let your other half know that the thanks extends to her, also! I just didn’t want to infringe on her privacy. 🙂

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