Working in small business is tough—you shouldn't have to go it alone.
Just about every successful entrepreneur will tell you about the mentors who guided them along the way. Through all the ups and downs, a mentor can help you learn from their mistakes, connect you to resources and celebrate your successes.
Keri Kujala is passionate about mentorship. Co-owner of Special Occasions, a local event rental and design company, Kujala has had more than 45 interns across her career and has been on the other side of the equation, as well.
Her career in event planning began with an older coworker connecting her to Amway Grand Plaza. From there, she moved on to handle events at Mercy Health Saint Mary's for 14 years.
"Along the way, my bosses were my mentors," Kujala said. "They fostered all of that and really gave me the tools to help direct me, and I live purposefully to help give back to other people who need those opportunities."
Kujala has mentors who've helped her on a day-to-day basis, like her former boss at Mercy Health, Michelle Rabideau. Kujala reaches out to these mentors all the time, especially for advice on running a small business.
Mentorship looks a bit different in this world—instead of climbing the corporate ladder and navigating office politics, you're trying to make your own dream a reality, which comes with plenty of pros and cons.
Kujala said she doesn't just reach out for help with finances and business questions, but for relationship and life balance questions, too.
"I really feel strongly that you need mentors in your life, not just for the professional aspect, but for the real-life aspects, because being a small business owner consumes your entire life."
If your personal life is in disarray, that will definitely affect your business and vice versa. Having a support system can really help balance your family life and other responsibilities, on top of running your business. You could have one mentor who does it all, or multiple mentors you go to for different areas of life and business.
In small business, sometimes the best mentor isn't someone far more experienced or ahead of you, but someone who's currently experiencing the same difficulties. Kujala frequently makes use of her network through Leadership Grand Rapids and the local chamber of commerce. They don't even have to be in the same industry as you!
"When it comes down to it, a business is a business," Kujala explained. "It doesn't matter if you're in events like myself or in construction like one of my mentors, we are dealing with a lot of the same obstacles."
However, remember that mentorship isn't all about the mentee—it's beneficial to everyone involved! "I think we learn from each other both ways, truthfully. They're seeing problems and topics from a whole different mindset. I know what my audience thinks, but what about theirs? It doesn't just go one way."
If you're looking to find a mentor, West Michigan has tons of small business associations that can help, or you could try reaching out to someone you admire and asking! Remember: This is a large commitment and our time is valuable, so come prepared and informed.
"It does take work when you ask someone to be your mentor," Kujala said. "You need to be prepared, coming with questions or finding examples that you can share. You can't just put the burden on your mentor, you need to make sure you plan ahead, too."
Kujala also suggests making sure the relationship is consistent, so you schedule your meetings and don't waver—even when you don't have specific issues to address. That way, you build your connection and open the door for deeper conversations.
"I think finding a mentor is important and being intentional about it is important," Kujala said. "It takes work to be a mentor—and to be a mentee—but there's huge gain."
Written by Josh Veal, Contributing Writer for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Jun/July 2021 issue of West Michigan Woman.