“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” John Donne wrote.
Many local business leaders agree. Along their rise to the top, they have been influenced, inspired, encouraged, counseled and taught by others. Now many find themselves in mentoring roles.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson considers former Indiana Attorney General Pamela Carter her most influential mentor.
“I met her when I first interviewed with Gov. Evan Bayh,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I had actually decided to turn the job down as my mother had some health issues, and I thought I should remain in Gary. She convinced me that Gary was a short distance from Indianapolis, which it was, and that was probably an offer I shouldn’t have turned down, and I didn’t. The importance of that was she helped me think much broader and long-term and it also gave me someone to bounce things off of.”
Freeman-Wilson said Carter was not only a great source of career advice but she also opened doors for her.
“People typically think of mentors as those who give you advice,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That is an important part of being a mentor but it is also a person who creates opportunities for you.”
Freeman-Wilson has mentored attorneys Angela Jones, Inga Lewis-Shannon and Tracey Coleman.
Freeman-Wilson met Coleman 22 years ago through Coleman’s high school counselor.
“I took her out to lunch, and we have been friends ever since,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Coleman had told her counselor at Roosevelt High School of her desire to become a lawyer.
“I was a first-generation college student so I didn’t have any reference,” Coleman said. “My parents, who were from the South, stressed education but it was more of figuring out how to continue it and to succeed.”
The counselor suggested Coleman talk to Freeman-Wilson, a Roosevelt High School alumna and Harvard Law School graduate.
“She basically met with me, told me the process of how to go to college, and what was necessary,” Coleman said. “She gave me some great advice too – she said take a typing course. You need to learn how to type.”
Coleman said Freeman’s advice was helpful and practical.
“I am really thankful for what she did in taking the time off to provide me direction on how to become an attorney,” Coleman said. “Just being involved in the community, staying in Gary, trying to make a difference; she was a very positive influence.”
Coleman said she also tries to mentor and encourage others to get a good education and succeed.
“Each generation makes it better for the next,” Coleman said.
Freeman-Wilson said she believes that mentoring covers a much broader spectrum today.
“You might be a mentor at a Boys & Girls Club or you may be a mentor in a career,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I think that when I was coming along, you almost had to have a mentor to be successful. I think that aspect has changed now. You don’t have to have one, but it can certainly enhance your success.”
Local business owners Jared and Michaline Tomich run 10 businesses between the two of them, including Fuel Fitness and Mixdesign, with more than 200 employees. They also run the Halo of Hope Foundation, a charity benefiting children diagnosed with cancer.
“We find great joy and inspiration in some of the same people,” Michaline Tomich said. “We additionally mentor each other a ton.”
“It has been a very nice to have someone who can understand what I am going through,” the former NFL player said about his wife. “I understand what she is going through. It is a big deal for both of us to be able to help one another in what we are doing.”
In addition to his wife, Jared Tomich said his two main mentors are Coaches Mike Ditka and Tom Osborne. Tomich said both gave him valuable skills, which have aided his life and business career.
“For me it is what I have taken from my past career and now have focused that into small business and into my companies, using a lot of structure, discipline and just all around hard work,” Jared Tomich said.
He said Osborne, his college coach, led by example, holding himself to a very high standard, teaching drive, moral fiber, goals, and how to do things the right way.
“He was more concerned with us being good young men than anything else in life,” Jared Tomich said.
Jared Tomich also learned valuable life lessons from Coach Ditka.
“His big message to us was that we had no sense of entitlement,” Jared Tomich said. “It was a privilege to be there and to be doing what we were doing.”
“We learned you have to go after whatever it is that you want in life,” he said. “I think taking that into small business is a huge deal for me. I want to be that same type of person for my employees and the people around me.”
Michaline Tomich said there is no map for success in small business.
"You tend to get stuck in putting out the small fires of today," she said. "One of my mentor always said to me, ‘Where it is in life you go, keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.’”
Michaline Tomich said this means it is important not to get distracted by the small things but focus on your goal. She considers local businessmen Al Kreiger and John Blank mentors.
“They are in different stages of their careers than I am,” Michaline Tomich said. “So I can see and learn from their mistakes and their successes. Good mentor aren’t afraid to tell you what those mistakes are.”
“My mentors have done a good job of showing me how to define what I want to be doing in 20 or 30 years,” she said.
Julie Olthoff, owner of Merrillville’s Via Marketing and chairwoman of the Crossroads Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said about 20 years ago belonging to the Executives Council Group of women business owners helped her in her career.
“Those women were really important to me because they were helpful and I felt like I could ask any questions no matter what,” Olthoff said. “I think some of it was just being by them. You saw how they carried themselves and how they were so gracious to people. You just wanted to be like that.”
Olthoff went from being a middle management art director to owning her company, which brought many new challenges. She belongs to Second Wind Network, an association of advertising agencies.
“I consider them mentors,” Olthoff said. “They are putting out some of the latest trends in marketing communications. That is valuable.”
In return, Olthoff said, she has trained and mentored many employees.
“I think mentoring is still relational,” Olthoff said. “I still gain all the time from people I meet and what they are doing. You never stop learning especially in marketing.”
Olthoff said mentoring took on a more important role in her early years.
“I think in the early years you are not as confident in some of your decisions,” Olthoff said. “As the years went on, for me at least, you become more confident.”
Mark Maassel, President and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, said going back about 40 years he considers his first boss a mentor.
“What he did is help me to truly understand the workplace setting, the kind of work we were doing, the way you think issues through,” Maassel said. “That was extremely helpful.”
An attorney also helped him learn about analyzing problems.
“He taught me what are the important things to look at and what things are not as high in priority,” Maassel said.
On the financial side of business, some comptrollers helped Maassel along the way to understand and grow in his financial knowledge.
Maassel said they taught him how the pieces all fit together.
“In many ways that mentoring continues yet today,” Maassel said. “I look around the region and there are specific individuals that I see what they are doing and how they are doing it. I have taken some of those practices and put them to use in my own work and my own life.”
Maassel mentors some younger acquaintances by talking through problems with them.
“They will share ideas and I give them my two cents worth,” Maassel said. “Some of them are leading various organizations; some have just gone through changes in their own work settings. There are a number of folks whom I talk with who are facing some issues that are kind of unique to what I have done over my career and I can perhaps give them a few insights.”
Maassel said the reality of any mentoring relationship is the individuals themselves ultimately decide if the advice and guidance is in fact valuable for them in their setting.
“You have to be truly yourself come the end of the day,” Maassel said. “If it is something that just isn’t going to work for you, or it is not an approach you are comfortable with, then don’t do it.”
“All of us need to recognize just how valuable mentors are,” Maassel said. “We should be extremely thankful to those individuals who have been kind enough to be mentors to us, whether they knew it or not, and to be thinking about ways that can help others. Even at my age, I am finding that there are people who are still teaching me things; people who are still helping make myself hopefully better.”