I was invited to attend a focal point panel discussion at the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce with the four other Sheboygan County Athena Award finalists of 2017 to discuss our thoughts on leadership and mentoring. There were heartfelt stories, tears, tips, and comradery as we gave our audience glimpses into our varied experiences.

One of the honored women was a theater major with an entrepreneurial spirit fostered by a desire to help her young son with his learning disability through playing board games. She created her own unique board game rental business. Another honoree was a lawyer who dreamed of being an FBI agent until circumstances got in her way. Another was a school district superintendent who dared to believe in programs for her kids that would have been cut otherwise. The woman sitting next to me was the HR director for Sargento Foods. She requires that her employees have fun at work, and if they aren’t having fun, she asks them to leave for the day. I was captured by how different our life experiences were, and how we each act as mentors and leaders in our own unique ways.

One of the themes of the focal point discussion was that we don’t always realize when we are being a mentor or a leader. There is always someone watching or looking up to us. There is always someone younger or behind us looking to us to pave the way or guide them whether we know it or not. When I began volunteering with Freedom Cry, I did it because I cared about the cause. Human trafficking broke my heart and made me angry. I also did it because I wanted to experience what working for a nonprofit and building it from the ground up was like. I didn’t do it because I thought I was being a “leader” or a “mentor” worthy of recognition in the community. We often inspire others without realizing it.

After all this talk of leadership and mentoring at the panel discussion, I returned to work. One of my coworkers began giving me career advice completely unprompted. He said he had read the articles about me in the local paper and that I should really consider starting a professional blog (so here I am!). His words resonated with me, and I was so thankful that he took the time to mentor me. I was humbled as I realized I had spent the morning talking about how I was a leader and a mentor, but a mentor also needs to be mentored.

These were my answers to the panel discussion questions:

Where you came from and how you have developed and evolved into your current role.

I grew up in Butler, WI and attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where I graduated with my degree in English. In college, I learned about the human trafficking issue, and it really broke my heart. I moved here to Sheboygan Falls about 5 years ago for my first job out of college as a technical writer at Curt G. Joa Inc. For the past few years, I felt my passion for the anti-human trafficking issue grow, and I really desired to use my professional skills to help with the fight directly. I discovered the Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition of Sheboygan County on Facebook one day. They were having a public meeting, so I showed up. I kept showing up, and eventually, they asked me to serve as the secretary of the board of directors. I also serve as the written communications coordinator because of my background in writing and communication. I work on our social media, website design and content, document design, event planning, and public awareness presentations, as well as whatever else is needed. As the organization grew and became a registered nonprofit, we changed our name to Freedom Cry Inc.

Share a story of someone who mentored you during a critical or pivotal time during your career that dramatically impacted where you are today.

Paula Inda, the sales and marketing director of Joa has been a mentor to me even though she probably doesn’t know it. She has been very supportive of my work both at Joa and with Freedom Cry. She provided me the opportunity to do creative marketing projects at work, expanding my range of skills. She nominated me for the 2017 Athena Award because of her enthusiasm and appreciation for my work with Freedom Cry. She has networked for the organization and donated financially. She has provided me advice on nonprofit issues we had been experiencing. She really wants to see me succeed and is doing everything she can to help that happen. Because of her nomination, I have gained many professional opportunities and contacts, and Freedom Cry has gained so much more exposure in the community which has led to more collaboration and idea exchange.

In your opinion, what is the most important characteristic of a leader and why? A mentor and why?

I think the most important characteristic of a leader is that they are a servant leader. What I mean by that is they are willing to go the extra mile to ensure their employees are set up to succeed in the projects they are assigned. They serve their team members. My boss exemplifies this. He always researches, prepares, and organizes projects very well before assigning them to each team member. He considers the strengths and aptitudes of each team member before assigning projects to them. This is a very different approach from simply delegating work.

I think the most important characteristic of a mentor is they also have a mentor they are willing to listen to. If you are giving so much of yourself to others to mentor them, you also need a source of wisdom outside yourself to fill you up.

How have you mentored women in life either personally or professionally? Share a success story.

I have mentored a few women at work professionally, but I would like to share a personal example. I went to a party a few years ago and saw a friend there who was making some choices that were out of character for her. The next day I really felt as though I should say something to her, and I made the choice to confront her in a message and tell her that she needed to start acting differently. Instead of getting defensive, she thought about it and thanked me for calling her out. She realized she was on a slippery slope and she needed to change her behavior. We ended up getting together about once a week for a while to just talk through life and how she got to where she was. She told me later that really helped her get back on track. What I learned from this experience is that we always have the choice whether to be a mentor. We can ignore the voice in our head saying that we should say something and just go on with our lives, or we can take the opportunity to try to make an impact on that person. When I choose to mentor someone, I never regret that decision.

Sum up your passion. What continues to motivate you in your development and assisting others in their development?

What continues to motivate me in terms of anti-human trafficking is the fact that women and girls are supposed to be loved, protected, cherished, and treasured by men, and the women experiencing trafficking are instead suffering such horrendous abuse. The thought that I can help with that situation in any capacity is what keeps me going.

If you could give advice to further our development, what would it be?

If you have a passion for something, don’t shoot it down just because you don’t see an immediate path forward. I didn’t see a path forward for years before I discovered others who wanted to make the same difference I did locally.