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Mentor magic: How Kathryn Wilson built success from her heroes

Mentors have been a critical part of internationally-acclaimed Kiwi shoe designer Kathryn Wilson’s success. From launching her first shoes aged 23 in 2003, to early overseas sales, to developing an e-commerce strategy to cope with burgeoning online business, Wilson has used her heroes to give her advice and bounce ideas off.


Here are Wilson’s seven tips for making the most of mentors:

Be visible.

Starting with her university teachers, Wilson knew to make the most out of being around experts.

NZ fashion industry consultant Paul Blomfield was a guest lecturer at Massey University’s fashion programme, when Wilson studied there aged 20. Blomfield, head of Fashion Industry NZ, later took an interest in her career.

“He remembered me from being in that class with my hand up all the time.” When Blomfield got in touch with Wilson after she graduated, he helped her fill out the application for an AMP scholarship for shoe design – and became a mentor.

“He was my biggest help at the beginning. He encouraged me to pursue shoe design, even though it was hard in New Zealand. He invited me as a guest to a Fashion Industry NZ AGM and he introduced me to the chairman of the New Zealand footwear industry board.

“It was through contacts like that  – manufacturing gods – that I started in the business.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

Wilson first Rosanne Meo, one of New Zealand’s most influential business women, when Meo was part of the interview panel for the AMP scholarship. After she was chosen, the then 22-year-old student kept in touch with Meo and kept her in the loop throughout the journey of the brand.

“She made herself available to go out for a coffee and discuss any big challenges. We still catch up once a year or so. She was the one that put me in touch with three of her contacts to be on my advisory board in 2013.”

Wilson says it doesn’t do any harm to ask the “Can I buy you a coffee sometime” question. She’s found if that person is too busy to help, they will often suggest someone else.

“I ask people who I look up to, if they have 20 minutes to spare for me to pick their brains. I’m a big believer that people will often be willing to spend a bit of time with you as long as you aren’t wasting their time.”

“In New Zealand we are such a small hub. It’s part of the spirit – New Zealanders in business are often willing to help each other and celebrate each other’s success.”

Mentors Wilson has connected with this way include leading TV producer Julie Christie and entrepreneur and former model Sara Tetro.

“Both have run their own businesses and they see similar issues with employment, growth, funding…

“I say to myself: People have learnt the hard way before with their own business and they might be willing to share their story. What is the worst thing that can happen?”

Be prepared

The best way to get the most out of a meeting with a mentor – and not waste their time – is to be really well prepared, Wilson says. She picks moments to meet with her mentors when she has something big, or difficult happening in her business that she needs some advice on.

“Know their time is valuable, so make your case clearly and quickly and be open with what you want their help with. I run my idea past them and ask if they have been in that situation, what the potential problems are and what I can do to avoid them.

“For example, if you are starting manufacturing in a new country, or working with distributors in a new country, you might ask for advice from someone who has worked with freight and distribution, who knows about tariffs, duties, or manufacturing in different places. You are finding out the short cuts, the specialist skills you will need on board, and avoiding the mistakes. A massive amount of growing up is listening and learning.

“I also found mentor advice really good when we expanded from a wholesale to a wholesale/retail business. It gives you confidence that what you are doing is on track.”

Listen to that advice

It might seem obvious, but sometimes when people ask for advice, they are looking for reassurance they are on the right track, and don’t hear what they don’t want to hear, Wilson says.

Instead, if someone tells you something unpalatable about your future plans, be open-minded. If you hear something that sends you back to the drawing board with your idea, so be it.

Make it happen

Being in the right place at the right time can also be a way of getting an experienced ear for a few minutes– so take those opportunities. Wilson says she sometimes catches up with her mentors at business functions, or chats to another business person she thinks might be able to help. Instead of talking about the weather, she’ll chat about the particular issues in her business.

“I like being around people that excite me. I remember taking five minutes out with Karen Walker. It was when I was thinking about getting an advisory board. I asked her if she had one and what did she think. She said it was one of the best things and that later it had turned into a board of directors.

“So you hear that advice and you feel even more that you need to get on and do it.”

Networking groups can also provide an opportunity to talk to people going through the same things you are, Wilson says. For example, she is a member of the Think Big Network, which meets four times a year. “It’s 21 guys and me. All entrepreneurs, GMs and CEOs. We talk about challenges with employment, HR, growth, raising capital. We are probably all having similar issues.”

Mentors can be partners too.

One of Wilson’s first fashion industry jobs was as assistant knitwear designer at fashion label Caroline Sills. Wilson kept working with Sills and her husband Lloyd Sills even when she won the shoe design scholarship and when she set up her own business in 2003, they became 50% shareholders, helping her launch her brand into stores throughout New Zealand.

“Caroline and Lloyd have been mentors in both business and design,” Wilson says. “Lloyd is involved in the daily business, but I go to Caroline for things outside that. She is someone I can talk to when I need a pep talk, or when I’m going through a new phase, or having to make some decisions.

Think big

When Wilson started thinking about an advisory board Rosanne Meo told her to make a wish list of who she would want in an ideal world, and start there. She should aim for the top, not for people that she thought might be prepared to be on the board.

Wilson drew up her dream team of 15 names, and picked up the phone. Her four-person advisory board is made up of people on that wish list, or people recommended by them.

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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