How two businesswomen have made mentoring a walk in the park

There’s more than one way to find a mentor. You might meet them at work, or be connected through a professional network. Or now, thanks to Adina Jacobs and Bobbi Mahlab, you might be introduced to them at one of several mentor walks taking place around Australia.

The two businesswomen launched Mentor Walks Australia after visiting Shanghai for a conference in May 2016. There, they met Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut, who had launched Mentor Walks Asia four years earlier. As luck would have it, their trip coincided with the monthly event, so they found themselves in a park one morning, walking and talking with a group of like-minded women.

“When we finished the walk, we looked at each other and said, ‘We need to start this in Australia’,” says Mahlab. “It was great meeting new people and getting the collective wisdom of the group – all in an outdoor environment. It just worked and the immediate sense of community was fantastic.”

Five months later, the pair held their first event in Sydney and has since expanded to Brisbane and Wagga Wagga. The three cities host an event each month, where an impressive line-up of (mostly female) leaders is matched with women on the cusp of their careers. They spend an hour pounding the pavements (or parks), discussing their ideas and challenges.

Who are the mentors?

The mentors come from a range of roles and industries. There are CEOs, business owners, entrepreneurs and executives. Prominent names include tech entrepreneur Gen George; RedBalloon founder Naomi Simson; and director/choreographer Meryl Tankard.

Related: How to find the right business mentor for you

Mentees are a similarly diverse bunch. “They’re usually mid-career in one way or another,” says Mahlab. “It might be someone who has worked as a lawyer and decided to start their own business. A large number work for corporates and can be at all levels of their organisation. We’ve got some mentees who could easily be mentors – and some do both. Our only criteria for mentees is that you can’t be a student; you have to be working.”

At the start of each walk, mentees are encouraged to ask their one burning question; this kicks off the conversation and ensures everyone gets attention. “I think it's really important that people have specific issues they need addressed: the kinds of things that keep them awake at night,” says Mahlab. “To have access to people that can workshop it with you there and then is really useful. And people inevitably learn from the exploration of the other mentee’s issues as well.”

Introducing 'speed mentoring'

One of the program’s major benefits is that it makes mentoring accessible. “Sharing information and knowledge is really important,” says Jacobs, “but it’s not always easy to find mentors when you want them. And it's not always easy to impart that knowledge. Our mentors are incredibly busy, but because of the format we've set up, it's easy for them to commit. For the mentees, they get access to amazing women that they wouldn’t otherwise come across.”

Mahlab refers to the concept as ‘speed mentoring’. “Classic mentoring is where you have a long-term relationship with the mentor,” she explains. “It's reliant on chemistry and conversation and all sorts of things. This is very much modern mentoring. There's no expectation that your mentor will have an ongoing conversation or relationship with you.”

Mentor Walks Australia offers guidance and advice for women in business

Learning from others

Both Jacobs and Mahlab have built their own successful businesses with the help of mentors.

Back in 1998, Jacobs had a mentor by her side when she launched her laptop accessories brand, STM Bags. “When we started to develop STM products, I had someone guiding me through the product development part of the business,” she says. “He introduced me to factories, took me to China a couple of times and really taught me the ropes. But on the business side of things, we didn’t have anyone. The entrepreneurial space wasn't like it is now. There wasn't the support back then – or if there was, it was much harder to find.”

Before creating her own brand, Jacobs had worked for a fashion company alongside her now business partner, Ethan Nyholm. “It all came about when Ethan bought a laptop and couldn’t find a bag for it,” she recalls. “He didn't want a black briefcase; he wanted something a bit different that suited his lifestyle. He ended up putting his laptop in a padded envelope and put that inside a backpack. It was pretty ingenious at the time, but it wasn't going to take him far.”

The pair did some research and realised there was a gap in the market for unique, lifestyle-oriented laptop bags. So, they left their jobs and started making their own. Today, the business has around 40 employees in Australia and the US and the range has extended to include tablet accessories, as well as luxury iPhone cases.

As with any business, they’ve encountered challenges along the way: communicating across time zones, for example, and managing cash flow. Of the latter, Jacobs says she always remembers a tip given to her early on: that you should balance your finances so everyone gets paid on time. “Another great piece of advice I received is that just because you can grow doesn’t mean you should,” she says. “It's sometimes better to keep your focus and make sure you stay on your path.”

The importance of adaptation

Mahlab has faced a different set of challenges. Twenty years ago, she left the traditional world of journalism to launch a content marketing agency. In its early days, the business created print publications for a range of brands; now, its core focus is online content. “One of the things we're strong at is adaptation,” says Mahlab. “We saw what was happening in the digital space and now we help people communicate in that environment.”

Though she continues to guide the business through an ever-evolving market, she says change is always a challenge. “If you have a business that's transitioning – as we have – then you have to take people on that journey. And that means new skills and new ways of seeing things.”

Since starting out as a one-woman operation, the business now has a team of 40 and clients throughout Australia and Asia.

Along the way, Mahlab has learnt a lot from mentors and continues to do so. She met her most influential supporter almost by chance: developing a friendship with the landlord of her first workspace, who happened to run her own publishing business as well. “She mentored me for the first 10 years and is a great friend of mine now,” says Mahlab. “Some of us just get lucky and find ourselves with people who are willing to either formally or informally mentor us. They make such a fantastic contribution to our world and get us to where we want to go faster.”

The most valuable advice she received during that time was to develop your own definition of success. “What that looks like for you does not have to be what it looks like to the people around you,” she says. “Success doesn't always mean tons of money and material goods and promotions. And what success is for you at one stage may be different at the next.”

Mentor Walks Australia offers guidance and advice for women in business

Mentors for small business

Mahlab believes a good mentor is someone who listens and provides a framework for you. “They should ask you questions that make you question yourself,” she says, adding that small business owners, in particular, stand to benefit from such guidance. “In small business, you can recreate wheels day in and day out, or you can learn how a wheel is created and focus on creating other things.”

Plus, mentors can make the world of small business less lonely. “It's very hard to achieve things on your own, so it's important that you make time to go and meet other people,” says Mahlab. “Even if they're from much bigger businesses, they'll be having some of the same issues as you. If you can get a taste of mentoring and see what it delivers, you'll find that life will be a little lighter.”

Five tips for getting the most out of your mentor

Bobbi Mahlab and Adina Jacobs share their top tips for working with mentors.

1. Benefit from their hindsight. People often ask mentors what they wish someone had told them at a certain stage of their career. It’s always great to know what people think were their good decisions and poor decisions.

2. Know what you want to know. Prepare targeted questions for your mentor.

3. Remember that everyone is human. Someone with an extraordinary career is just like you; they’ve just done something you may not have done yet.

4. Be confident in the idea that people want to help you. When you're working with a mentor, you shouldn't be afraid to ask for guidance.

5. Own your questions. Most things you’re feeling, someone else is feeling, too.

Visit Mentor Walks Australia to find out about upcoming events in your city and to register your interest as a mentee.