Advisers And Navigators

How Mentors Shape Lives, Careers and Local Culture.

Above: “He is always one of my first calls when I’m looking at something challenging or new,” Christina Moffatt says of her longtime mentor, Davis Sanders, who also coaches others.

Photographer: Ivory House Photography
Writer: Barbara Hall

In Des Moines, “stronger together” isn’t just a political slogan; it’s a precept demonstrated by mentors—people who freely share their expertise with others—as well as the people they advise.

Having a mentor can be crucial to success while navigating careers, community advocacy and life in general. For their part, mentors selflessly help build careers and our community. They often become mentors at the peak of their own careers—or even earlier—to share their insights and influence.

“It is so rewarding to see how assisting as a mentor becomes exponentially beneficial for many,” says Davis Sanders, a principal at RDG Planning & Design, who has mentored Christina Moffatt since she was a project coordinator at RDG as well as a number of other professionals.

“She had such an insatiable thirst to learn,” he recalls of Moffatt, who went on to create Crème Cupcake + Dessert. She also serves as a regional director with the Small Business Development Center, encouraging others to succeed.

“Davis is there whenever I reach out,” Moffatt says. “He is always one of my first calls when I’m looking at something challenging or new. He never tells me the right answer but guides me with pros and cons for me to arrive at decisions on my own. He’s my constant cheerleader when it’s good, and my coach when I need to try again.”

Moffatt says the most important advice she’s received from Sanders is that “you don’t know unless you try,” a message he shared in one of their first conversations. “It’s OK to try and fail,” she says, “because at least I learned something from it. … Try it again a different way, and it might work. But you’ll never know unless you try.”

Emily Toribio says she learned “the three P’s” from mentor Kristi Knous: patience, perseverance and positivity.

The Three P’s

Emily Toribio, corporate outreach and communications coordinator for Fareway Stores, says she learned “the three P’s” from mentor Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines: patience, perseverance and positivity. Knous “has always been great at encouraging me … and has provided helpful feedback along the way.”

In addition, learning about Knous’ career path has also “proven beneficial as I think about my own career,” Toribio says. “She went from the health care system to the non-profit world, and that’s been a reminder to me that a career is not a direct path. There are times where you take a step back or simply go in a different direction. It’s been comforting knowing that as I’ve made my own decisions.”

Knous understood the mentorship role well as she had benefited from the same kind of relationships earlier in her own career. Her mentors, she says, “generously grabbed me by the hand, opening doors and … pushing me through them.”

That generosity of spirit is paid forward from generation to generation. Mentors are forward-looking stewards of the community and, as Knous observes, “they are concerned about having a next generation of leaders and givers ready to be on the receiving end when they pass the torch.”

Mentors interviewed shared a common recommendation: Seek out the counsel of successful professionals you admire. Most will share advice with serious young professionals, and those conversations can lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It brings me joy to repay the kindness I’ve received over the years,” Knous says. “There is nothing better than making a meaningful connection for one of my mentees that pays off for them. I’m always listening for those opportunities where I can turn our connection into an even bigger connection that will benefit them personally or professionally. I love being a sounding board. It fills my cup.”

Mentor Jay Jagim, left, and Randy Young say mutual respect is essential to good mentoring. “Maybe the most important thing he’s taught me is how to work with other people,” Young says.

Mutual Respect

More than a mutual benefit is necessary for a strong relationship. “It’s a mutual respect between the two of us,” Randy Young says of his mentor, Jay Jagim.

Jagim agrees: “If respect doesn’t go both ways, it’s not good mentoring. … We have made (the relationship) work to both of our advantages.”

Both men are involved in local theater—Young as a technical director and intern designer at Grand View University, Jagim as director of production for Repertory Theater of Iowa and an adjunct professor at Grand View. And naturally, their paths crossed.

“I saw that he was interested and had some skills,” Jagim says. “I started bringing him to everything I do, slowly bringing him along in different areas of set design and construction.”

“Jay has taught me a lot about set design,” Young says, “but maybe the most important thing he’s taught me is how to work with other people. As part of my job at Grand View, I work with students. When I am having an issue with a student, Jay will see what’s happening and tell me to step outside the situation and take a look.”

Alex Duong says he learned to get out of his comfort zone from his mentors, Andrea Woodard and Dory Briles. Both are impressed by his enthusiasm for his professional goals.

Following Dreams

Expanding skills in new directions is vital to career growth, mentors and their disciples agree. “They tell you not to be afraid to follow your dream and get out of your comfort zone,” says Alex Duong, in praise of his mentors, Andrea Woodard and Dory Briles. Their mentoring experience reaches beyond Duong’s field as a marketing and communications specialist with Mediacom. Woodard is the public policy manager at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, and Briles is the executive director of the Des Moines Public Library Foundation.

Duong is a model case to follow for people seeking mentors. Applying for a role in the local Young Professionals Connection, “he reached out to each person on the board,” Woodard recalls. “I was impressed by his eagerness and passion.”

Briles was similarly impressed when she met Duong at a meeting about a Mediacom sponsorship for the Des Moines Public Library’s summer reading program. “He impressed me with his enthusiasm and ‘get it done’ attitude,” she says. Through that connection, Duong is now on the library foundation’s board of directors.

In pursuit of a marketing career, Duong has eagerly sought their counsel, as well as that of Emily Abbas, chief marketing officer at Bankers Trust. He says Briles is like a mom to him, and Woodard a big sister. “I always wanted a big sister,” he quips. “She is always available to me, for a phone call or text. She’ll be on a business trip and call me from the airport if she thinks of something that might be helpful to me.”

In turn, Woodard says, “Alex has taught me how to have honest conversations,” which has made her a stronger mentor. Calling herself a “people-pleaser,” she says “it took a lot of internal pep talks for me to give him

straightforward feedback. My inclination is typically to lift someone up. But knowing he was looking for honesty, I had to learn how to have the more difficult conversations on occasion.”

Benefiting from their generous advice, Duong understands the importance of appreciation. “Alex is generous with his thanks, whether a written card or gift,” Briles says. “Such actions are totally unexpected, but it is truly a delight to receive these gestures of appreciation.”

Brooke Miller Axiotis has had to span continents for advice from her mentor—her mother, Helen Miller, who persuaded Brooke to pursue her career in Iowa. Sometimes moms know best.

All in the Family

While Duong sees his mentors as family members, Brooke Miller Axiotis’ mentor is family—her mother, Helen Miller, who represents the Fort Dodge area in the Iowa House of Representatives.

“I didn’t formally ask my mom for help,” says Axiotis, a civil rights specialist with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. “She’s always helped, whether I asked or not.”

Miller’s biggest influence was in drawing her daughter to Iowa. Axiotis was a senior in high school when the family moved to Iowa from Washington, D.C. She attended college in Pennsylvania and worked for four years in Japan. When she was ready to return to the United States, she sought her mom’s advice about where to land.

“I had friends in New York, D.C., Pennsylvania,” Axiotis says. “Mom was really pushing for Iowa.”

Miller’s advice: “I told her, Iowa is small enough to get your arms around it. Once you get your arms around it, you can hug it. And it will hug you back.”

The message resonated. Axiotis moved to Iowa in 2008, earned a law degree and now serves on the boards of the Iowa State Board of Education and the Urban-Ag Academy. She is married and has a baby boy.

“I see the influence I’ve had on her,” Miller says, “even in the ways she’s raising her baby. I see her reading books to him, the same ones I read to her. … I consider her a chip off the old block.”

Of course, not everyone follows the advice of their mentors. Miller advised her daughter against going to Japan. And Duong, who recruited three mentors—what advice has he failed to follow? His answer is immediate: “Patience.”

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