When it comes to navigating a career path, no tool in your arsenal can be quite as valuable — or as tricky! — to use as mentorship. We're partnering with The co-lab, a member-led, inclusive global networking community for fashion, beauty, wellness, retail and consumer luxury professionals, to bring you 'The Mentor Minute,' where we chat with professionals about how they've used their role as both a mentor and a mentee to get where they are today.
Katherine Kim Choroco (or Kat, as she likes to be called) is a marketing executive who most recently served as Head of Marketing & Communications for Bergdorf Goodman, the iconic New York City shopping destination. But while her journey there took her through some of fashion's biggest brands — think Chanel, Calvin Klein and Saks Fifth Avenue — she almost didn't get into the industry at all. She entered undergrad with the intention of going into pre-med. Growing up in the small neighborhood grocery store her parents owned, however, inspired a turn to business school to study consumer packaged goods marketing, where she discovered a love for retail.
"Ever since I was little, I loved working as a cashier, and ringing up transactions — I loved bagging, believe it or not," she says. "As I look back, when I think about my love of retail, brands, building relationships and talking to clients — or if you're in a retail setting, certainly talking to your associates — and getting to know what are people thinking, what are people feeling, it all makes sense why I ended up in this industry."
One MBA from Columbia and an internship with Bed, Bath and Beyond later, Choroco was officially on her way to building a strong career in fashion marketing. Of course, mentorship played a huge role in her path: "The other piece along my career which I've been very fortunate about is having these executives be willing to take the time to talk with me and genuinely understand what it is that I wanted to do and why," she says.
Read on for Choroco's tips on being an effective mentor, how to silence your inner doubts and why clear communication is the key to any good mentor-mentee relationship.
What has the importance of mentorships been in your career?
There's probably only one I can think of that was more a formal mentor, meaning I had an explicit conversation with this person. But indirectly, throughout my career evolution, one large part has been observing women, particularly executive women above me, and watching the way they lead. That was one aspect of mentorship for me. I've been very fortunate, having these executives be willing to take the time to talk with me and just genuinely understand what it is that I wanted to do in the future.
I worked with this woman who was a VP at the time, and she had all of us over to her apartment for dinner; she was a very personal, great mentor, both professionally and personally, and when she left to go to a different organization, she sent everyone a handwritten note. And I kid you not — I don't wanna age myself, but it was a long time ago — I still have that personal note, and I re-read it every now and then. The note is about how much she believes in me, how much she's sad, on one hand, to leave me and the organization, but how optimistic she was to see where my career would go. That's the kind of mentorship where there's genuine intricate understanding of who the person is, what motivates them. For me to still have that note almost 15 years later, that shows you the power of mentorship and how much a single conversation or interaction of showing support can really uplift and and further.
People like her throughout my career demonstrated to me that it really makes a difference when you can set aside the time and really get to know the people that you work with, but then also make it known that you're willing to help other people as well. Just because you're not on my team, or I don't have a direct working relationship with you, doesn't mean that I can't have that conversation with you. I've taken that with me throughout my career.
Other mentors have been much more hands on. There's another mentor of mine, and I very much still keep in touch with her; I text her often. It's the same kind of situation, where she wanted to genuinely get to know who I was, what motivated me, and had genuine interest in ensuring that whatever I was working towards, what questions I had, even doubts that I had about my career, myself, she was just someone who I could bounce ideas off of and really supported me in a real way that helped me think about where I should go in my career, and gave me a resource.
I love that story with the letter, to revisit it however many years on; would you still consider that person to be a mentor? How do you find mentorship relationships to evolve over time?
I follow and see what she's done, and she's now part of a very large organization. I haven't had direct contact with her recently, but if I felt like I wanted certain advice from her, I don't think I would hesitate to reach out to her. I'm certain that she would remember me and I'm certain that she would be more than happy to chat with me and see where I've been going.
All my mentors and folks that have helped me along the way have been these women executives; they've evolved in the organizations where we're in the roles together, and as we've respectively left those organizations, it's been this blend of personal and career. I think depending on what stage you are in your life and what stage you are in your career, there are very much realities where your personal life blends into your career. So I've been so fortunate to have these relationships where they evolved; it's really nice when it's career driven, and just a personal friend who you can reach out to for support and have a more personal relationship that way as well.
To your question about how they evolve, it can be kind of a moment in time. At least for the people I've worked with on my team, I tell them that, yes, you're on my team now, but I would hope that they all feel comfortable coming to me after I've left, after they've left, to come back to me because once you're on my team, you're always on my team and I'm always gonna root for you.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to develop that mentor-mentee relationship?
There's still this belief that it has to be a formal mentor and it has be a very one-way dialog, meaning that it's the mentor giving the advice to the mentee. So I think one, don't be afraid to ask, because for the most part, you'd be pleasantly surprised to find out how supportive people are willing to be. Two, go into a situation with a very open mind. Because you might go into having a conversation with a mentor — and for sure I think that you should have a clear idea of what it is that you'd like to have support or help on — but I think also be open. Don't be afraid to have a longer dialog. You might be surprised, in a good way, to find that you might have come in with one question, but you come out of the conversation or out of the relationship with so many other different things that you may not have thought to get advice on, or something that would be helpful for you as you navigate your career or your current situation.
How can you make sure that you're being an effective mentor?
Whenever someone reaches out to me, or if I'm talking to someone, I first try to really understand what it is I can help them with: what is the situation that they're in, what's the big question that they have, what is it that they're trying to resolve. It doesn't necessarily have to be a problem; the objective out of the meeting could be to learn more about an industry because they may not be familiar with luxury retail.
Then I always try to go back to that: does it answer your question, is that helpful? If I'm not being helpful, how else can I direct you to other folks that might have more of an answer than I might be able to give? I also try to keep it open ended as well, because I think in these conversations, there's this added stress from a mentee standpoint, like: okay, I only have one hour with this person, or thirty minutes, I don't want to waste their time and I want to be respectful. There's so much pressure in their head — "I need to get all this out right now."
I like to keep it open: It's okay that we don't get all your questions answered, we'll figure out a way to help you. If that means that we have an additional conversation, if it means I point you to different people, then that's what it takes. I would hate to walk away from a conversation and the mentee or the person feel like I didn't help them. It really is important for me to feel like they're getting something out of it.
What are realistic expectations for a mentee to have for a mentor?
The advice I would give is just ask that upfront, because everyone is different and there's going to be different types of mentor relationships with folks; depending on time constraints, schedules, et cetera, there are various reasons why certain conversations have to be framed differently. Make sure, from a mentee standpoint, that they're very upfront with the time that they would love to have a mentor, but be very respectful. Err on the side of always keeping in mind the mentor is taking their time to speak with you, and they're happy to do it, but it is their time. How do you make sure that you're prepared in a way that you're getting what you need out of it?
How can people either establish or maintain those relationships virtually?
I've had a few folks reach out to me and they're fully remote, folks that have reached out to me that are in a completely different state. These virtual Zoom meetings, or video conference, Google meet — those are still very intimate and I think they're still a great way to get to know a person that you're trying to help, or if you're the mentee, the mentor you want to get to know. I would suggest very much, if it's possible, to have it be a video versus a phone, because it helps to establish more of a relationship that way. It's been good to see another person; I like seeing their reactions and seeing how the conversation goes.
Is there ever a time that a mentor-mentee relationship can run its course and if so, what's the best way to approach that?
Absolutely. If there was a very specific objective, or a quick question, or wanting to get to know a bit more about an industry, those can be more finite relationships — finite meaning, the subject matter that you're trying to understand doesn't have to keep going on and on. On either side, whether it's the mentor's side or the mentee's side, clear communication is fantastic: 'I got whatever I needed out of it, I would love to keep in touch,' and then that's it. It can be very simple.
But in my relationships, I like to keep it a little more open, because you never know — you can have these one moment-in-time questions, but over time, depending on how your career evolves, I think it's always nice to keep it open.
What is the best piece of advice a mentor has ever given to you?
One, make sure that you really know what you want. Don't be swayed by the hot thing that's happening in the industry; genuinely understand for yourself what is it that you want to do and stay true to what it is you're passionate about, or stay true to what it is you want to learn about. Some people might take a leap or jump into a role that maybe is more of a learning opportunity for them and maybe your passion isn't there, but then you have to be honest with yourself about why you're taking that opportunity. Make sure you know what's guiding you, and have that openness, that transparency and honesty with yourself. Then have faith that you've made the best possible decision that you have and feel good.
The other piece is, quiet that inner voice. Have faith in yourself that whatever choice you're making and whatever place you're moving forward to, whatever that move looks like, based on the experience you have, based on your background, based on all the things you've done. Have faith that you'll be okay. It's okay if you're a little afraid; if you're not afraid, maybe it's not a big enough of a jump for you.
Those are the things that I still think about in my career and that have stayed with me.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.