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Mentoring for Career Change

Retail strategist Mercedes Gonzalez on helping people "test drive" their dream job.

En español | Since 1998, Mercedes R. Gonzalez, 40, a fashion buyer and retail strategist who owns the Global Purchasing Companies in Manhattan, has opened her door to people interested in taking a peek at her professional world. Her connections are made through VocationVacations, a Portland, Oregon-based company that matches people who enjoy their careers with those eager to test drive their dream jobs for a few days. Gonzalez recently shared her experience as a mentor with AARP VIVA.

Q. How did you begin mentoring?

A. Brian Kurth, the owner of VocationVacations, and I have a mutual friend who thought it’d be a good idea for us to connect. When I heard what VocationVacations does, I thought it was brilliant.

When I was small, my dad would make us read the newspaper. One day, I remember him reading an article aloud to us that said something like 80 percent of workers hated their job. So I asked my dad, who was a barber, if he liked his job, and he said, “Are you crazy? I hate my job!” I knew then that my goal in life was not to be stuck doing something that I hated. Brian thought that the passion I had for my job would make me a good mentor.

Q. Who comes to you through the mentorship program?

A. Folks of all ages, from people in their 20s, straight out of college, to people in their 50s who say they feel stuck in their job and are ready for another type of experience. It’s great.They are people seeking out a real-world experience who are ready and willing to learn during their off time.

Next: Mentoring and learning the tools of the trade.>>

Q. Can you describe the mentor-mentee relationship?

A. You are thrown into the fire! It’s only a two-day stay, but even after that short time people can get a better idea of whether they might want to pursue this type of career, open their own shop, or start a clothing line. They can also get an idea about how much start-up capital they might need. My job now might sound glamorous… it takes us on the road, to fashion shows in Dallas, Chicago, Vegas, and international shows in Mexico, Brazil, or Europe. But it’s also about moving and carrying boxes, steaming clothing samples, and doing lots of math. There’s a whole other side to it that is not at all glam. 

Q. What do you think people get out of a mini-mentorship?

A. The people we mentor understand that you can’t just go from zero to 60 in a new profession. You have to start from the beginning. In fashion, that means knowing everything, from where you shop for mannequins to how much money you should budget and on what. If people are thinking of opening up their own boutique, for example, they should know that nine of out of ten retailers fail. So you can have people come here with all the passion in the world, but being successful also means being practical and having a clear idea of what needs to be done.

Q. How does being a mentor benefit you? 

A. I’ve gotten a lot of out it. I realized that it’s never too late to take on something new. We had a woman not too long ago open her first clothing boutique at age 60. She had zero experience in the fashion industry, had never even worked in a retail store, but she is going ahead and doing it. We stay in touch with the people we’ve mentored. It’s interesting to see where they go and, of course, we will offer our consulting services, too. We’ve helped a few people open up their own stores. We’re open to sharing our secrets and putting ourselves out there to people who are genuinely interested.

Q. What would you say to someone thinking of becoming a mentor?

A. It can be really exciting to have people come here, experience what we do,and see it become a catalyst that drives them in another direction. You see people willing to overcome the fear that keeps so many people back. But [being a mentor] is also a commitment. It’s not about free labor for a couple of days,but rather sharing an experience.

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