A relaxed mentoring approach was the perfect way to help this Martin Scholar in the Department of Communication uncover the creative potential inside himself that he didn’t even know existed.
By Jonathan Gerstl ’18
“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
– Steven Spielberg
Sitting in the colorful courtyard outside of Kudu Coffee on Vanderhorst Street, just off of campus, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew his name, but we had never met before. Feelings of both excitement and nervousness flooded my body as I awaited his arrival. No, this was not a blind Tinder date. In fact, it was a blind meeting that would have a profound impact on me for the rest of my college career.
It was only four years prior that I packed up my life in the suburbs of New Jersey and moved down to South Carolina with my family. I was 18 years old and thought I could tour the world as a drummer in a rock band. Within the first few weeks of setting foot in Charleston, I made it my goal to integrate myself into the town’s vast creative community. These connections allowed me to pursue local music while also creating a desire to tell people’s stories. This unanticipated revelation ultimately led me to becoming a communication major and applying to learn from industry professionals in the Martin Scholars program my senior year.
As members of the program in the Department of Communication, we are each assigned a mentor working in the communication field. I was paired up with Alex Opoulos, one of the founding members of Objectivity Squared Wealth Management. Having not had any influential mentoring experiences prior (or, to be truly honest, knowing any company founders), I didn’t know what to expect.
My eyes glanced over to the wooden gate near the street entrance as a man with slick, gray hair and tight trendy clothes walked in. He greeted me with a welcoming smile as he sat down beside me. Our introduction was then quickly followed by him pulling out a Juul and saying, “To be honest, I have no clue what we are supposed to be doing here. I don’t even really work in the communication field.” I could not believe how casual this guy was. Any prior nervousness instantly left as I laughed and responded, “I have no clue either.” This could not be a more perfect pairing.
We spent the entirety of the first coffee meeting talking about dating drama, our music interests, hobbies, life advice and pretty much anything besides communication. So, what I anticipated would be a formal business mentoring meeting ended up being the first cup of coffee with my new friend.
The lighthearted nature of this initial encounter helped lay the groundwork for the discussions that followed. By not having preconceived notions of what I would gain from him and him not having expectations of me, we were able to form a much more organic relationship. Taking an interest in each other’s goals enabled us to more consciously support one another’s personal and professional development.
I had done it! Not because he told me how, but because he provided a supportive foundation to let me figure it out on my own.
Each week, I would check in on how his kid’s soccer games went, or his guitar lessons or the development of his company’s new website. Additionally, he would check in on how my short stories were coming together and provide advice on my pursuit to becoming more organized and obtaining an internship.
I learned from him that meaningful networking is not making a lot of connections in which you seek to gain something, but rather building relationships with people who you see value in both personally and professionally. Taking a genuine interest in the other’s growth and success is the reward.
As we pursued our own professional and personal goals, it naturally became obvious the role we could play in the other’s success. He needed a revised website, and I needed industry-related work experience. Rather than him simply telling me what he wanted and my building it, we turned this opportunity into a mock client scenario.
“Consider me your first client,” Alex challenged me. “You are running the show, and I want to see what you can do.”
Having the creative freedom to lead a project was such a powerful experience. There were no boundaries, no mold set by him to conform to, just a blank website template full of potential. The desire to create something impressive and prove my skills motivated me to go all out. I made it my goal to embody his personality, his company’s approach and his future vision into a masterfully designed website.
Through hours of conversation, dozens of idea-generation meetings and YouTube tutorials about Photoshop and Wix (a website development platform), I watched the project take a life of its own. The blank canvas on my laptop screen gradually became an illustration of the visionary potential I didn’t realize
Alex’s company, Objectivity Squared, is a wealth management firm that values the personal connections and conversations they have with their clients. They feel that in-person dialogue allows them to best create a personal and meaningful investment strategy for their clients. To capture this perspective, we
decided it was best to have a minimalist website that would quickly take the interactions off the screen and move them to a face-to-face relationship.
While the word “minimalist” may sound easy and simple, I quickly learned that condensing a complex business persona into a minimalist structure was quite the challenge. Our meetings turned into hours of dialogue over what was essential and how to best display these essentials. In my dorm I created draft after draft only to learn that it was not the vision he had in mind.
Then one day over breakfast at Basic Kitchen on Wentworth Street, I watched the project come to fruition. Our conversations and my hours of work were now a well-thought-out website design. Nothing provided more reassurance to me than the glow of excitement beaming from my mentor’s face. He said that he loved how I captured the company’s vision into a sleek and modern design that shows how it achieves financial success for its clients by valuing people and relationships.
I had done it! Not because he told me how, but because he provided a supportive foundation to let me figure it out on my own. Going from feeling overwhelmed and unsure about how to consult with and create content for a client to being able to bring his vision to life in a few short months felt incredible.
This process taught me that a mentor is not someone who shows you how to reach your potential; rather, true mentors use their experience to create a supportive foundation for the mentees to learn about themselves and cultivate the great potential that was already planted within.
Thank you, Alex Opoulos and all of the other great mentors in the Martin Scholars program who have supported me in my growth as a person over this past year.
– Jonathan Gerstl ’18, a communication major from Fort Mill, S.C., was a member of the Department of Communication’s Martin Scholars program, founded by Executive-in-Residence Thomas Martin.
Illustration by James Yang