Paying it Forward: The power of mentorship when you have no one to turn to
“There's something that's good or something you can learn from any human that you come across, if you allow yourself to look hard enough” - Misti Cain
Children mimic their surroundings in their quest for answers on the journey of discovering the world and themselves. The reflection of love our caretakers provide becomes a mirror for our own self-worth and self-concept, for better or for worse.
I chatted with Misti Cain, founder of Whyzze, about the inspiration behind her company, and how the love from caretakers, particularly the love and legacy of fatherhood and mentorship, can have an impact on the trajectory of one’s life. Misti recalls how her father’s personal experiences, and his battle with cancer, inspired her to answer the question: how do you continue to receive mentorship and guidance in life when you have no one to turn to?:
I never saw my dad cry.
He was always taught to be a really tough man. However, I think having a daughter softened him and changed a lot of things he thought and believed.
He was the oldest out of 13 kids, and grew up in a time where there was still segregation. There wasn't a lot of opportunity for him at all in Arkansas. He didn't finish High School, but he made a family for myself and my three brothers. He kept a roof over our heads and worked really hard so he could give us a better life than he had.
My dad told me a story about when he was young. He wanted to become a hairdresser but his mom was not having that. She told him, “Boys don't become hairdressers. Do you know what kind of boys become hairdressers?” He was like, "I don't know, boys that are good with hair?" But that was the wrong answer according to her. She made fun of him and told him that's not something her son would be doing.
He was taught from then on that he had a certain path, and there were certain jobs he couldn't do because he was a man, or because he was black, or because he was straight. It's ironic that, in spite of all that, he became a parent that was so open with his love and so accepting of whatever his kids wanted to do even though he didn’t get that same sort of support. I think that's huge. It's what made me such a daddy's girl. I still am at heart.
Growing up, the word entrepreneur was not in our household. My dad was a truck driver, my mom worked in administrative jobs, and we just lived, kind of like head above water middle class family. I didn't have any entrepreneurial friends, or colleagues, or connections or a network. I would always talk to my dad about what I was going to buy him and what we were going to do when I got rich and famous. But it was mostly talk, I didn't have an actual plan for becoming rich and famous.
Things came into sharp focus for me when he was diagnosed with cancer. "It's in God's hands" -- that's how my dad approached the disease. In 1995, when he first had his right lung removed, we thought they had gotten it all. He took time off to recuperate for a few weeks then went right back to work. He was the guy that didn't miss a day of work, never took a sick day. I always saw my dad as this pillar of strength and thought, 'He can beat cancer; he can beat anything.' And for eleven years he proved me right. However, in 2006 I got the call from my mom that he was in the hospital and he wasn't doing well. At first, even though I was devastated, I kept telling myself, 'He'll be ok, he's superman, everything's going to be fine.' But it wasn't fine and a week later, he was gone.
The fact that the world kept spinning was amazing to me, because I thought for sure if something happened to my dad, the world would stop.
After he passed away I wasn't doing anything. It wasn't like I was living a bad life, I was just subsisting every day, and it really got to me, because there was no more, "what we're going to do together" conversations that I could have with him. He didn't get a chance to meet my husband. He didn't get a chance to see me grow up into the person that I am, and it just really had an effect on me.
I promised myself that, I'm not going to just live, I'm not just gonna have this existence and then die. So I thought about what do people who have the same sort of background that I have, or who currently right now just don't know what to do, either personally, professionally, or even creatively -- what do they need? And a lot of people I asked were like, “If I just had a mentor…”
With mentorship you usually run into two problems, 1) the people that you want to mentor you are super busy and they don't have time and then 2) having one sole mentor leaves so many other areas of your life unturned. If you just have one mentor, you're only getting their perspective, and their feedback, and they have biases that probably come along with it. I began to develop a plan that focused on that fact and thought, what if you could access amazing entrepreneurs, therapists and really amazing creatives, who could provide you with answers without you trying to find the best one?
That's how my company Whyzze was born. It's an advice site. You pay for a weekly, monthly, or quarterly membership and you can ask as many questions as you want on personal challenges, professionals issues, or creative questions that you have, and you’ll get immediate answers from a team of advisors. The advisors range from therapists, CEOs, business people, to people in music, publishing, and the film industry. You ask a question and you can get an answer any time, without having to hope and pray for getting the right mentor to get guidance. I’m hopeful that this service will help a lot of people reach their goals and provide guidance in a world where mentorship can be hard to come by, on personal or professional levels.
I never run out of ideas, they're always popping into my head. Choosing the best idea to actually work on is generally the problem. Whyzze felt natural and purposeful, as if I was meant to do it. My first steps included seeing if people actually wanted Whyzze (i.e. would pay money for the service). I built a beta site and started promoting it. I answered questions on Quora, Reddit, online forums, and webinar chats. Then I submitted the site to beta groups like LaunchingNext and BetaList. That provided the initial traction. After that I built out an MVP (a minimum viable product) - a full subscription WordPress site - and used Upwork to find a developer to customize the aspects of the site I wasn't tech savvy enough to code myself. It’s grown from there, and truly showed that we can all start somewhere no matter the expertise that we have.
I was lucky my dad was such a mentor to me, even though he didn’t get that himself. It’s as though he tried to give his children all the guidance he didn’t receive himself growing up. The thing I absolutely love about my dad to this day is he placed no limitations on me. There are some parents who want to live vicariously through their kids and the kids are pressured to grow up and choose a very specific path, but my parents just weren't like that. They taught me that as long as I was being safe and moral, I can be whatever I want. When I was in fifth grade and said, "You know what? I think I'm going to be a cellist," I got to play the cello for a few years, was in the symphony for a while, and my parents thought it was great. When I wanted to quit the cello, my dad was like, "If she wants to quit, she wants to quit." Then I said, “Oh, I'd love to be an actress!” My parents supported that dream, although I didn't pursue acting because I didn’t want to go through the financial struggle before making it big. So, then it was, “You know what? I think I'm really into marketing!” And my parents supported that, too.
As a black man growing up in the era he did, it was like you need to know your place or you'll literally lose your life. It wasn't just oh you know, I'm going to rebel and hope everything works out ok. Where he lived there were people still being hung or abused or just taken out and never seen again, and he would tell these stories, "Oh the neighbor across the street, he said something to someone and we never saw him since. He just kind of disappeared."
Growing up in that sort of environment, for him to emerge from that still being so kind and not being judgemental and being so accepting of any friends that I had, whatever their background, whatever their race, whether they were rich, whether they were poor, whether they were Mexican, or white, or whatever, it didn't matter. He truly was a great role model for me.
As an entrepreneur, I like supporting other people's dreams - but also learning from them. There's something good or something you can learn from any human you come across if you allow yourself to look hard enough. Hearing stories from people who use Whyzze and seeing how they beat themselves up I think, “You're doing just fine. You just need a little bit of guidance.” And when I think back on all the pearls of wisdom and guidance my dad gave to me, it feels as if I'm somehow paying it forward.