Photos by Marie Ketring + Words by Meher Khan
Mai-Anh Kapanke is the perfect mentor. She’s warm, relatable, and she makes you feel important, even in a room full of others. So it’s no surprise that she has been the executive director of the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota (MPM) since January 2015. While YNPN Leadership Breakfast attendees gathered in the MPM office space, Mai-Anh came in early to shake each of our hands and introduce herself, then sat with us and talked about just having completed the Whole30 program. Food: it’s the great common denominator. Soon we were all talking about cravings for donuts, and by the time Mai-Anh’s leadership talk began, it was like hanging with a very smart friend over coffee.
Her accessibility makes Mai-Anh a strong leader. She has many accomplishments—a successful career in journalism, completing a policy fellowship with the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, successfully completing the Institute for Executive Director Leadership Program through the University of St. Thomas, co-directing YMCA Mentor Duluth, her current position as ED of MPM, and staying involved with her daughters’ soccer teams, to name a few—but she assured everyone how human she was along the way.
We heard poignant experiences from her life, including how her family came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam, and her upbringing in a “very republican” household. Hearing her experience showed vulnerability—something we all have—but also a path to accomplishing your own great feats someday with your unique abilities. Mai-Anh offered valuable insights about finding your career path, learning from others, and crossing lines of age and perspective to create strong networks.
Growth and progress start with curiosity and drive.
Mai-Anh encourages actively seeking out mentorship. She shared that her career path advanced to where it is today through a combination of her drive in seeking out both opportunities to learn skills she needed and people who wanted to help. Mai-Anh has been with MPM for eleven years, and throughout that time she was always looking for ways to expand her skillset. She used her background in journalism to contribute public policy skills in her role as vice president of marketing. While she didn’t want to write grants forever, she knew it was a skill needed for her long-term goal of becoming executive director. She took the opportunity to learn grant writing and became great at it. As a direct result of Mai-Anh’s resourceful attitude and constant search for ways to improve, she was given the position of interim ED when former MPM Executive Director Joellen Gonder-Spacek went on sabbatical. A key takeaway for young professionals from Mai-Anh’s experience: There will always be people who want to help. You just need to take the initiative to seek them out.
Learn from those who have walked the path before you.
Mai-Anh also encourages young professionals to learn from people who have been in the field for a while. Although younger professionals may have differences from previous generations, they can still find value in what those before them have learned. Don’t let the age gap stop you from making a connection and learning from it.
Know your strengths, and know when to step back.
Mai-Anh called Minnesota the “Land of 10,000 nonprofits” and recommended that nonprofits know their purpose and where their strengths lie. When there is overlap with other nonprofits, merging, collaborating, and aligning is important, because there simply isn’t enough funding for that many nonprofits.
Create networks that challenge your preconceptions.
Our networks are more valuable when they are broad and diverse. Only talking with people who think and feel the same way you do will stunt your growth. Once you start getting to know people with views different from your own, you have the opportunity to challenge their views (and have your own challenged as well!). That’s where growth of thought comes from. Mai-Anh described her multiple networks and how different they are (e.g., her suburban friends and her Planned Parenthood friends), and being able to move from one to the other means she brings new perspectives with her to each.
Look for leaders who want to further your professional development.
When Mai-Anh asked us what we needed to see from emerging leaders, one attendee responded that she appreciated when the executive director of her organization asked where she wanted to go next. Likewise, Mai-Anh strongly believes in developing her employees. She knows that in the nonprofit world, no one stays in one place forever. Mai-Anh believes it’s important to help employees develop what’s most important to them so they can take what they’ve learned with them when they move on to their next opportunity.
Maybe you have a clear picture of where you’re headed in your career, or maybe (like me) you’re not quite sure. Wherever you are in your journey, what’s important is to know what you want to learn at each given opportunity. Mai-Anh’s experience was driven by her goals. Once you have an idea of what your own goals are, you’re at the perfect place to seek opportunities and mentorship, and employ Mai-Anh’s very practical advice.