Joan Thompson

She makes the connections that help her numerous mentees thrive.
Joan Thompson

Appropriately, it was at a networking event (under the auspices of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce) that Ingrid Christensen first met Joan Thompson in 2010. Soon thereafter they “sat down and talked for a couple of hours about [Thompson’s] career path and how she got to be where she is now,” Christensen recalls.

Those moments turned into a mentoring relationship that has helped Christensen to become a more confident and strategic networker and business manager. And that, in turn, allowed her to grow her then four-year-old company, INGCO International, into a business whose contractors translate marketing materials and website content, provide interpretation services and test job applicants’ bilingual capabilities for numerous nonprofit and for-profit entities. “I have learned so much from her and grown into a better business owner and a better person from her leadership and guidance,” Christensen says.

As executive vice president and chief financial officer of family-run Minnesota Wire, a St. Paul-based custom designer and manufacturer of wire and cable products, Thompson has had a long career helping lead a well-established small business. As they began to connect, Thompson tried to impress upon Christensen that she needn’t second-guess herself. Part of mentorship is “teaching people to trust [their] gut,” Thompson says. “She’s very bright and has a lot of the right skills, so I tried to reassure her that she was doing the right thing.”

Thompson also encouraged Christensen to attend more events and get her name known among potential clients. “She really guided me in networking, because you can really get lost going to events,” Christensen says. Thompson, she adds, “was helpful in making introductions for me and getting me in front of decision-makers that would have taken me years or perhaps never to get in front of.” These included leaders of nonprofits, medical facilities and Fortune 500 businesses. At events where they were both attendees, “she’d always introduce me and tell them what my business does,” Christensen says. “If she knows somebody who she thinks would be a good connection for me, she was always more than willing to make that introduction.”

For example, Thompson connected her with Catholic Charities, for which INGCO now provides a wide variety of services, including translations of scripts and programming information. Another useful contact was the Wilder Foundation—INGCO is now discussing upcoming projects with the foundation.

Another of the introductions Thompson facilitated was with a regional CEO for the Minnesota Red Cross, which led Christensen herself to be elected to the board this June. Christensen also serves on the board of the St. Paul Area Chamber and other nonprofits. And she completed the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Minnesota networking program; this led to projects for INGCO from Minneapolis-based engineering firm WSB & Associates.

In addition to facilitating meetings with contacts, Thompson has helped Christensen by offering guidance on business management issues, including strategies for making better hires. “She offered questions to ask to make sure I’m getting the right people for the team,” Christensen says. All told, Thompson “asks me hard questions so that I’m more thoughtful in making decisions about everything, from a board I’m going to join to an event I’m going to attend to a financial decision to a hiring decision.”

In a sense, mentoring Christensen is all in a day’s work for Thompson. “I haven’t been without a mentee for the last 20 years,” she says. “I usually have several. Some I see all the time, while others check in every few months.”

The drive to mentor and to give back runs deep in Thompson’s family. Her first professional mentor was her father, Minnesota Wire founder Fred Wagner. “[My dad] coached, encouraged and challenged me to engage in work I had never done, as well as say yes to a variety of leadership opportunities that came my way both inside and outside the workplace,” she says. “And he taught me how to lead by ethical example.” Currently, 30 percent of Thompson’s time on the job is spent on civic work, which includes engaging with business organizations and government groups, and volunteering with nonprofits.

For those seeking a mentor, Thompson has some guidance: Be willing to ask for advice and to listen. Noting that many mentees eventually become mentors themselves, Thompson says the pool of mentors could be significantly larger, because many people offer a unique perspective to someone just entering the workforce or looking to make a change in their career.

“Mentoring is a chance to give back, and it’s fun to meet people,” Thompson says. “I have never been disappointed sitting down and [having] a conversation with someone.”