Melissa Edson was enrolled in college and on her way to receiving a degree in criminal justice. Then, she changed her mind and decided to pursue a career as a nail tech. It wasn’t something that changed Melissa’s mind, it was someone: Kristi Valenzuela.

Edson was working at a beauty supply store to pay for college when she met Valenzuela. Edson took an education class taught by Valenzuela and was so moved by her passion for nails, that she approached her afterward.

“I asked her how she became an educator and our friendship grew from there. She helped me rediscover my passion for the art of nails,” says Edson. “I now work as a nail tech full time, am an educator, and do competitions on the side. Kristi opened up a whole new world for me and I’ve never looked back.”

When it comes to your career, everyone can benefit from a mentor. Mentoring is a term historically used to describe a teacher-student relationship.

“A mentor is someone who inspires you. It could be her success, her attitude, her charisma, or her skills, talents, and abilities,” explains Valenzuela, who owns Crystal Focus (Holly, Mich.), a salon coaching company. “A mentor usually has achieved the goals you aspire to achieve.”

A mentor can help you find a job, prepare for ongoing education, explore your career possibilities, meet successful people, stay motivated and focused on your goals, help you with your technical applications, and give you insight into the path you’ve chosen within the nail industry. Mentors are also role models of the type of person you want to become, someone you admire for the amount of wealth they’ve gained, or who rose to be the best in their field. A mentor’s knowledge experience, tenacity, and skills offer the growing nail tech guidance, advice, and training. While a mentor can steer a student in the right direction to reach her potential, a student must still rely upon herself to succeed.

A good mentor will take pleasure in helping you because she’s at a point in her career when she’s ready to give back. Often your mentor has been helped by a mentor of her own, and is simply returning the favor.


Finding a Mentor

When you seek out a mentor, you’ll want to look for someone who is a right fit for you. What you’re trying to form is a relationship – and all relationships are built on chemistry.

“This search for a mentor should first begin with the realization of your own dreams. You must have a direction in which you want to go and be open to the coaching of the mentor you choose,” says Valenzuela. “If you aspire to be an educator, visit classes and observe the unique styles of educating. If your dream is to become a salon owner, search your area for a salon that is similar to the salon you imagine. If your dream is to compete in nail competitions, study magazines that feature these people and their successes.”

The most common places you can find potential mentors are salons, spas, schools, online chat groups, through friends, and other networking groups.

Edson recommends taking product knowledge classes from distributors and manufacturers to meet potential mentors.

“I would also recommend job shadowing in local salons,” says Edson. “I had a cosmetology student who came into my salon for the day and she was able to ask me lots of questions and even got credit toward school hours that day.”

Diana Bonn of Mirror Images in Muncie, Ind., has been mentoring students and beginning nail techs for eight years. She’s been a guest speaker at cosmetology schools in her area and says she’s had many students approach her after class, which makes it easier on them.

“Since I’m in their environment, it makes me more approachable,” explains Bonn.

Look for someone who has knowledge and business experience in areas that you don’t. Also, make sure the mentor you choose is open to becoming a mentor. It goes without saying, a mentoring relationship requires consent by both parties.

“Have questions ready and ideas mapped out about what you want to know and be specific,” advises Edson. “Different people have different things to offer. Talk to a few people to receive an array of perspectives. Then you can get a feeling for that person.”

Specific questions to ask are: What’s your day-to-day routine like? How much money can I expect to earn my first few years? How do you stay motivated? If you have a family, how do you juggle them and your career?

And although we are using female pronouns, some of the best mentors in the industry are male.

Alisha Sale, owner of Alisha’s Nail Boutique in Lathem, N.Y., has been mentored for the last two years by Odyssey Nail Systems’ Trang Nguyen, who coached her to number-one competitor status in 1999. She says although her approach was more direct, there are subtle ways to approach a potential mentor.

“At a nail competition that I was competing in, I went up to him and asked him to critique my nails,” Sale says. “Not only did he give me his opinion, he did a nail right there to show me his way. If you look up to someone and you really want to learn from him, just introduce yourself and tell him you like his technique.”

Not long after meeting Nguyen, Sale went to work at his salon and school in Longwood, Fla., and as an educator for his Odyssey product line.

“I got homesick and ended up moving back to New York, but still continued my relationship with Trang,” says Sale. “He’s taught me so much about the industry from business practices to his innovative salon decor ideas.”

If you’re looking for someone who can help you develop your technical skills, observe different techs’ work until you find someone who has the style you’d like to adopt.

Maggie Franklin, owner of The Art of Nails in Visalia, Calif., recommends paying attention to people’s nails and asking the ones you like who did their nails. “Approach that tech and explain that your are in school or just entering the nail industry and that you saw her can help you develop your technical skills, observe different techs’ work until you find someone who has the style you’d like to adopt.

Maggie Franklin, owner of The Art of Nails in Visalia, Calif., recommends paying attention to people’s nails and asking the ones you like who did their nails.

“Approach the tech and explain that you are in school or just entering the nail industry and that you saw her work on one of her clients. Then ask if she would be willing to mentor you.”

The internet is also an avenue for finding a mentor. You can make contacts with seasoned nail techs online by posting a message asking if there’s anyone in your area interested in being a mentor.

When you contact a possible mentor, be polite and briefly introduce yourself and your goals. Explain how you were referred to her and mention that you would like permission to ask some questions and advice.

Valenzuela recommends taking a simple approach.

“When you find someone you aspire to be like, I would simply approach her and say, ‘I like your style. I would love to do what you are doing someday.’ Ask her to tell you her success story, and listen carefully,” says Valenzuela. “An important point to remember is that it is up to you to pursue her by keeping in contact. By doing so, she will be able to see your dedication.”

Since your potential mentor may have a busy schedule, ask if you can setup an in-person meeting to ask her some questions. Usually when a potential mentor agrees to meet with you, she is interested in finding out more about you before she makes a commitment about acting as a mentor.

The potential mentor will want to hear about your interests in nails and in your level of motivation and enthusiasm.

Be prepared to explain what you hope to get out of the experience and why you are interested in this mentor’s work. Think about what you want to know about this person’s job and the education and training she needed to get the job. Be sure to write out your questions before the meeting.

At the meeting, first ask about her professional background and accomplishments. Then tell her about your career goals and school and personal background. Mention any fears or challenges you face in pursuing further education or your career.

Would-be mentors are most likely to be receptive to people who ask good questions, listen well to the responses, and demonstrate that they are hungry for advice and counsel.

The initial meeting with your mentor may be a bit awkward. Most likely, there won’t be instant intimacy. To put both of you to ease, treat her as you would a new friend. Remember that you are trying to convert a forced relationship into one of trust and comfort. It’s important to set clear goals for the relationship so both people know what is expected of them.


Expect to Learn a Lot

Once you’ve made a connection with someone and you’re both comfortable with each other, the mentoring can begin. From how to write a resumé to technical application, the amount of skills you’ll acquire will be beneficial to all aspects of your career.

It is important to note that this new relationship will allow for the simultaneous development of both parties involved. There can be a transfer of skills in both directions, and you’ll become more in tune with salon culture.

“You should expect to learn everything your mentor knows to help you reach your goals,” says Valenzuela. “A great mentor will want to see her student become as great as she is.”

Mentors provide guidance based on past business experiences. Anything that’s happened to them, good or bad, you will learn about. Packed with experience and confidence, mentors will pass along their same traits.

“What you learn from a mentor depends on her experience, knowledge, and ability to teach,” says Franklin. “There are professional mentors, out there who can teach you anything from how to sculpt a perfect nail to how to do your taxes”

There are many way to nurture a mentor relationship. Some may have an agenda with specific topics outlined that they adhere to. Others just go with the flow and address problems as they arise.

“I find that what most new techs are looking for and what they need is not so much dvice on how to do better nails, but reassurance that they are progressing at a normal rate,” says Franklin.

Although it’s desirable to find a mentor that fulfills all of your needs, that may not always be the case.

“I still have a hard time trying to explain to someone how to sculpt with a brush and not with the file,” says Franklin. “But, I can watch someone work and tell her what she did right and what she did wrong. But I can’t tell her how to do it faster and that’s the number-one question I get.”

Different mentors fulfill different needs. Just as your mentor may be guiding other people besides you, it’s advisable and encouraged to seek out more than one mentor.

“A professional mentor will have the confidence and security to allow her student to learn from someone other than her,” says Bonn. “Sometimes one person has certain skills that another person doesn’t. Why not benefit from both of those people?”

There isn’t a right or wrong way to mentor someone, so depending on the kind of relationship you have and you needs, you may start with the basics like learning the tricks of the trade or how to prepare for state board exams. Another way of doing it is to start in the salon – learning everything from how to build a clientele to how to dress.

“When I mentor, I teach them the tricks of the trade, the professionalism of the trade, what small things make a client love the technician, and how to make a service special,” explains Bonn. “Besides techniques, there is so much more to learn that only a mentor with experience can show through her actions. Attitude and professionalism can be more important than technique.”

When Franklin mentors a new tech, one of the first things that she’ll help her with is handling clients.

“I have two new techs under me right now and I find that they tend to be too apologetic for their work or their speed,” she says. “If a client comes in with broken or missing nails, they beat themselves up over it. It makes their self confidence plummet, which makes it easier for clients to take advantage of them. I help them overcome that.”

“Even if a newbie just sits and watches the mentor, she will see her actions, listen to the way she answers the phones, how she greets her clients, how she says goodbye to her clients – all of which are so important,” adds Bonn.

Everyone agrees that besides nail and business skills, a person will learn so much more. “Kristi taught me more about myself than about nails,” says Edson. “She has been there to nurture my dreams, and help me set goals and accomplish them. We brainstorm. Without Kristi, I wouldn’t have received ongoing education. I also learned how to take the ball and roll with it, and not be afraid to take chances.”

There’s never a time limit on having a mentor. Some relationships last months while others blossom into lifelong friendships, depending on your goals and the kind of relationship you and your mentor develop.

“Kristi mentored me for about a year until I reached the goals that I wanted to accomplish,” says Edson. “Now it seems after a four-year friendship that we mentor each other. She’s the big sister I never had. The mentoring can be over when you’ve helped someone find a direction and realize her goals, but it’s also important to know that you always have someone you can go to if you need to.”

Obviously, after putting the time and energy into a mentor relationship, you’re going to want successful results.

“Depending on what your goals are depends on your success,” says Edson. “It also depends on how you measure success. I consider myself one of the most successful people I know and it’s because of Kristi and from surrounding myself with people who I want to be like.”

Winn Claybaugh, co-owner of Masters, a motivational and learning audio program for salon pros and a motivational speaker for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based John Paul Mitchell Systems, says a student’s success will be greater if it comes out of a mentor relationship.

“A mentor can come along and teach you to learn from her mistakes and her experience,” says Claybaugh. “I think experience is a great teacher, but the value of the lesson that you learn from first-hand experience diminishes in the time that it takes to have the experience. If the people who are the students aren’t ending up better than their mentor, then we’re going backward.”


What It Takes

A mentor is a guide, a friend, a listener, and a coach. To be all of these things to one or more people takes patience and experience.

“A mentor should have humility, because ego closes the door on learning in the minds of your students,” says Claybaugh.

If you’re ready to become a mentor, Claybaugh recommends contacting cosmetology schools to volunteer your services.

“Don’t wait for schools to call you,” he says. “Don’t wait for schools to pay you to come in because they’re not going to pay you. Just get out there and start mentoring. Students need you from the beginning. Don’t approach them when they’re getting ready to graduate. They need someone to help them through school, too.”

“I’ve now started to mentor students in my area and I do what Trang did for me because I want new nail techs to have the same opportunities I had,” Sale says. “People ask me all the time why I mentor and whether I’m worried that my students will turn out better than me. That’s ridiculous. To me, it’s all about sharing my knowledge. Not everyone is going to retain or apply the information the same. It’s the individual person who is going to put her own unique style into doing nails.”

Understanding that mentoring is a two-way street is important. By appreciating your mentor, you are giving something of value in exchange for her years of experience and wisdom. Your attitude is the key to a successful relationship. It is not common practice to pay for a mentor relationship. The beauty of having a mentor and being a mentor is that unlike cosmetology school, there are no fees involved. The time a mentor devotes to you is of her own free will. “I have never charged the people I mentor,” says Valenzuela. “When someone asks me to be mentored, it comes from my heart.”

If you’re looking for a mentor or looking to be a mentor, devoting time to the relationship can be the key to a successful one.

The work that goes into a relationship can yield positive results on both the student and mentor. Remember, you’ll not only grow as an individual and a nail tech, you’ll also be able to make positive contributions to the industry – and that’s what you set out to do in the first place, right?      

If you’re ready to be a student, you’ll start to run across people who enjoy teaching and want to see someone less experienced use their strategies and wisdom to achieve success. There are, however, a few important things you should do before you pick a mentor.

  • Do your research. Find out who the top industry leaders are and look for things you sincerely admire about them. Check out trade associations and websites where networking takes place. Through chat rooms and bulletin boards, techs from around the world can post questions and get answers from thousands of other nail professionals. Try,,,, and

If you’re not sure how to approach someone on the internet, here’s an example to give you an idea.

Hello, I am looking for a nail tech mentor, particularly knowledgeable in marketing and acrylic application, to help me in building my career. I am interested in someone who enjoys advising and nurturing new techs, a person who can critique my work objectively, map out a job plan, shore with me the unwritten rules of the business, etc. If interested, please respond by e-mail.

Many manufacturers and distributors have chat rooms or message boards on their own sites as well. So look for them when you are navigating around on their sites.

  • Write a letter. You may already know someone who knows the person you’d like to be your mentor: if so, you can ask for an introduction. If you don’t start by writing a letter introducing yourself and point out the things you admire about that person. This show the prospective mentor that you have taken the time to find out more about her.
  • Always follow-up any meetings, telephone calls, or e-mails with thank-you notes. A simple handwritten note tells the person that you really listened.


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