The Secret to Becoming Yourself?
Look For Unlikely Mentors

Chris D. Roberts | TEDxSpokane

Drawing from personal experiences and professional insights, Roberts shares the dynamic life cycle of mentorships and the pivotal role they play in personal and professional growth. He emphasizes the need to look beyond traditional mentorship models, advocating for the value of learning from unexpected sources—individuals who challenge our perspectives and offer unique insights. 

Throughout the talk, Roberts identifies key factors that contribute to successful mentorship relationships. From mutual respect and shared values to the importance of diversity in mentorship circles, he paints a comprehensive picture of how these connections can shape our identity and unlock untapped potential. 

Roberts delves into the reciprocity of mentorship, highlighting how both mentor and mentee can benefit from the exchange of knowledge and experiences. By encouraging the audience to be open to guidance from unexpected quarters, he challenges preconceived notions about mentorship, illustrating how unconventional mentors can often provide the most valuable lessons. Chris was born and raised in Orange County, California, and now lives in Tacoma, Washington. He went from standing in food lines as a kid to feeding over 1,000,000 people today. He’s a full-time entrepreneur, real estate investor, and the Founder and CEO of Sterling Rhino Capital.


30 years ago, I woke up in a friend’s cluttered one bedroom
trailer where I’d been sleeping on his sofa. Many kids talk about running away,
but in reality, it’s terrifying. When I was a little kid growing up, there were
times my mom and I lived off food stamps and stood in the occasional food line,
but at least we had each other.

She wasn’t with me now and my closest family, well, they were
over 800 miles away. Everyone around me was in school going to work. They had
homes and families. They were doing exactly what you were supposed to be doing.
But here I was in the cracks thinking, I don’t even exist. I can remember this
one time, I was driving a car that would only start when you pushed it

Now imagine this night on the town. Okay, I need you to pop
this car in gear while I push it backwards, in reverse, at about 5 miles an
hour. You’ll have to guess the speed because the speedometer doesn’t work in reverse.
Christina, did you get that? And, by the way, can you drive a stick shift?
Despite running away and being on my own at such a young age, I managed to find
an interesting job working at a hot dog cart.

And one Saturday afternoon, I had a line of about 20 people. It
was a beautiful day. The tips were good, and man, I was in the zone. After the
line died down, a man approached me. His name was Ron. And he surprised me when
he said, I need a guy like you on my team. You’ve got a good attitude, energy,
enthusiasm, and you deal with pressure well.

And that’s something I can’t teach. And then, he offered me an
amazing job, helping him build a family fun center from scratch. Ron saw me in
a way I didn’t see myself. He identified skills I didn’t even know I had. He
helped me to see myself as a person with value for the very first time in my
life. And in showing me who I really was, became the first unlikely mentor.

Unlikely mentors are the people most likely to change your life
and least likely to call themselves your mentor. They’re not always your
friends, family, or immediate colleagues. They’re often on the periphery, just
outside your circle, people you’ve never noticed or paid attention to. Before
Ron, I was short term living.

I’d wake up and ask the same questions. What am I going to eat?
How will I pay my bills? And what else could happen to me today? It took
someone who didn’t already know my baggage, my story, or my circumstances to
help me see myself in a new way and show me what I was capable of. Anyone who
wants to improve needs mentorship, but we tend to go about seeking mentors in
the wrong way.

Oftentimes, as young people we’re told to seek out or even hire
a mentor. And there are two problems with that. First, I couldn’t afford to
hire anybody. And second, there was no one in my life that could model a
different way of living. And it turns out, this is pretty common, according to
Recruiter Prep, traditional mentoring programs don’t always work.

And it makes sense, right? Many mentorship programs are forced
and unnatural. They tend to simulate real relationships, but skip the
relationship building part, which is the most crucial part of the exchange. And
Harvard Business Review says we should focus on a circle of advisors versus
mentors. So if traditional mentoring programs don’t always work or are out of
reach, what do we do instead?

Well, I’ve learned we can take control of our circumstances by
drawing in unlikely mentors. Here’s how I did it without even realizing it at
the time. First, identify. Find one person who inspires you and who you have
access to, but is not in your immediate circle of influence. Someone who can
model a different way of life.

While working for Ron at the Family Fund Center, he taught me
how to do basic accounting, replace plumbing, and even how to read business
books and put those skills into practice. I remember Ron said, I need you to
write a go-kart training manual. And I said, what, how do you do that? And he
said, figure it out, get creative, go to other family fun centers, talk to go-kart operators.

It was his can do attitude that taught me the most. He’d say
things like, The only way to start solving a problem is to start solving a
problem. He would give me tasks that I didn’t think I could do, and then trust
me to figure them out, always finding simple solutions to problems. Ron would
encourage me to pursue a sales career, so I found a sales job at a furniture
store, where I met Mike.

Mike was the best at his craft. This takes me to number two,
adopt. Notice how this person shows up. What are their habits and their
attitudes? Observe and adopt them as though they’re your own. Mike would stand
inside dresser drawers to demonstrate their quality. When was the last time you
saw someone stand inside a dresser drawer that wasn’t a two year old?

He would deliver products to consumers in his personal vehicle,
show up early, stay late. And I recognized that if I was going to be the best
salesperson I could be, Mike was someone I had to have in my circle of
influence. So I offered to assist him in any way I could and would eventually
adopt and copy everything he did to the best of my ability.

And it worked. My sales increased. A few years later, I would
volunteer at the local police department as a reserve officer. Miguel was a school
resource officer there, an instructor who changed the way I looked at law
enforcement. Funny and witty and filling the room with his energy. Miguel was a
real person who really cared.

Someone who helped kids and seemed to do all the right things.
A superhero. Somebody I wanted to be like. That takes me to number three.
Engage. Once out of the academy, I sought out Miguel. I asked him questions and
showed a genuine interest and enthusiasm in what he did. Miguel had no business
spending time on me, but he gave me all the time in the world.

You’d be surprised at how many people want to share their
knowledge and experience, but no one ever asks. And contrary to popular belief,
change often happens from the outside in. And while our thoughts can often
change our behaviors, It’s just as often the case, our behaviors can change our

Miguel not only helped me to be a better police officer, but he
made me a better person. 

One of the unlikeliest mentors in my life is my wife,
Christina. I spent so much time as a young person building up mental walls to
survive, that I disconnected from the very idea of family relationships, and
didn’t even realize it at the time.

At one point, I’d become so self centered and focused on me
that I forgot how to care. It was my wife, Christina, who showed me how to
build real connections with my family and in my relationships again. I’d
forgotten how supportive these interactions could be for both sides, and it was
through Christina’s actions and candid conversations that I began to engage
again and change for the better.

I learned from her attitude and approach to the family dynamic
and I put those skills learned into practice. It didn’t come natural to me, but
by practicing new behaviors, even though sometimes they can be uncomfortable,
the behaviors become natural over time. And I’d argue if you’re uncomfortable,
you’re on the right track.

30 years later, long after my couch surfing days, I’ve had many
unlikely mentors along the way. And it’s made all the difference for me personally
and professionally. And in gratitude I’ve learned it’s important to give back,
but as an unlikely mentor myself. While on business trips, often I’ll put the
word out that I’m available to meet up if anyone wants to connect over coffee.

One time only one person showed up, this guy Mauricio. He was a
new realtor. Over coffee, Mauricio described his life growing up in El
Salvador. He would describe in great detail what it was like to live through
civil war, helicopters flying over, and the deafening sound of bullet shells
landing on the metal roof of his simple childhood home.

Despite that, he had an amazing attitude, an appreciation for
life, and a sense of gratitude. He completely drew me in. I said, hey, I happen
to know someone who needs a new realtor for their million dollar home. They
live right nearby. I said, follow me. I took him over and introduced him right
then and there.

Mauricio over delivered on the sale, and it turned into
multiple referrals and was the start he needed. I had become Mauricio’s
unlikely mentor. Like Ron saw me, I saw Mauricio in a way he didn’t see
himself, and it was because he drew me in with his attitude and his enthusiasm.
Unlikely mentors will provide a new perspective on who you are and what’s
possible for you.

They’ll help you to discover pieces of yourself you never knew
existed, help you to focus on your priorities, and inspire you to take control
of your life. My connections with Unlikely Mentors enabled me the confidence
and skills to build several successful businesses. And through that business
success came the elusive full circle moment.

We were fortunate enough to partner with Feeding America. And
in 2019, we set a goal of feeding a million people. And in 2022, we did it. 

I went, I went from standing in food lines to feeding over a million people. That’s the power of Unlikely Mentors.

So if you’re lucky enough to be successful in any way, be on the lookout for people who need an Unlikely Mentor in their lives. And if you’re still searching for yourself, Identify, adopt, and engage. If we all
take this approach, someday, unlikely mentors won’t be so unlikely anymore.

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