Oscar-Nominated Producer Kimberly Steward Shares Why Her Mentor Is 'Her Emergency Button'
In the Women Entrepreneur series Mentor Moments, female founders sit down to chat with their own mentors (and us!) about how and why the relationship developed, and the lasting impact it’s had on their careers.
The first time Kimberly Steward spoke to Michelle Rago, she predicted they would become close friends. Steward, at the time, was preparing for her wedding, and contacted Rago in hopes of enlisting her event-planning firm, Michelle Rago Destinations, for her big day. Rago was flattered by Steward’s enthusiasm, but didn't anticipate a lifelong friendship. She was wrong.
Twelve years later, Rago’s business has continued to grow and evolve, and Steward’s career has led her into production as the founder of K Period Media, a film and television production company. (In 2016, she served as a producer on the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea.) Though the two women navigate different industries on opposite coasts, they still find time to talk every day -- about work, life and everything in between.
We caught up with Steward and Rago to learn about the early days of their friendship, the progression of their relationship and how they build camaraderie with other women in business.
Women Entrepreneur: How did you two first meet?
Michelle Rago: I have a wedding planning and production firm in New York. Kimberly was looking for a design and production firm for her wedding and called me based on a picture she’d seen in a magazine. The honest to god truth is, the first time we spoke, just before we hung up, Kim said to me, “We’re gonna be friends for the rest of our lives.” I hung up and was like, What a funny thing to say! And here we are 12 years later. We talk every day.
Kimberly Steward: She had been in Martha Stewart Weddings, the dream magazine for any event planner. And I looked up to her -- I started my first business at 19, a small events company. I’d been tracking her, so when I got engaged, she was my first call.
MR: We truly connected. I got to know her family, who are like family to me now. Whether you’re a movie producer or an event producer, you really get to know someone during that process. There’s a lot of context that goes into that kind of creativity. You become partners in crime.
KS: In addition to bonding over this personal part of my life, I got to see this woman who owns her own business -- one I admire and respect so much. She was down to earth and funny and showed great leadership in an eloquent way. About a year after my wedding, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in fashion, and Michelle kindly connected me to someone at W Magazine. They hired me, I moved to New York and moved into Michelle’s building.
WE: The same building where she lived?
KS: She was the only person my dad trusted in New York, so yes!
WE: From there, how did the relationship evolve and become not just personal but something more career focused?
KS: Michelle is one of my emergency buttons. She’s like my sister. But watching her grow her company, publish her first book, launch multiple new businesses, it’s done nothing but encourage me. I’m revving up to follow in her footsteps -- or at least try.
MR: There was a point where I had more work experience. But now, over the last few years and with the success of Manchester, she’s taken flight, and I’m not her only emergency button. We talk about everything: how hard it is to find the right people to work with; what it’s like to network. We’re now on an equal playing field, she in L.A. and me in New York, and it’s so nice to be like, “Girl, do you want to hear what happened today!?”
KS: As women there are choices we have to make, things that come up that are so specific. To have that kind of camaraderie as women is important.
MR: I’ve sacrificed a lot to be a woman in business. I’m at a point now where I’m really enjoying my life, and I’m confident and comfortable with so many choices that I’ve made. But not everyone understands that.
KS: I’ll throw myself under the bus. Part of the W Magazine story I told but left out is, I was going through a divorce. I’m from a very Christian community in the Midwest. My family and parents were supportive of my decision, but it was a big decision. So all of a sudden, I’m getting divorced, I move to New York, I’m working at Conde Nast --it was like, Who am I? It took a lot of time sitting on the couch with Michelle, figuring out the right decisions for myself.
WE: Have you found it difficult to find that level of camaraderie and understanding as women in business? Those are some very personal challenges and decisions, and not everyone would handle them the same way.
MR: Your networks will change with each decade of your life. I’m in my mid-50s now, but in the beginning of my career, people would ask me if I had kids and when I said no, they looked at me like I was sick. Our society has a tendency to devalue your choices if they don’t look like the ones they would make. That’s a game I will not and cannot play. It’s a bunch of nonsense. Happiness is not predicated on the idea of having A and B and C. Do not let someone define your happiness -- you are only here for a minute!
WE: Kimberly, how has your relationship with Michelle impacted the way you now work with other women in your own network, especially those who are younger or maybe just starting out.
KS: I think sometimes I spend more time on the phone talking with other people and other women than I necessarily do working on my own business. It’s so important. You’re either learning something from someone else’s experience, or you’re encouraging someone to find their own path. It’s just part of my life; I don’t know if it’s something I consciously think about doing.
MR: Success comes in many forms. I do wish I had a relationship like this one when I was starting out, because I’ve probably made every mistake in the book. Now I feel like I got my MBA in business, and these relationships are the ones that make it all so sweet.