Lead Mediator and Owner, Family Mediation Hawaii
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Business Certification Training Cohort 5A/5B and Small Business Marketing Bootcamp
“Divorce doesn’t hurt kids; conflict hurts kids.”
That’s according to Katie Bennett, lead mediator at Family Mediation Hawaii—a company that helps families struggling with divorce to discuss and resolve issues, such as child custody, property division, and spousal support.
“It’s ok if you’re not going to stay together, but we need to learn how to disentangle these things,” said Katie, who describes herself as a “reformed family law attorney.”
Upon earning her law degree, Katie began practicing family law at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. “I quickly learned that a lot of families didn’t need me to file motions and take it to court; they needed things like housing, childcare and food,” she said.
That prompted her to obtain a master’s degree in social work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. In 2011, after many years of practicing family law, she stopped litigating and joined the school’s faculty where she taught history and policy courses for the Bachelor of Social Work program. During this time, she translated her skills and expertise in family law and social work as a volunteer mediator with the Mediation Center of the Pacific. Once her three children were old enough to go to school, Katie realized she could do mediation work privately and began Family Mediation Hawaii, which is now in its fourth year of operation.
“I’ve been very lucky. Judges and attorneys are very supportive of mediation,” she said. “We take these families and put them in a legal box, but the reality is that these are social and health welfare issues—something the law isn’t necessarily set up to handle.”
Family Mediation Hawaii empowers parents to control the terms of their divorce or separation agreement. Mediation is a voluntary and confidential process during which a neutral third person serves as a mediator to encourage and facilitate the resolution of a dispute between two or more parties. Mediators help the parties reach a mutually acceptable and voluntary agreement. The parties decide on the terms; whereas with arbitration and trial, decision-making authority rests with a judge.
Katie’s clients are part of what she refers to as the “gap group”—working families looking to avoid costly legal fees and going to court. Alternatively, those who have the financial means will typically hire expensive attorneys, and those on the opposite end of the spectrum can qualify for low-cost services through the Mediation Center of the Pacific.
When asked what her biggest challenge has been as a woman and small business owner, Katie said: “Having the confidence to do it and take the risk of leaving my cushy state job. It’s super scary. What if you fall on your face? I was so blessed that judges and attorneys had faith in me to settle these cases. It’s also very rare that your three school-aged children inform the work that I do. I’m grateful that my kids make me better at my job.”
Having her own businesses has also given Katie opportunity, freedom, and flexibility to ensure that she and her clients are a good fit and that their values align. “I really want to work with people who share my values for kids to be happy and healthy, and as a mediator, I get to stay consistent with my values,” she explained. “Maybe you [a client] think what you’re saying is in your child’s best interest, but the child is made up of both parents and deserves to have a meaningful relationship with both parents.”
Katie learned about the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center after hearing Director Marla Momi Musick at a speaking engagement. She has since taken part in the Business Certification Training and Small Business Marketing Bootcamp. “I love the idea of connecting with other women who are also juggling these balls. It was really nice to find a community,” she shared. “I love what YWCA does with connectedness and supporting women. It [the Center] really helped me understand the nature of my business, which will dictate how I market. I can build a qualified team and a bigger social enterprise to help more families, and that’s where the marketing comes in.”
Additional plans for Family Mediation Hawaii include work around divorce prevention and helping parents who aren’t married to develop coparenting plans.
To her fellow women entrepreneurs and small business owners, Katie offers the following advice: “If you love what you do, you’re probably going to be pretty good at it. I’ve seen that with my kids and myself. If you’re really passionate and you can see the need, you are problem-solving—that’s what successful businesses do. You identify a problem and develop a solution. Do what you’re passionate about, stay aligned with your values, and solve people’s problems.”