The mark of a great mentor is to show confidence in their protégés no matter the professional setting.

So, when Jessica Sarkissian, AICP, LEED AP, founder and owner of Upfront Planning & Entitlements, Inc., is making a presentation to a public or private sector client, the two young women on her staff – Amber Knapp and Victoria Chavez – are right there with her.

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Sitting and listening in the back of the room is not an option. Sarkissian wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Speak up and assist; don’t just sit back and say nothing. Take charge of things and don’t be afraid to share something about a project. You might have the next great idea. That’s my approach to being a great mentor,” Sarkissian said. 

“I still have mentors; people I look up to and reach out to for advice or watch to learn best practices and how to continue to grow and continue to learn myself. From amazing women entrepreneurs in the development field to school professors and retired planners – there is still that amazing support system.”

With 20 years of experience in Arizona as a land-planning specialist, Sarkissian founded Upfront Planning & Entitlements in 2019, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She left a planning firm in Tucson and used the first full year to build her client base, working alone out of her house.

As Upfront steadily acquired clients, Sarkissian realized there was a need for occasional help. This is included assisting with site visits. She reached out to Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University inquiring if they had any interns available.

“I looked at my schedule and was a bit overwhelmed trying to balance everything; including being the mother of four children. I knew I could really use some help,” explained Sarkissian, who earned her master’s degree at NAU and her bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona.

By the end of 2019, Sarkissian enlisted the help of part-time college interns each semester. Still, there was a bigger need for more full-time interns; something more permanent. Upfront was acquiring new clients and the caseload was increasing – conducting research, taking photographs, community outreach. 

“I didn’t want to be an employer who hired then fired, so I held off on hiring until I talked to an accountant,” Sarkissian recalled. “Once I was convinced I could do it, I said ‘let’s go for it.’  I knew I would succeed by hiring great interns and great employees I could rely on.”

Sarkissian found just that in Knapp, a Planner I who has been with Upfront for almost a year, and Chavez, who joined the company as an intern in April 2021. Chavez is in her final semester of earning a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from ASU.

Based in Mesa, Arizona, Upfront provides consulting services to both public and private sector clients. Its diverse project background includes expertise in commercial, residential, and industrial sectors. It boasts a wide municipal understanding within the state, buoyed by its technical design knowledge. 

Sarkissian said she is proud of what she has accomplished – and even prouder with her role as a mentor. 

“It helps that they’re young, fresh from school, and eternal optimists. They’re very good at getting excited about a project,” Sarkissian said in describing Knapp and Chavez. “When I started in the industry, it was a good old boy network. That has now changed. Sometimes I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.”

Sarkissian’s professional background and experience have been a boon to her young charges. She is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and past president of the Arizona Chapter of the American Planning Association. She sits on the City of Mesa Planning and Zoning Board and was previously on the Town of Gilbert Planning Commission. She is part of the City of Mesa General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) for its 10-year update.

“One of the things I look for in a mentor is experience, and in our initial meeting it was evident she possessed a lot of experience in planning, networking, and assisting her clients and colleagues,” Knapp said. “She is constantly engaging us to network and meet people in the industry. Jess has really helped us get out of our comfort zone as planners. She has done so with patience and understanding. She also encourages us to continue learning in order to move forward.”

Sarkissian is active with local commercial real estate industry groups, including Valley Partnership, ULI Arizona, and the Arizona Association for Economic Development. The Upfront team had a table at ULI’s Trends Day 2023.

“What impresses me about her mentoring skills is her willingness to be there and give us what we want to learn and teach us. When I told her I was going for my master’s degree she was so excited and happy for me,” Chavez said. “I see people who just want to boss and not mentor. I want to learn from someone who is a good leader. Someone with whom you can connect. Someone who treats team members and colleagues with respect. You want a cohesive work environment. That’s what Jess brings.”

As a mentor, Sarkissian said she will always encourage her protégés to learn, grow, and move forward in their professional lives.

“The goal of every mentor should be to help young people grow and expand their careers. You always want them to be with you. You want to be proud and supportive of them and not hold them back. Make them the best they can be and let them experience what you experience.”