Since owning my business, I have been asked many questions about networking. For instance, is networking important, how do you properly network or have I felt uncomfortable at networking events because I am African American?
Networking is extremely powerful.
I would even go as far to say that networking is the reason my business is still around as well as the reason my firm brings in a solid six figures every year.
I constantly run into people that do not enjoying networking. Most of these encounters are with people of color but I feel overall that most people do not understand how to effectively and efficiently network.
I attended my first major networking event at least 14 years ago. I saw the event in the business section of the newspaper and thought I should go and meet other business people. I called in my RSVP, put my best business suit in the dry cleaners, had new business cards printed and headed out to meet others like me who decided to enter this weird world of entrepreneurship.
I knew no one who owned a business so I was excited about being in an environment focused on business owners. The first thing I noticed upon my arrival was that there were about 500 people at the event but I was the only person of color. Being around 23 years of age, this was an intimidating scene.
To start, it was intimidating because business was a new realm for me, I didn’t know anyone in the room and no one was going out of their way to welcome me. As I walked around, I would receive a few polite nods and fake smiles that I readily returned. Then if someone looked friendly enough, we would embark upon an awkward conversation. It felt like I was invited to the dance but no one wanted to dance with me.
This was hard for me because I have always been in the “in crowd.” I had never had trouble making friends or talking to strangers but something about this scene was different and it made me uneasy. I could not understand why I was having such a difficult time.
Could this feeling have something to do with the fact that I am an African American woman? I’m not sure why it would because I have lived in Oklahoma for most of my life and I am from a small town that is predominately Caucasian. Furthermore, our state is not known for its diversity unless it is that of Native Americans. In fact, I cannot count the number of times I have been the only person of color at an event so what was the big deal about networking? Furthermore, why do diverse people seem to be more affected by it or is it just that diverse people vent about it more?
Networking can be difficult for diverse professionals because:
- They are the only visibly diverse people in the room. In any situation, people tend to gravitate toward those with whom they are comfortable. This is certainly true for networking because it involves meeting new people. It takes the edge off to start a conversation with someone you think you can relate to because of his or her visible characteristics.
- Diverse people sometimes have thoughts of how they are viewed based on pre-conceived notions or stereotypes. This may not be true for all but as a diverse person, you feel like you have to bring your A Game at all times or not be included. You must dress your best, speak your best and know more. There is a feeling that mistakes cannot be made. It is a lot of pressure to go into every situation feeling this way but this is a common conversation among diverse individuals.
- The pressure. For some of the reasons stated above, there is a lot of pressure felt by diverse individuals. As much as you want to connect with those in which you relate, you also cannot spend as much time with them. One reason is that you want to make sure you meet as many people in the room as possible. The other reason is that it is very noticeable when a group of African Americans, Hispanic or any diverse group of people all stand around the same table. It looks as though they are not open to others but somehow this same reasoning does not seem to apply to groups of Caucasians who are seen gathered together the entire evening.
Whether these reasons are real or perceived, for most people perception is reality. I encourage diverse individuals to either push those feelings to the side for the sake of the greater goal, which should be to meet people and further your career goals, or to leverage your diversity as a strength.
For some of the reasons listed above and probably others that I still have not figured out, my first networking event was a bust. For a long time, I thought of it as a waste of time but then I began to think about what I learned from that experience. I realize now that networking is art form. It can also be classified as a second job because you could literally attend an event every evening.
Diversity aside, in a perfect scenario, people would recognize that you are a newbie and come up to you and introduce themselves but you cannot waste valuable time hoping that happens. Typically, three scenarios take place at networking events.
Scenario #1: Hi, I’m Risha (stick out your hand for a firm handshake with eye contact) and I own DiversityConneX.com and Risha Grant LLC (then appropriately pull out your business card). Next, I launch into my elevator speech about why their company needs my services.
Scenario #2: Hi, I’m Risha (stick out your hand for a firm handshake with eye contact) and I own DiversityConneX.com and Risha Grant LLC. It’s nice to meet you. I know a little about your business but I would love to hear more about it… Then you politely listen and ask more questions. If appropriate, you can then give them your business card or ask if you can have one of their cards. Now, within a week you would email or call to set up a time to hear more about their company and discuss the possibility of working together.
Scenario #3: You find someone who knows the person you want to meet and have them to make an introduction. This person can then tout your capabilities while citing why they think a partnership between both companies could be advantageous.
I love scenario three. It take the sales pitch out of the equation and allows you to automatically be on level ground with the person you wish to gain business from.
However, that scenario does not happen as often as numbers one and two, especially when you are first starting your career, so my advice is to perfect scenario number two.
Here are a few tips to improve your networking skills.
Tip 1: Know why you are going to the event and whom you want or need to meet. You can’t and won’t always know who will attend a networking event but you can take notice of the organization who is spearheading the event. With a little online research, you can find out who is involved in the organization, if they have a board of directors, partnerships they may have with other companies or organizations, etc. From there, make an internal list of who you hope to meet.
I’m not saying that you should not take the time to meet people outside of the ones on your list because they or their networks could be invaluable. I’m advocating that you should try to leave each event with 2-3 people that you wanted and needed to meet.
Tip 2: Be able to articulate your product or service in a short but conversational way. Technically, this would be your elevator speech but I think elevator speeches sometimes sound robotic and rehearsed. Ultimately, you need to be yourself and allow your passion to shine through in your conversation.
Tip 3: Let people talk about themselves. You are there to meet people and learn how you may be able to form a business relationship. That will never happen if you spend the entire time bumping your gums about you and your company. There are appropriate times for you to interject information about yourself or your company, like when you are asked about those items. Otherwise, people love to talk about themselves so let them.
You can follow up with an email or a phone call later. An email will allow you to attach information about your company and request a time to meet.
Additionally, I set goals for networking events. For instance, if I have to pay to attend (and most likely there will be a fee) – I need to meet a solid potential client at each event that will eventually help me to recoup that fee through a business relationship.
We are all diverse in some way. Diversity is a strength so stop looking at it as a barrier. If perception is reality, we can change our perception to see ourselves as interesting people with invaluable knowledge that will help others to meet their career and professional goals just by knowing you.
Networking can be scary for all people but it is a very important aspect of your career. Take the time to effectively master “small talk.” As I stated in the beginning, networking has been instrumental to any success that I have had in business and I am sure this is true for many.
Creating and managing relationships are the cornerstone of our professional and personal lives, whether positive or negative. Networking is the beginning of relationship building.
In its basic form, networking is meeting new people and engaging in great conversation, so change your perceptions, push your fears aside and be authentically you.