I have found myself in many situations where a man in a suit with authority said, “Okay, now is your chance to network with those around you! We have some important people here today.”
I find those networking situations to be rather useless. I have been to four different business/entrepreneur conventions as well as participated in a few pitch competitions. Each of these times involved putting on a name tag and shaking hands with people trying to sell themselves and shed light on their accomplishments. Now don’t get me wrong, not all of this time is wasted. I remember the girl who started a business from her dorm room or the guy who had laser engraved business cards, but I don’t remember their names or anything else about them. While traditional networking may work for some people, a five minute conversation doesn’t always do you much good. But here is what will: actually making connections with these people over time. It sounds super cheesy, but it is true.
As a freshman, I attended the National Collegiate Entrepreneurs Convention on the dime of St Louis University (that’s a long story for another time). I shared a hotel room with the only other girl on the trip (who had been on Shark Tank!), ate meals with the group, and spent time exploring Kansas City with them. That is where the real connections were made.
Flash forward two years when I entered a pitch competition through St Louis University. I posted about making finals on my Instagram story, and Jonathan, a guy from the convention two years ago, responded with “Congratulations! See you soon!” which then led to a brief conversation about when I was getting into town along with the other finalist from Truman. I mentioned that I didn’t have a partner for the final round, and he said he could find someone for me. I had not seen him in almost two full years, but he was willing to help. He got a fellow Deltasig from SLU to agree to spend his Sunday morning with a complete stranger.
That is networking. An actual connection with someone who can help you out. I don’t remember anyone’s name from the convention that happened two years ago except for the people from SLU who I actually spent time with. We never exchanged business cards. We didn’t add each other on LinkedIn. We got to know each other and followed each other on Instagram.
After the competition that day, we heard the dreaded words of, “Go ahead and network with the judges and each other.” That made me want to leave immediately. We had heard the judge’s credentials, and I did not find myself jumping at the opportunity to talk to them. But Amber! They might know someone who knows someone who could maybe know someone that could:
A. Get you a job
B. Get you an internship
C. Look over your resume
D. Give you advice
E. All of the above!
I don’t want to talk to someone for five minutes for the sole purpose of using them to my advantage as I have very little to offer in return. There are plenty of people in my life who can do the same things and who I actually know on a personal level. The real networking happens when I eat lunch with my boss and he brings up internships or when my advisor says to go introduce myself to a professor whose daughter also majored in economics.
We didn’t want to “network” with our competitors and decided to leave to get lunch before starting our drive back to Kirksville. Jonathan messaged me asking if they could join us for lunch. He didn’t specify who all was going, but we agreed to meet them at Fitz’s. They beat us there and saved us a table. That lunch was where the real networking was done. It was casual. It wasn’t forced. I didn’t have to shake anyone’s hand or accept their business card. Another girl who competed had lived in Bangkok, Thailand where I am studying abroad next semester. One guy who helped run the competition is applying to the university in Australia where I studied abroad last fall. These are the things that I am going to remember and that helped make a connection. We all said goodbye with a “See you at the next competition!” before going our separate ways. Maybe I’ll never see them again or contact them ever, but I found it much more valuable than small talk and forced networking.
Sometimes we are so focused on meeting new people at events such as these that we forget about our network that already exists with our peers. It’s not always about approaching the CEO to get your foot in the door. Sometimes it’s about building friendships and genuine connections instead.
With my peers, there are a variety of things I can offer that a big time CEO couldn’t offer. Do you need help with your four year plan or help figuring out studying abroad? Do you need to win a social media contest? Are you going to Adventureland Amusement Park and trying to save some money? I can help you with these things!
And there are also some things that I am looking for that I didn’t ask the CEOs about. Do you know someone who volunteered for the Peace Corps in the economic development or education sector? Do you know a good internship (not at a desk) that would help me develop my skills in either of those areas to help me get into the Peace Corps? If you answered yes to any of those, then come on down the price is right!
I knew that getting help with what I wanted would more likely be found beyond a five minute conversation. Remember that it is okay to shift your focus from monopolizing on traditional networking tactics to being open and genuine when building connections in the business world.