Work It, Girl

Work It, Girl

The other day at work, I received a compliment from a colleague on what a natural-born networker I was. It sort of took me by surprise. Even though practically every other day I come into the office talking about the latest amazing person I’ve met or connection I’ve made, I still don’t think of myself as a “networker” and for most of my life, I wasn’t always this way.

Truth be told, I used to hate the concept of networking. I would mock my classmates in college who would hang around after class to “suck up” to the professors. At networking events, I was always the one who would skulk around until I found the one person I deemed interesting enough to talk to the entire time alone in a corner.

To me, networking didn’t seem genuine. It felt like social climbing or being artificially nice to people just to get ahead. I wanted nothing to do with it.

All of that changed 6 years ago when I founded GoldieBlox. Although I was incredibly passionate about the idea of getting girls interested in engineering, I had never started my own company before, and I needed help. To learn the ins and outs of how to start a business, I attended a conference for social entrepreneurship where I learned that perhaps the #1 skill an entrepreneur needs to be successful is (drumroll, please…) networking. “Well, I’m screwed,” I thought.

But then something unexpected happened. All of the attendees at the conference were genuinely interested in my company idea and wanted to be helpful. I found myself fascinated by the projects they were working on too. We all shared a common interest in social change – and this greater purpose helped make the conversations flow naturally during the day, and then turn into deeper personal connections as we headed out to the different evening activities. I couldn’t tell if I was suddenly doing an awesome job networking or just making friends. It turned out to be both.

That experience was the wake-up call I needed to completely re-frame the way I was thinking about networking. Rather than thinking of it as a purely transactional way to advance my own self-interests, I started to think of it as a genuine way to connect with others over common goals and passions. As soon as this light bulb went off for me, everything changed. Through networking, I was finally able to start taking GoldieBlox from a prototype in my living room to a successful company.

Becoming a skilled networker doesn’t just happen overnight, though. It has taken me years to build the muscle and I am still very much learning the craft. Over the years, I’ve gotten to witness first-hand how some of the nation’s top leaders in business and politics do it and I’ve picked up some tips and tricks along the way. Here are some of my favorites… a few of which I think are particularly relevant to girls and women:

  1. Try to get out of the shallow end.

Networking events tend to be full of shallow and dull conversations where people take turns talking about what they do. The great networkers avoid this trap entirely – finding ways to quickly get into a deep, interesting and memorable conversation with someone.

An expert in this type of networking is Shiza Shahid, Co-Founder of the Malala Fund. When Shiza hosts networking events, she always facilitates deeper conversations amongst attendees by posing unexpected conversation topics, like: “When is the last time you cried?” or “Talk about an experience in your life that profoundly shaped you”.

At those events, I find myself getting to know people better in a few hours than I know some of my friends from college. I often don’t even end up talking much about my business goals, but instead, I make real, human connections with people. When the time comes to re-approach these people for advice or a favor, I’ve found they are often far more likely to engage with me because we’ve gone past the shallow end.

My advice: try coming up with a list of conversation topics of your own that give you other things to talk about other than “What do you do?” Everyone will secretly thank you for it.

  1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.

Networking events and conferences are great opportunities to find mentors, partners, investors, etc.; but unless you are speaking on stage in front of everyone, you can’t expect all the right people to just come up to you. Having a mentoring platform or a mentor will really help you succeed in a large business too. A little preparation in advance of the event can ensure you make the most of your time there.

The best example of this I’ve ever seen is from Mitchell Modell, the CEO of Modell’s Sporting Goods and quite possibly the world’s greatest networker. I met up with him once at a retail conference in San Francisco. He was holding this big binder full of post-it notes, scribbles and highlighter marks. When I asked him, “What’s in the binder?” he revealed he had contacted the conference organizers a few weeks before the event and obtained a full list of attendees. He had identified which attendees would be most relevant to meet with and obtained up-to-date information and photos of each of them.

I watched him in awe as he scanned the room, looking up and down from his binder. When he spotted a target, he’d walk right up to them, greeting them with their full name and holding out his hand for a big handshake, introducing himself (and me) and then quickly explaining why he wanted to speak with them. At the end of the conversation, he’d hand them a business card, plus a discount card for Modell’s and then urge me to give them my business card too. (Once I didn’t have any business cards on me and he looked at me as though I had just committed a felony). He’d always follow up by email after just a few hours of landing his targets. Inspired by Mitchell, I’ve tried this approach myself and found it always well worth the time invested.

  1. Dress the part.

Networking takes a lot of energy. Feeling awkward or self-conscious about the way you look is the last thing you should be thinking about. On the flip side, if you’re feeling particularly good about what you’re wearing or how your hair and makeup look, you can get a boost of confidence in high-pressure networking situations.

It may sound shallow, but the way you look really can make a difference. I learned this early on during an oil painting class in college. On the first day of class, I developed a huge crush on this totally handsome brooding artist type guy named Bly. (Of course his name was Bly.) Anyway, the weeks went by and Bly never seemed to notice me. Finally, one day I hatched a plan. I would dress up like a brooding artist myself. I found a pair of ragged overalls and I splattered paint all over them. I also put on a wool gray newsboy cap, that I wore backward, for full effect. Amazingly, the plan worked. For the first time in weeks, Bly came up to me and asked me out. The clothes had transformed me.

The point here is that the way you present yourself can have a big impact on the way others perceive you. Looking the part of who it is you want to be (tech savant, successful CEO, stylish designer, etc.) won’t get you there, but it can help give you swagger and help others see you the way you want to be seen.

  1. Pay it Forward.

Networking should always be thought of as a two-way street. Whenever you meet someone who could be helpful to you, make sure to ask what they need as well. You never know how you might be useful to someone – even in unexpected ways.

One of my biggest networking achievements at GoldieBlox was developing a strong relationship with my idol mentor, Shawn Dennis, who used to be the CMO at American Girl. I met Shawn when she was working at DreamWorks – we were in a meeting together exploring a potential partnership. At the end of the meeting, Shawn pulled me aside and offered to be helpful to me in any way I needed. I took her up on it.

As the weeks and months went by, Shawn became my mentor and then joined my Board. She was always just an email or phone call away from providing me with much-needed advice – from negotiating my first publishing contract to dealing with personnel issues.

I was so grateful to Shawn, that one day I decided to ask if there was anything I could do to be helpful to her. I felt sort of silly asking; after all, Shawn was a bigwig at DreamWorks and certainly, there wasn’t anything I could do for her. But sure enough, Shawn told me that she really wanted to help her son find a great summer internship.

After making a few quick phone calls, I was able to find several great opportunities for Shawn’s son. As it turned out, the opportunity he was most excited about was interning at GoldieBlox and he was a great fit! As Shawn and my relationship became more and more of a two-way street, she agreed to join GoldieBlox as President last year, which was a dream come true.

  1. Don’t ever feel pressure to flirt. Seriously, don’t.

I would be remiss in giving networking advice to girls and women if I did not bring up this issue. The truth is, many networking events involve parties, dinners, drinking, and men who are not always on their best behavior.

As a woman, flirtation is always a tool you have in your toolbox. At times it can be so effective – you could even call it a power tool. But it almost always has damaging effects. So when it comes to networking, flirtation is just a tool I refuse to use.

I remember the first time I felt pressured to flirt in a business context. It was my first year building GoldieBlox, and I had scored a meeting with a high-powered toy industry executive who was about 50 years older than me. He took me to a fancy restaurant for lunch, where he proceeded to compliment me on my looks and talk about how he wished he could take me to a hotel. I was in shock and I didn’t know what to do. Of course, I was disgusted by his behavior, but I felt an urgency to win him over and get his help with my business.

So I flirted along – just enough to stroke his ego and enable us to do business together. I was just doing what I needed to do for my business, I reminded myself. But as it turned out, being in business with this guy and keeping up the charade was eating me up inside. Furthermore, he wasn’t making anywhere near the impact on my business I thought he would. A few months later, I fired him. He was completely shocked and I felt like a rock star.

In the end, flirting in business hasn’t helped get me anywhere I needed to go. Hard work, determination, focus and partnerships with people who value me for my vision and intellect has been my ticket to success. And while I still do get my fair share of unwanted advances from time to time, I just don’t flirt back anymore. This often works just fine and when it doesn’t, I steer clear.

  1. It’s never too early to start.

Before I had my networking breakthrough, I used to be so jealous of how effortlessly my husband could network with people. He had a lot of training growing up. His parents were both distinguished businesspeople that threw parties at the house with VIP guests, and he was encouraged to charm them. He also went to a prestigious private high school that frequently threw alumni events, where he got to practice making chit-chat with very successful adults. By the time he graduated college and was ready to apply for jobs, he was an absolute networking pro.

But my point isn’t that you need rich and successful parents in order to get a head start on networking. I argue that these skills can be developed early on. No matter your social or economic situation, there are many ways kids can get practice networking.

For example, I recently attended a very inspiring event benefiting the Girl Scouts of Northern California, where around 30 or so high-school aged girls got to practice networking with me and 30 or so other high-powered women. It was an important and useful exercise for the girls that will certainly come in handy as they set out to begin their college and professional careers.

Another example I witnessed recently was at a dinner party I attended at a friend’s house. She had her 5 and 7-year-old daughters participate by passing out the appetizer trays and chatting with the adults in the room. It was so simple, but it really forced the girls to get out of their comfort zones and practice meeting and talking with grown-ups.

Whether it’s volunteering at a home for the elderly or requesting an informational interview with someone in a career that looks interesting, it’s never too early for kids to practice networking.

If you’re starting a new business and are thinking about networking, I would also recommend you go here to learn about the legal requirements for setting up a small business. Making sure your income and taxes are correct is vital, so it’s definitely worth a read.

I hope you found some of these tips and anecdotes useful and that they inspire you to go out and make some authentic connections with people. Remember, if you think about networking as simply a way to explore shared interests and passions with others, a lot of the pressure should disappear and you might actually enjoy it a little more!

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