The importance of networking comes as no surprise, whether you’re a working adult or a student in school. Networking can be a crucial part of getting ahead in life. It opens doors with folks who share interests and associations, and can lead to employment options.
For entrepreneurs, it’s an important skill for developing and growing your startup. Networking allows you to expand your professional circle of those to lean on and learn from. These contacts can be important for feedback on ideas and solutions, and also when subject-matter expertise and mentorship are needed. But many people find networking to be intimidating, time-consuming, and even awkward. So how can students navigate, practice, and master such a critical life and professional skill?
INCubatoredu Teacher, Ryan Geary, invited Priscilla Guasso to be a guest speaker to provide some guidance to the INCubatoredu students at Zion-Benton Township High School District 126 in Illinois. She is a mentor, a ‘connector’ and a passionate volunteer. She's an entrepreneur and founder of Manifesting Leadership Group LLC, Latinas Rising Up in HR, and author of Latinas Rising Up In HR. With this experience and background, she has some advice for networking. She brought to the class a few ideas (four, to be exact) for how student entrepreneurs can tackle the art and skill of networking!
Even with her entrepreneurial spirit and corporate role at CDW (a technology company), Priscilla said she hasn’t always been outgoing. In a recent discussion, she confessed to being very quiet growing up and that networking and socializing didn’t come easy to her. But practice makes progress, and her four easy steps are down-to-earth and easy to try—perfect for students.
1. Lay the Groundwork
First, and before even asking for a meeting, consider how well you know yourself. With limited time, what do you want this person to internalize about the interaction? What is your key strength? What achievements are you most proud of? What are your aspirations? A student in Ryan's INCubatoredu class read a quote from Priscilla's slide presentation, “Your smile is your logo. Your personality is your business card. How you leave others feeling is your trademark.” Not only is it essential to surface your superpowers in the conversation, but remember, how you show up is equally as powerful.
Also, rewrite the narrative and swap the word 'networking' with 'connecting.' This switch-up will reduce the anxiety surrounding the activity. If we think of it merely as getting to know each other—listening and receiving information—it’s not so scary after all.
Another student reflected on the importance of networking and getting feedback. He said, “I’m going to have to interact, meet and engage with people in order for me to learn new things and really figure out what my target audience wants.” Another student echoed those same sentiments. She added, “When meeting new people, I think it opens me up to new ideas and opportunities. You see the world differently from other people’s viewpoint.”
2. Bring a Buddy
Find a fellow student, friend, or coworker who is also building their network and bring them along to network meetings. Applicable to one-on-one sessions or big networking events, the buddy system will surely put your mind a little more at ease. Not only will it take the pressure off of you to do all the talking, but it also allows your buddy to network as well. You might gain insight or ideas from their questions, or even build off each other, creating a more dynamic interaction!
Priscilla shared, “I go to events to meet new people, and I always bring one or two people with me. Because as extroverted as I am now, still, I wouldn’t say I like walking into rooms full of people I don’t know. You just start working the room together.”
3. Prepare Meaningful Questions
Asking questions allows you to sit back, absorb and learn while your new connection does most of the talking. Prepare meaningful questions ahead of time, giving thought to what you want to take away from the interaction. Are there certain aspects of their career or skillset you’re curious about? How about their most recent business achievement? Be aware that despite being prepared, spontaneous questions may pop up as you get more acquainted, and that’s ok! Go with the flow.
Priscilla added, “As you’re meeting with people and learning to connect, ask many questions. You may not need the answers today, but I promise you, in four years, two years, maybe one year, you will remember that conversation.”
4. Maintain Contact
Staying connected after a meeting is just as important as the meeting itself. Before parting ways, make sure to connect in some capacity. Focus on LinkedIn as a primary connector, collect a business card if they have one, or ask for an email address. It’s too easy to fall into the rhythm of saying, 'Let’s connect in a few months,' and let it slip through the cracks. Keeping in touch with your new contacts is immensely helpful in maintaining and growing your network. Don’t be shy - they want to hear from you as you develop your business and career!
Pay it Forward
Priscilla’s guide to networking serves up attainable steps to start networking successfully. She left these youth entrepreneurship students with one last bit of wisdom in her talk. She offered, "As your network grows, keep your eyes open for ways to pay it forward. Over time, as an entrepreneur who is established and confident in your business (and yourself!), YOU can be the connector that someone needs to get their network started." In a pay-it-forward system, everyone wins.