Every major career opportunity I’ve gotten has come through someone in my network. And that’s not to say I started off with a rolodex of contacts or an influential advocate who automatically helped me open doors. I created my network—and it worked.
When I was 16, I printed my first set of business cards. They included my full name, motto and its acronym (N.E.S.H.A.: No One Ever Slows Her Agenda), email address, phone number, and, believe it or not, my home address. (I removed the last part in my second batch.) Set on becoming a reporter, I showed up at press events, including one Jay Z held at the U.N. and professional conferences hosted by organizations such as the New York Association of Black Journalists, to hand them out.
Looking back, that was a pretty ballsy move. But back then, I was convinced—and I wasn’t wrong—that if I could just get in the same room with the pros, I could find a way to make them help me.
This drive to find out other people’s stories, then build off of them, has been critical to my creating and growing Her Agenda, a digital platform that provides ambitious Millennial women with the resources to navigate successful careers. It’s also made me acutely aware that developing those relationships can feel difficult and awkward. But it’s far from impossible. Here’s my best advice for making your networking efforts meaningful.
1. Be Purposeful
Too many people hear the word “network” and decide to go forth without understanding what they’re seeking or committing to. Before you even think about who to connect with, you need to determine why and how he or she can help you. This sets you up to build long-term relationships and ultimately connect on a deeper level.
Keep this sense of intention in mind throughout your relationships. Yes, checking in with mentors sometimes feels awkward, but it’s a whole lot more so if you have nothing valuable to say or ask. When I reach out to the handful of people with whom I check in monthly, I always share one quick update and ask one timely question. I’m also careful to inquire as to whether there is any way I can help him or her. It’s a game of give and take.
2. Put Yourself in the Right Places
For some people, strong professional ties emerge from strong family connections. But when you’re black or brown, it’s less likely that your family knows anyone in the field you want to break into. In addition to aggressively researching opportunities, I was fortunate enough to enroll in a number of programs that help set young people up for success.
As part of the Emma Bowen Foundation’s fellowship program, I interned at NBC throughout college, gaining experience in creative services, sales, and across the news department. I’m also an alum of the Posse Foundation, which awards full-tuition scholarships to students from public schools, and allows them to attend college with a built-in support network. I found these opportunities through my high school teachers and ran with them.
Similarly, look for meet-ups and professional organizations you can join. Not only could the connections you make and perspectives you access prove helpful, but you’ll also find yourself among people who are primed and ready to assist each other.
3. Ask for Help
In high school, I took a journalism workshop, and because I’d scored tickets to an upcoming Kanye West concert, I pitched a review of the show. I promised I would secure an interview with Kanye to get a few original quotes for the piece. I Googled the number for Roc-A-Fella Records, called, and was put through to Kanye’s PR rep. No one answered, so I left a message, at which point I realized that what I really needed was Kanye’s rep’s email address.
I never got a call back (obviously), but at the workshop’s next session, our guest speaker was an entertainment reporter from the Associated Press. As she presented, I thought, Oh wow, I should see if she knows Kanye’s publicist and can help. So I approached her afterward and told her about the story I was working on. She opted not to connect me with Kanye’s rep (duh, again), but she did help me land an interview with a newer artist who’d just signed with a major label. This was huge for me.
This professional journalist showed me how to go about securing an interview in a professional way, even copying me on her email correspondence. If I hadn’t gone ahead and asked (somewhat outlandish) questions, I wouldn’t have learned a new skill, made a valuable connection, or written a piece of which I remain proud.
4. Break the Ice
If I’m at an event and striking up a conversation with someone new, I usually start by asking the person how he or she found out about the event. Since I often moderate and host events and panels as part of Her Agenda, I’m genuinely interested in people’s answers, which can be quite telling.
Sometimes, the person will say that he or she knows one of the speakers, so I’ll follow up for more information about that relationship. Or, maybe he or she came across the event on social media and in that scenario, I think it’s interesting to learn via which platform. In some cases, the person may be going through a transitional period in his or her life or career and attending the event for inspiration or knowledge. One wisely chosen question often leads to a meaningful conversation.
5. Follow Up and Follow Through
Not all mentors emerge from random run-ins. I’ve often built these relationships after meeting someone at a conference or in a workplace setting. That’s why I’m so conscious of showing my best self, dedication, and passion for my work. This energy automatically attracts people who recognize my drive and are thus willing to help.
When someone suggests I reach out to one of his or her connections, I do. When I say I want to start a company, I do. These things aren’t easy. In fact, they’re pretty hard, but I don’t give up. I’m open about my track record, including the challenges and barriers I face. People recognize this, and it works to my advantage.
6. Don’t Discount Social Media
I’ve gotten to know so many people through Twitter. Yes, Twitter! I spent a year trying to get an interview with a SVP of marketing—calling her office, connecting on LinkedIn, and more. But once I tracked her down on Twitter and direct messaged her asking for an interview, she shared her email and the meeting was set up in no time.
Social media allows you to constantly be “in the room” with your favorite people. You curate the room based on who you follow and what you share. What are you bringing to the party? Who’s coming with you? What vibe are you setting? Don’t stand in the middle of the room and shout random things.
Join conversations that interest you. Ask people if they need anything. Inquire as to what they’re up to. If there’s synergy, the conversation will continue into real life through mentorship, collaboration, or partnership.
Networking’s more than just one conversation or gathering business cards. It’s about cultivating a meaningful, long-lasting relationship with someone—anyone. If you think of it this way, there’s no reason those connections won’t turn into powerful career moves.