Be honest: Do all of your professional contacts look and sound the same? Did your boss and all your work friends go to the same kind of school as you? Did everyone in your network take similar paths to get where they are?
“One of the most important things you should do for yourself personally and professionally is to have a diverse network, a robust network that’s full of different people with various backgrounds at varying levels with assorted life and career experiences,” says Rahdiah Barnes, President of the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC) in New York.
Maybe you’d never given it much thought before, but recent protests against racial injustice have made you take a hard look at what you could be doing to address inequities in the world and at work. Or maybe you’ve wanted to connect with different people but you’re not sure how to go about it. Either way, there are so many reasons to make the effort to expand and diversify your network.
When you get to know and build relationships with a more diverse group of people, you can help everyone come by the opportunities they deserve by referring and recommending them. You can support efforts to diversify your company and industry. And by connecting with people from all different backgrounds and perspectives, you can gain valuable insight that will make you better at your job, no matter what you do.
If you’re looking to build a more diverse network—so you can be a part of the anti-racist solution and grow as a professional—here are some steps you can take.
1. Start With Your “Why”
Before you start, make sure you’re diversifying your network for the right reasons. How do you get to the bottom of your motives? Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” And try to be honest with yourself as you reflect on what your intentions and goals really are.
A healthy answer may sound like, “I want to be able to refer a Black or POC colleague as an option when asked if I have another project manager to recommend for a job,” or, “I want to make sure that whenever I’m making a new hire for my team I’m interviewing candidates from different backgrounds and ultimately building a stronger, more diverse team.” These reasons provide opportunities to support groups of people who are underrepresented.
You should make absolutely sure your reasons aren’t rooted in racial stereotypes or any unconscious bias. You may want to reevaluate your reasons if you think, for instance, “I want to help my Black colleagues come off less angry in meetings and make a better impression.”
Diversity efforts are in no way about charity or pity—it’s about access for everyone. Start from a place of building rapport and familiarity with people different from you so you have a broad network you can support and learn from.
2. Focus on Building Relationships
You wouldn’t go up to someone you don't know and say, “Hey, I’m an ally looking for some new friends, preferably Black.” (Of course not!) So don’t do that in professional settings either. Approach new people from a perspective of interest and wanting to learn more about them and their careers.
Ultimately, the goal is to make sure you forge positive relationships as you meet new people of all backgrounds in different settings. If you set out with that intention, rather than just to check off some diversity boxes, you’ll be more likely to succeed—and everyone will benefit.
As you start going to more events, getting more introductions, and expanding your circle, get into the habit of being a good listener. Use each interaction as an opportunity to learn about experiences different from your own. You can ask questions like:
- “What led you to your current career path?”
- “What’s the biggest challenge you encounter?”
- “What ways do you wish you had more support?”
- “What are you really excited to do next in your career?”
Questions like these also offer insight that you can keep in mind when it comes to looking for ways to support different people. If you know, for example, that someone you met really wants to find a job in sales for a company focused on solar energy where they can interact with clients but also manage a team, you’ll know who to recommend if you hear of a similar opportunity.
The good news is that the same networking tips apply no matter who you’re connecting with. So as you would in any networking situation, make sure you listen more than you talk, prioritize quality connections over quantity, think about what you can offer, suggest a casual way to keep in touch, and then actually follow up. It’s through these kinds of conversations you’ll make natural connections and build relationships that don’t even feel like you’re trying to do anything other than grow as a professional.
3. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Even if you’re confident that you’re moving forward for the right reasons, you may still feel awkward actually doing it. Admittingly, connecting meaningfully with people from different demographics and backgrounds may be out of your comfort zone, especially if you haven't done so in the past.
It’s easier than you think to end up with friends and colleagues who are just like you. Perhaps your neighborhood and schools weren’t diverse growing up or your industry is pretty homogenous and you’ve ended up with colleagues who have very similar backgrounds in most jobs you’ve held.
The first step is recognizing where you are and acknowledging that you’ve gotten comfortable. The next is to get in the habit of reaching outside of your bubble so you don't stay in one.
Ask for Introductions
You can even start by turning to your current not-so-diverse network and asking for introductions to people they may know.
You might say, “Hey, your friend from your last company, Luisa, seems to be doing really cool work programming in the edtech space right now and I’d be curious to hear more about what she’s up to. Any chance you could introduce us?” or “Remember you mentioned that former coworker of yours, Jamal, who really wanted to start his own community outreach program for teens interested in public art? I’d love to talk to him. I think I might know a few people who could help him get started.”
You don’t have to put out a public service announcement. But the more introductions you ask for through existing connections, the easier it will be to start getting out of your comfort zone and taking action. And then your new “bubble” becomes a little more diverse and it’s easier to continue on that path. Challenge yourself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Reach Out to Colleagues and New Hires With Intention
Another place to start expanding your network is within your own organization. Regardless of your role, there are many ways you can be more intentional about reaching out to colleagues and new hires, whether they’re peers or in roles more senior or junior than yours.
Sometimes it can be natural to take the initiative to connect with people who are like you—maybe you notice that a fellow alum from your school who had the same major or was in the same student group a few years after you is joining your company and you reach out to talk about all the things you have in common. But if that’s the only scenario in which you make an effort to talk to a new hire, it won’t help you diversify your network. So try to notice and check your natural tendencies.
Instead, look to welcome new hires at any level and to support and mentor more junior colleagues who aren't like you. For example, if you're a mid-level employee, make sure you're not just drawn to the new entry-level hires and interns who remind you of yourself. Instead, reach out to some from a different background. You can invite them to a coffee chat (in person or virtually) and try to connect every month or so to see how things are going and what you might be able to do to help. You can also mention an upcoming company event and suggest attending together.
The most important thing is to show that your support is genuine and ongoing and not performative. And keep in touch, even if you or they leave the company for another opportunity.
Get Involved With a Company ERG
You can also look to existing communities within your organization. “Engaging with different groups at work is a great way to meet people that you are not exactly alike but have much in common. This is an easy way to make new connections,” Barnes says.
Many companies have ERGs (employee resource groups), employee-led groups that are meant to foster community and support diversity and inclusion within the workplace. The groups can center around race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or military status, to name a few.
ERGs often hold events that are open to anyone at the company, so there are plenty of opportunities to meet new people. “It's not uncommon for employees from different ERGs to attend each other's events. It's encouraged by the company and ERG leaders for networking and company camaraderie. It's also a great way to share best practices and common challenges,” Barnes says. I saw this in action recently when I presented a LinkedIn workshop for an African American Network ERG at a Fortune 500 company and a variety of employees attended, including the Office Managing Partner (the most senior executive).
If you want to take it a step further, see if there are any opportunities to volunteer to help put together an event, support any other projects, or join the ERG as an ally, if that particular group is open to it. By getting more involved, you’ll have a chance to get to know and work closely with people you may not have met otherwise. You can further show allyship by being an advocate when it comes to keeping members in mind for opportunities where their expertise is needed, across the company or outside of it.
Follow Minority and Multicultural Nonprofit and Professional Organizations
Building a diverse network doesn't have to stop at your own company. Another way to find and meet new people is by following multicultural organizations online, attending events, and otherwise getting involved. For example, Barnes’s organization, NAMIC, is for professionals at all levels in the media and communications industry. Her chapter runs regular events that are geared toward career topics that are timely and helpful.
Nonprofit organizations and professional member associations can help you expand your network with a purpose and get to know new people in your field who have different backgrounds but may have similar professional interests. So find diverse organizations you can follow and commit to engaging with new people.
If you’re not sure which organizations there are in your industry, you can look first to general professional groups to find out more. For example, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants can point you to the National Association of Black Accountants, the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, and other groups.
Look for upcoming events on their websites and follow their social media pages. Just by following organizations like these and joining in the conversation (whether it’s through in-person or virtual events or on online discussion boards or groups) you’re expanding your circle.
When it comes down to it, expanding and diversifying your network is part of your personal development and professional growth. The more you reach out, the more you’ll also learn about yourself. The key is to remember that this change will not happen overnight. It’ll take time but if you’re intentional, it can be done. Not only will you have a chance to amplify and support others, but you’ll also develop as a professional and grow your career.