Connecting with people who have different skills, experiences and perspectives can help you make smarter decisions, solve problems and grow your business. But the networking that builds those relationships can be more challenging for people of color who may face obstacles navigating across racial boundaries and systems that favor those already in power.
The fact that Black men and women must often outperform their white counterparts to be seen as similarly skilled can complicate networking further, according to the co-editor of Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, Professor Laura Morgan Roberts of the University of Virginia.
Oddly enough, a global pandemic and social unrest around racial equity may actually help open more doors. Colleagues working remotely are more available for virtual conversations and many individuals and organizations are seeking to engage more fully with Black leaders. The time is right to introduce yourself and extend a virtual handshake.
Get more comfortable being uncomfortable
Networking is often perceived more negatively by people of color and they are less likely to do it than other professionals, according to research by Morgan Roberts and her colleague, Anthony Mayo of Harvard Business School. But sitting it out is not an option. There’s too much data on how networking increases visibility, familiarizes others with your capabilities and helps build rapport. One way to overcome any hesitancy is to reframe it as building a give-and-take web of supporters, rather than self-promotion.
Reengage dormant connections
Perhaps you have pulled inward emotionally and intellectually as you hunkered down physically due to COVID-19. You are likely seeing less of even people you already know. Start there to quickly reenergize your network. Colleagues, customers, suppliers and others will appreciate being remembered, may have news that relates to your business, or may be engaged in new initiatives that could expand your circle.
It’s tough to fit in one more obligation, but volunteering is a great way to meet new people with a shared purpose that can make networking feel less like networking. Start with local civic groups, your kids’ schools, church groups and shared interests. Host a discussion of a leadership book you value and invite your contacts to participate and bring a friend.
Offer to lead subject matter expert discussions for Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and others seeking business speakers. If you’re employed with an organization that offers ERGs, attend events hosted by those you might not normally join but where you can show genuine interest as an ally and meet new people.
Ask for introductions
If there is someone you’d like to meet and you have a mutual connection, ask for an introduction. Most people enjoy connecting others. When you meet someone new, conclude your conversation with thanks as well as asking who else they might suggest for you to meet. Offer to make connections for them as well.
Cultivate local role models
Casting your net wider is a good idea, but don’t overlook Black entrepreneurs and leaders close to home. “Ordinary” local success stories have a significant impact on inspiring others. Expand your search for key contacts beyond high-profile names and tap into unsung owners quietly building strong businesses. Remember, you’re also a role model.
Make the first move
When you reach out to connect, you save others from doing it. Assume they will be as happy to hear from you as you would be to hear from them. There may be particular opportunities now to reach out proactively to peers outside your normal network who are anxious to expand the diversity of their circles but unsure how to start.
“Reach out to everyone you know – and those you don’t,” advised Nicole Gibbons, founder and CEO of Clare online paint store, in Real Simple magazine. This Black owner credits the birth of her business to meetings with a paint chemist she found on Google and a venture capitalist who offered 20-minute info sessions.
Send LinkedIn invitations
It’s obvious, but are you doing it? Scour your online connections to see who they are connected to who you would also like to meet. Send a LinkedIn request using the text box feature to reference your mutual contact or briefly explain your interest.
Love it, hate it or somewhere in between, chances are your business will grow when you grow your network.