The Networking Garden

After a grueling first year of grad school, I finally found time to network around Chicago and meet people outside of SAIC. With Ramadan starting four days after the semester ended, this month became the perfect opportunity to attend professional networking events to make connections. Aside from all the eating and praying, I met some really cool people doing some really interesting things in the city! I also found myself tapping into my previous knowledge of how to network and built on them with the tactics I learned in grad school. Each and every event is an opportunity to establish a connection in what I call: Planting The Seed. Here's a list of my suggestions for planting seeds to grow your networking garden:

1. Expand From Your Current Network

I was fortunate enough to move to Chicago with a built-in network of people who I had already known from Michigan and are now living in the city, or people I met through my Michigan connections. This built-in network is the foundation of connecting with more people and it is always helpful to look into your current network and ask to be connected to people who live in the city you're moving to. I've found that attending local Mosques, Islamic organizations, and gatherings I've been invited to by the people in my established network, has been a great way to meet more people.

2. Search Events Online

If you don't have a built-in network, start with the people you go to school with or work with and attend local events together. Schools usually have events planned on campus and cultural institutions, such as museums, have a variety of programming to chose from. Facebook events are also a great way to lookup what's going on around the city. What's great about Facebook is that it allows you to invite your friends to events, and attend events together to meet new people. There are also many volunteer opportunities with nonprofit organizations to expand your network, and you get to do something good at the same time. I personally love the website, It gives you a daily list of the events happening in the Chicago art world!

3. Say Yes

If you've seen the movie Yes Man, then you know that the power of saying yes has its magnitude! A good friend of mine gave me this advice when I first moved to the city, she told me, "Just say yes to everything." It's a time to discover and try new things and saying yes has been very beneficial for me in moving to Chicago. I've met interesting people and discovered new parts of the city! You also can't get discouraged to saying yes if something ends up wasting your time or you didn't enjoy yourself. Failed experiences are part of the experience of being open to new possibilities. So next time someone mentions an event to you, or invites you out, SAY YES.

4. Make Time

But what if you just don't have time to attend every event or hangout? That's okay as well. You have to learn to manage your time and set your priorities. For the amount of times I've said yes, I've also said NO. School always comes first and I've had to turn down events and outings knowing that I had class early the next day. Your self-care comes first! What I recommend is to plan things out monthly or bi-weekly. During the semester, I like to plan out what my academic calendar looks like and then insert my leisure time around it. I try not to schedule things close to due dates and allow myself at least two days per week to go out. It's all about finding a healthy balance and with some practice, and learning when to say yes and when to say no, you can achieve it.

5. Seek Out Comfortable and Familiar Spaces Obviously, you should also play it smart and safe. For somebody who doesn't drink, it can often be hard for me to be myself in spaces where there's alcohol, which is why I avoid networking in bars and during happy hour. I've also turned down invitations for places I know I would not be comfortable in. You have to know your limits and seek out places you feel comfortable in order to allow yourself to shine. There is no point in networking in places that work against you, it just leaves a bad impression.

6. Find a Wing-man

When it comes to attending networking events, it's okay to invite a friend or somebody you feel comfortable with being your wing-man. Especially if you're initially a shy person like I am, it's good to gravitate towards someone who is opposite of you. I find that this person provides a good balance and both parties benefit from one being extroverted and the other being introverted. Make sure you and your wing-man are on the same page and constantly supporting and building one another. It's not a competition.

7. Introversion is an Advantage

Believe it or not, I'm also an extroverted introvert, and the people who know me well can attest to the fact that sometimes I like to be left alone. As much as I enjoy socializing, I look forward to the end of the day when I get to retreat to my own space and let the events of the day absorb. It's in solitude I can fully process everything. I recently read the book, Quiet, and found that introversion, in a world that constantly asks us to be extroverted, can be a powerful tool in the way we learn, work, and build relationships. I highly recommend reading this book! It's taught me a lot about myself and how to navigate in a large social setting by using my introversion as an advantage. I try to find ways to have a one-on-one with people when I'm in a social circle or at a table. Don't get me wrong, you should definitely contribute to the conversation in a group but because I do better with one-on-one conversations, I have to make extra effort to really go out of my way to have an intimate conversation with the person next to me. It is here in this space that I can make a connection with someone and be myself. So what does that space actually look like? Lets enter the actual moment of when networking happens...

8. Gather Your Tools

You can't plant your seeds without the right tools. Before you even approach a networking situation or go to an event, make sure you have some things straight and handled. For starters, know yourself, meaning know how to talk about who you are and what it is you exactly do and hope to accomplish. As a professional, you become your own brand. Have your business cards ready to give out in case you meet someone of importance you want to connect with in the future. I've found that having some sort of an online presence also makes the biggest difference. I can't tell you how many times this blog has paid off for me when meeting new people or having been connected with someone who read my blog prior to meeting! It also helps to dress well, remember, your clothes work for you, not the other way around. Keep your body language comfortable and professional as well. Looking presentable is key to leaving a good impression.

9. Insert, Tell a Joke, Exit

You can't spend the entire time networking with one person at an event. It's important to meet as many people as you can so it's good to have a funny story on hand and learn how to enter and exit a conversation. Asses your surroundings and know when to insert yourself in. If I hear two people talking about something I can relate to then I like to insert myself into their conversation where it looks as if I'm adding to it, rather than being disruptive. It's okay to not be an expert at this, but you learn by practice. Also, have an exit strategy on hand so you can make your way around and talk to as many people as possible. This is the most important tool out of all. You also have to know how to get yourself out of a situation where you find yourself mentally suffocating or just don't feel comfortable. Be polite about it and kindly say something like, "It was nice meeting you. Good luck with your project. Hope to see around. Excuse me, but I have to go over here now." Your wing-man can also serve as an exit strategy and it's good to have some sort of eye contact or physical code that says HELP, COME GET ME OUT OF HERE.

10. Brag About Yourself

I've found that people love hearing about art. No, really! In a sea full of common occupations, I've found that talking about my personal projects really gets people excited and fascinated with what I'm doing. Art is a nice alternative and gives people a break from the usual conversations about what they've already heard. This is also a good way to get feedback or make more connections. I've found that being open about the projects I'm working on has led me to some of my most important and helpful resources! People are very generous and if you've got them excited about what you're doing, they will gladly tell you about similar projects, organizations, or people of interest who can help you further. So believe in what you do and learn to be open about it, every event is an opportunity that may give you another lead. Secrecy didn't help get the best ideas out in the world!

11. Be Sincere

Don't be the guy at the party using the same line on every girl. People catch on quickly if you're generic. Be sincere and honest. Simple.

12. Nourish Relationships

Once you've planted your seeds, nurture your relationships. Find the people you click with the most and make plans to hangout. It's good to have friends in the city who you genuinely enjoy having their company. It's also a good way to try new things and introduce people to your interests. These relationships benefit you and the work you do in the future when it's time to harvest on your efforts of networking.

13. Playing it Forward

Anytime a person connects me with someone, or I meet someone for the first time, I use myself as the person who connects them to someone else they know. Insert yourself in the network of two people the same way you would in a conversation. It's a good way to let them know who you are and that you are trustworthy. Most importantly, you have to learn to play it forward. Someone at some point gave you an opportunity by introducing you or recommending you to someone, it is now your duty to repay the networking web by making connections for others. If you're at a position to give back, then recommend someone with a talent or skill for the job. If somebody tells you about the projects they're working on, then give them resources and connect them to people doing similar things. Someone at some point helped you on your way, so do the same for others.

14. Have Fun!

Networking after all is a task, but it can also be fun if you're open to meeting new people and possibilities.

Hope my suggestions help! Excuse me, but I have to head out now.

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