A young woman’s guide to networking
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Alumni networks exist at most large educational institutions. The biggest, like those of London Business School or MIT’s Sloan School of Management, have chapters all over the world.
Within these networks exist specialist subgroups that focus on supporting women, LGBT or entrepreneurship, for example. But whether you are in the middle of an MBA, several years into your career, or even setting up a company, how can they help you? And if they are not right for you, what are the alternatives?
Allie Fleder will complete her MBA at London Business School this year and says the school’s alumni has an effective network which is very accessible via an online portal. Since she is starting a luggage transport business called Sherpa, “I am constantly tapping that network,” she says.
Within the wider alumni network is Out in Business, an LGBT subgroup of which Ms Fleder is president. Out in Business started in 1996 and was one of the first such groups, according to LBS. It is made up of current students who work with a board of alumni and it aims to facilitate connections on campus and with a diverse set of employers. “The broader alumni network is supportive and feeds into what the group does,” Ms Fleder says.
Ms Fleder had never been a part of any LGBT groups before. “When I first joined LBS they were the first group to reach out.” Presiding over the network means Ms Fleder also has a safe space to practice her newly acquired management skills. Out in Business has been effective in helping with career development because of the “willingness of people to sit down and get a coffee and talk through their own career journey”, she says.
For business school or university graduates, alumni connections can also be tapped when looking for a job. Angela Xu, who graduated with an MBA from the Sloan School of Management in 2016, recently used the school’s network to help her make the move from consulting to director of technical product strategy at Cengage Learning, an edtech company.
A Sloan career adviser put Ms Xu in touch with an alumna who was a great source of advice and even offered tips on how to negotiate her salary.
But open online networks such as LinkedIn mean that additional insights can be sought from alumni connections. Ms Xu contacted another of MIT’s alumni via LinkedIn to find out what it would be like to work for the person who is now her boss. “There’s a secret code among those from some schools to help each other out,” she says.
But in some instances even well established networks are not always easy to access, or the events they run cover subjects too broadly to be of any real use.
When Ms Fleder applied to New York’s Columbia University she was told it had an excellent alumni association. But while on campus, she found it difficult as an undergraduate to tap into the connections the network offers.
She recalls an alumni cocktail event: “It was all men in finance and I was there in coloured pants and felt out of place. I was the offbeat ‘funky’ girl in the space.”
Benita Nagra, had similar feelings. She studied economics at Birmingham university and then joined the graduate programme at banking group Barclays. A couple of years in she decided the industry was not for her and set up The Abstract Bee, a homewares and jewellery business. She felt her university’s network could not provide her with the guidance she needed.
Instead Ms Nagra decided to join The Coven Girl Gang, an online community launched in 2018 for women who run their own businesses or freelance. It is one of numerous alternative and flourishing networks across the world.
The AllBright Club in London’s Mayfair, for example, was set up last year with the aim of fostering a community of like-minded professional women to advance their careers.
New York’s The Wing provides a co-working space where women can connect and collaborate, while in Paris, A City For Her was founded by an expat who found business networking events in the French capital too codified and male-dominated.
Ms Nagra found The Coven, which also provides online workshops and UK-wide opportunities for events and other meetups, through social network Instagram.
“The Coven is so easily accessible,” she says. “I can log on, [post] a question and know within 10 minutes I will have 10 or 20 replies.”
Once you have joined a network that suits, support will come from members sharing similar career or business issues. “It’s been a total game-changer for my business,” says Alison McDougal, a personal stylist and member of AllBright.
There is a mixture of ages and skillsets — from chief executives and entrepreneurs to freelancers — and with that comes a real sense of empathy among members, she adds.