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Networking is a tricky word, especially for businesswomen. For some, networking conjures up images of crowded rooms filled with people in suits exchanging business cards. For others, it may feel like asking someone to do something for you, which can be uncomfortable for many women.
The best thing to do when something that is necessary and essential to success is uncomfortable is to reframe it. Networking is nothing more than building relationships with people who can help you and people you can help. Problem solved, right? Women like to help others… but asking others for help is not so comfortable for many women. Why? Because we tend to be social and communicative, but we don’t feel comfortable defining what comes naturally to us. The solution? Build relationships before you need to ask for help. By the time you need to ask, you’ve already established trust, reliability, and familiarity – all the things needed to ask and receive.
Related: Networking: The Most Important Thing Women Should Do For Their Careers — But Aren’t
When it comes to funding startups and small businesses, why does it seem like guys just play a round of golf and come home with a check? Yet many female founders are turned down by early-career funders. If you look at the statistics, it seems like this scenario is playing out across the country. For example, in Small Business Association (SBA) loans, 72% of loans go to men, and men in general receive more dollars per loan than women. However, what I believe is happening is that all the relationship building has been going on for our male counterparts for quite some time. When the need arises to help fund that new or growing business and the request is made, the relationship was born months or even years ago. Men frequently play golf (or paddle, tennis, bowling or 5K). So when around the nineteenth hole someone barely asks for half a million dollars or so, the heavy lifting has already been done. And the interviewee already knows that they can trust the person making the request. They know a little about the business and know that they will be repaid either through the repayment of a loan or through an equity event. The person requesting the financing has already proven that they can be an asset to the person investing or lending. They will do this by making connections or helping to support the activities of the funder in some other way.
Women can do this give-and-take relationship building while we sleep. But as soon as the word networking enters the conversation, our internal radar starts flashing the warning lights. But tell us about our relationship, and we can dive into this conversation wholeheartedly. So what’s the difference? Nothing really, except the words themselves. Think about people who are not close friends or family with whom you have a relationship. The hairdressers, parents of children’s friends, teachers, high school friends you notice on social media have successful careers, and so on. You think of them as relationships – distant perhaps, but relationships nonetheless. Now consider asking one of these people to make a recommendation for you. For example, which banker did you use when creating your room? Once you gain the confidence to ask these types of questions, one thing leads to another and you meet a banker. Once they get to know you and understand your business needs, they will be inclined to help you. And, to make sure you’re ready for financing when you need it.
Related: What Meaningful Mentoring Should Look Like For Female Employees
Getting your business noticed early on by people who are connected to the money you might need is what networking is all about. But it’s not always about the money. You will need other things to grow your business. Real estate in a booming part of town, talent to build your team, legal support, excellent CPA, etc. Networking (aka relationship building) will put you in a position to ask the right people for what you need. Put the shoe on the other foot; a friend from college opens a business in your community and posts on social media that your business looks so amazing! I just started a business too. Would you have time for a coffee and share your experiences with me? Of course, you would say yes, and a network connection has been established. It won’t sound like a preconceived impression of networking. The more you do it, the more it feels like a natural cycle where you help me, I’m happy to help you too.
So reframe that uncomfortable networking thing, get out there and build relationships. When you’re the new success story in town, believe me, everyone will want to network with you!
Related: 4 Ways Women Can Leverage Networks and Build Better Connections