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Networking for Minority Entrepreneurs

Joe Watson, Founder and CEO, StrategicHire, Inc.

Networking: as applied to the entrepreneur, the word conjures up myriad images and emotions. Is it just another room filled with people you don’t know who want to sell you things you don’t want? Is it being scared to death to walk in and speak with all those people? Or is it, as I would suggest, something entirely different: excitement. Perhaps it is coming to understand what new possibilities exist when encountering an individual who can add value to, and receive value from, the process of building a new relationship.

As applied to the minority entrepreneur, the ante is upped. As the African-American founder of a minority placement consultancy, Strategic Hire, Inc., I have long seen networking as more than simply passing a business card or making small talk. To me, its core has always been about establishing a connection upon which a relationship can be built.

Indeed, it was a CEO whom I cultivated prior to launching my company in 1999 who introduced me—in a box seat at a Washington-Redskins football game—to a venture capitalist, who, in turn, put me in touch with the family that funded my start up. Likewise, during a period of retrenchment in the executive-search business, my company has thrived, with 80 percent of my business coming from referrals.

Too Little

Yet, as a minority founder, I have also been routinely exposed to a mentality among entrepreneurs of color that eschews the sharing and exchange of information, preferring to hold cards “close to the vest,” perhaps because of a reluctance to trust. Obviously, this tendency emanates from a legacy created by the historic culture in the minority community of “too little.”

When raised in a milieu of “too little”—too little education, food, and family resources, and eventually, too little capital, influence, and opportunity—one can revert to a level of Darwinism driven by an overwhelming sense of resource scarcity. However, though we aren’t long removed from a time during which only “one” person of color was allowed to obtain capital or engage in commerce at the highest level, minority entrepreneurs must not let this remembrance of “too little” further stifle our progress.

Indeed, our friends in the majority—that is, the white—community have long understood the major networking lessons of collaboration and “co-opetition,” or working with competitors to serve clients. As a result, many enterprises founded by the majority have prospered and grown, while entrepreneurs of color have become entrenched in a “go it alone” mindset, and have thus applied an unintentional cap on their access to opportunity.

Not Too Late

That gets me back to networking. The key for entrepreneurs of color is to understand that it isn’t too late. Indeed, the ground rules for networking in the minority entrepreneurial community have evolved, and the resultant need to shed the self-limiting legacy of the past has become the cornerstone of a minority enterprise’s ability to thrive and grow.

This necessary evolution is being driven by two factors. First, fellow entrepreneurs of color have never been better positioned or better prepared to help on your path to success. Second, technological advances involving the use of email, instant messaging, and voice mail, have slowly eroded the natural personal interactions that traditionally occurred during the course of doing business. While this erosion of interpersonal interactions has made it difficult for all entrepreneurs to build new relationships, those in the minority subset, whose networking has been fragmented and whose access has been limited to begin with, need to work even harder to counter this development.

And that, in turn, brings to me a unique form of networking for minority entrepreneurs: that which takes place in peer-to-peer organizations, such as The Marathon Club, which brings together entrepreneurs of color with sources of capital who specifically target underserved markets, and The Exchange in Washington, D.C., a local variation on the same concept.

Essential Peer Groups

In short, as a member of both, I would stress that groups of this type are not so much important as essential for minority entrepreneurs. Whereas those in the majority community who attended schools like Andover and Yale and whose families live in places like Greenwich, Connecticut need only pick up the phone to reach a friend of the family—indeed, their entire milieu is one big network—those of us who don’t have an informal network must focus on creating and maximizing our involvement in formal versions.

In The Marathon Club, for example, I have had the good fortune to be able to meet venture capitalists, lawyers, consultants, and, most importantly, my fellow entrepreneurs of color. All of us bond by a shared goal of wealth creation and a commitment to excellence. The net result has been a wealth of knowledge, lessons learned, and access to opportunity provided by those who in another time might have opposed our current level of constructive interaction.

Enabling Success

In approaching networking through the enhanced lens of relationship building, it is absolutely critical to understand that the crucial dynamic is creating the “win/win.” Many minority entrepreneurs—hamstrung by that reluctance to trust that has led to their keeping their cards close to the vest—move into networking conversations focused on what they can obtain from the interactions. Instead, they should look, at first, for ways to be helpful to others.

Yes, I know, you may think that if you act first, your goodwill may not be reciprocated. In my experience, however, that result has been rare. What typically happens is the deepening of a newly formed relationship. Again, you might be thinking, it can’t be that simple, or it just doesn’t happen that way. However, the reality is that it does, and if we’re all really honest, we know why. It happens that way because our days are full of people telling us what they are going to do for us, what they are going to send us, and who they are going to introduce us to—followed by absolutely nothing!

Believe me, if you truly engage and follow up on what you say you are going to do, you will get noticed, because so many others deliver absolutely nothing. Leading first and helping others achieve their goals makes you what I call an “enabler of success.” And that label means that folks will line up to add value to your efforts, hoping you will enable their success as well.

What Goes Around

In order to become adept at building relationships, minority entrepreneurs, in particular, need to devise a networking plan consisting of the following elements:

  • The Personal Mission Statement—a strategic overview of what you hope to achieve from your business relationships.
  • The Who—the folks you have targeted as critical to your success both inside and outside your business realm.
  • The How—a tangible roadmap for building relationships with each critical individual by understanding his or her goals and how you can assist that person’s efforts.
  • The Why—an understanding of the role each targeted relationship plays in developing your company, and also an understanding that it may be unrealistic to expect your contacts to come through for you.
  • The Goals—a clearly defined set of tactical expectations against which you can benchmark your interactions.

Coming Around

The end game, of course, is that what goes around comes around. Amid your bevy of networking, therefore, make your efforts as productive as possible by considering the following truisms about this art form:

  • Don’t mistake good conversation for progress toward your networking plan. Instead, ask yourself, I just conversed with a great person who can do what for my company?
  • Always look quickly for the personal connection that is the core element in the building of any new relationship.
  • First impressions are everything. Success is drawn to success—when you look in the mirror, what do you see?
  • Time is your most precious asset. Don’t maintain relationships “just because…”—just because you like to collect relationships, for example, or can’t bear to cut someone off.
  • Understand that access is the most important commodity that a business leader can possess.
  • People want to help you. Be prepared to ask for their help!

As an entrepreneur of color, I have been a tremendous beneficiary of this odd word, networking. As such, I have learned that the ability to interact and build relationships is the critical and consistent personality trait in the most successful entrepreneurs. It is entirely within the realm of the possible for minority entrepreneurs to hone that skill, and I urge you to do so. I urge you to shed any semblance of the “go it alone” mentality and embrace the potential within this world of leveraged opportunity.

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