By Asha Aravindakshan, SFMBA ‘17
At this point in the series, you have your personal brand ready: you’ve established your brand (covered in Part 1 of the series), you strengthened your LinkedIn Profile, and you created your elevator pitch (see Part 2). You are now ready to go out into the world and make the most of networking events and opportunities to cultivate your network! Many of us are still networking virtually, but hopefully we will return to in-person events soon – and since these skills are lifelong, I’ll speak to both types of networking events.
Your Game Plan
The best way to prepare is with pre-event research to make plan. You should do this for both in-person and virtual events. Even just 10-15 minutes spent researching an event, including speakers or attendees, to come up with your strategy can make a difference between making a great impression and connections, or leaving the event without a clear understanding of what you gained and your next steps. Aim to complete this research and strategizing at least 24 hours before the event, so you don’t run out of time to do this. It’s that important!
Wondering where to begin your research? Check out potential contacts’ LinkedIn profiles, company bios and social media streams for a well-rounded perspective of who they are and their interests. This research will also help you to find commonalities, which you can incorporate into questions. Not everyone will have an informative, engaging profile – but those who are adept at networking often do! Bookmark any exceptional LinkedIn profiles you come across to revisit for inspiration as you continue to build your brand.
If you’re unsure of your strategy for a networking event, ask yourself: What do you want to accomplish? Who do you want to meet? What connections or information gained will make you feel this event was worthwhile? Create your pitch and plan around your answers to those questions.
It helps to complete your plan by making note of the contacts (or types of contacts) you want to reach, the questions you have, and the ideas you want to be sure you share to help your contacts understand your career direction, goals, and how you can contribute to their narrative.
Professional or Alumni Networking Events
When you are invited to a professional or alumni networking event, check to see if the guest list is available online before the event to research who will be in attendance. This action will allow you to focus your time and attention on finding those attendees at the event who can be of most help to you. As you can see, I’m not a fan of networking without a game plan.
Most MIT Sloan student and alumni events (both in-person and virtual) publish the attendee list on the event website. It is a great opportunity to complete your pre-event research, including writing out a concise elevator pitch (25-30 words) to be able to quickly cut and paste it in a chat box to introduce yourself. Then, in the virtual platform, you can approach another guest with your elevator pitch to start a conversation that can continue after the event. If your target alumni contact misses the event, you can look up their email on Infinite Connection to message them referencing the event and asking for a call.
If the guest list is not available in advance of the event, introduce yourself – with your elevator pitch – to one of the event organizers to see if they have recommendations on who you should meet. Then, with a name or two, you can quickly look up their LinkedIn profiles before you connect with them. This approach makes a professional networking event less daunting.
Virtual Networking Events with Companies
In addition to peer and alumni networking events, you may be invited to company networking events or job fairs. For interactive virtual events, research companies and the company representatives, if you have their names. If you do not have names, take a moment to familiarize yourself with alumni who work at the company, as they often try to attend these events. Check Career Central, the MIT Alumni Database, and MIT Sloan Alumni on LinkedIn for contacts. By studying up on the alumni, you find a commonality that you can discuss with any company representative during your interaction or a good point of contact to establish after the event to learn more about the company.
How to Build a Relationship from Contact to Referral
In a scenario where your entire interaction with a contact is virtual, it is important to establish a rapport before asking for the referral. Here’s one example of how you can achieve this. When I could not find a first-degree contact for my target company, I submitted my resume for a role, then asked a distant connection for a conversation about the company and their role. In my outreach, I let them know that I already submitted my resume for the role, so they know that I will not be pressuring them to submit mine in the call (and therefore, decline participating in the call). This tactic has worked to learn more about the company. At the end of these calls, once they better understand my qualifications for the role, they can reach out to the recruiting team to let them know that they recommend me for the role. The recruiting team is happy to tag the candidate as an employee referral in the system.
Beyond the Job Search: Networking to Organize Events
I have also used these techniques in online outreach for other opportunities, including organizing events, for years. In fall 2020, I was planning an event about the impact of social media on the 2020 US presidential elections for the MIT Sloan Club of New York, the local alumni chapter for the business school, where I sit on the board of directors. On Twitter, I read an article by Elizabeth Culliford, a Reuters journalist that specializes on the topic. I sent her a direct message through the platform, pitching my event idea and asking her to take part. She agreed!
A few weeks later, I read another article on Twitter about the NYU AdObserver project that aligned to this subject and sent a cold email to their mailbox, to which Laura Edelson responded to participate in the event. In her message back to me, she let me know that she was part of a Delta V team a few years before. Finally, I emailed the MIT Sloan Office of External Relations for recommendations on lecturers to participate and they recommended Dean Eckles, who had also written a timely article on the issue. I was able to cold email him about the event and he also agreed to be part of it. The whole virtual event came together, with only virtual introductions.
Gaining Visibility with Leaders and Speakers
The more important the contact, the more daunting it can feel to reach out. As someone whose role and purpose involves making contact with keynote speakers and industry leaders, I’d like to share that I use this same model of 1) researching contacts, 2) developing a strategy, and 3) reminder notes (questions I want to ask, comments I want to share) in these types of interactions, too. I’ve had this practice for eight years and it always works, especially when I want to meet the speaker…and I always do!
While at MIT Sloan, I worked on a transportation startup with four of my classmates. Prior to any events, I researched potential contacts to help us, specifically venture capital firms that invested in the space. When a venture capitalist was speaking at the LIDS Infrastructure Summit at the Media Lab in spring 2017, two of us made sure that we could attend his session and beelined to speak with him afterwards. After hearing our elevator pitch, he shared his business card and offered to speak with us. I emailed him the next morning and we were able to arrange a 45-minute team call with him to gain his insights on our venture. Even if you aren’t able to meet leaders in person, keep an eye out for relevant events, and connect with speakers on LinkedIn or through the alumni network. These speakers often feel connected to MIT and are usually happy to help if they can.
You have to be able to cultivate your professional network by adding to it. Discovering thought leaders and like-minded professionals through events is a powerful way to build your network’s strength over time.
I hope these examples have increased your comfort with networking for a variety of professional purposes, and demonstrated that this skill is right at your fingertips.
Learn more about your Personal Brand in Making LinkedIn Work for You – featuring Asha Aravindakshan, SF ‘17 on the MIT Sloan Alumni YouTube channel.
This excerpt is from Skills: The Common Denominator by Asha Aravindakshan, SF ‘17, which will be published by New Degree Press in August 2021. You may pre-order the book from IndieGoGo.