“I love South by Southwest,” exclaims Rachel Weiss, VP of digital strategy and innovation at L’Oreal USA. As the attendance at SXSW grows explosively each year, people have started to find the event overwhelming, but not Weiss: She loves that it attracts so many interesting people.
Sure, it’s chaotic, but she has a trick to making it a productive time for building relationships. For the past five years, she’s thrown a dinner party the Friday before the festivities start. Initially, it was just a small gathering, but last year, 50 people showed up: close friends, industry people she’d bonded with in previous years, friends of friends. “It’s not a L’Oreal sponsored-thing,” she clarifies, “it’s a Rachel thing. I just like starting the week by hanging out and bonding with people.”
Weiss is remarkably well-connected, with a network that spans the country and includes influencers across the technology, VC, and fashion worlds. But when you chat with her about how she’s built this formidable community around herself, it all sounds so fun and effortless. How does she do it?
To start with, she deliberately gets away from the formality of business networking. For instance, she holds her annual SXSW dinner at a cheap Mexican restaurant. “I mean, I’m the one footing the bill,” she says with a laugh. “But I also like connecting with people in an informal way.” It’s worked so well that she’s planning on throwing a similar dinner party for her friends on the West Coast.
Part of Weiss’s secret is that she does not see a distinction between her professional self and her off-duty self. “You can’t divide those parts of who you are: The Rachel you see at 10 o’clock on Friday at South by Southwest and the Rachel you see at noon at the L’Oreal offices are the same person,” she says.
This also means that networking is not a restricted to business; in fact, it begins to look much more like just making friends in various corners of your life. She tells me she’s actively involved in her neighborhood as a member of her block association. “I like to meet people everywhere and it doesn’t matter matter where they work or what they do,” she says. “Sometimes the most unexpected relationships happen from just going about your daily life.” Weiss attributes part of her networking success to being herself when she meets people, rather than changing her persona depending on the context. “People can smell artificiality on you,” she says.
As a digital strategist, it’s part of Weiss’s job to be plugged in to social media, tech tools, and apps. But rather than seeing online channels as a way to form new relationships, she sees them as a way to supplement her real-life connections. When she is trying to get to know someone for the first time, she always begins with a dinner or, at the very least, a phone call. “I want to know where they grew up and what their families are like,” she says. “I don’t want to just be words on a page; I want to bring the human element into my relationships.” After that initial meeting, Weiss says that social media is a great way to keep relationships fresh, even when it is not always possible to connect in person.
While networking can be fun, Weiss warns that it is important to be careful about how you manage your new relationships. Some people see networking as an opportunity to seek favors from other people, but Weiss argues that relationships should always be a two-way street, or a “collaborative economy” as she calls it. Even when she is looking for people to support one of her projects, she says she always tries to give back by offering advice or helping to make an introduction. She’s particularly keen to help other women in tech who need her help. “That’s how you create a network of people around you: You need to give. It’s a challenging thing to do, but we need to help lift each other up,” she says.
Sometimes, however, she runs into people who are simply not excited about her work or her causes. “It’s like when you’re dating and there’s someone who’s just not that into you,” she says. Weiss advises that in these situations, it is better to let these people go. Instead, she is always on the lookout for people who understand her and want to support her. “You’ve got to create a culture of champions around you,” she says. “I’ve very grateful for people who have advocated for me along the way and I’m very happy to contribute to their lives in any way I can.”