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6 ways to get ahead when you don’t have connections

A super-connector’s secrets on getting your foot in the door.

6 ways to get ahead when you don’t have connections
[Photos: rawpixel/Unsplash; Katie McNabb/Unsplash]

Impact investor Nathalie Molina Niño gets a lot of emails from people looking to connect, and for good reason. After dropping out of college at 20 to run a startup, the former engineer spent several decades as both an intrapreneur (advising corporate giants like Microsoft and Disney) and entrepreneur (most recently as founder and CEO of BRAVA Investments, which backs high-growth businesses benefiting women). Her Rolodex spans not only business and technology but also politics, entertainment, and activism. Networking guru and Never Eat Alone author Keith Ferrazzi called her a “super-connector.”

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Still, the challenge of cultivating professional connections isn’t lost on Molina Niño. She grew up in Los Angeles far more exposed to the garment industry her immigrant parents worked in than to venture capital. Her experience outsmarting the status quo and seeing other entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds do the same inspired her new book, Leapfrog. In it, she shares 50 hacks crowdsourced from leaders in her network to help others without pre-existing cultural and financial capital reach their business goals.

While she knows getting your foot in the door can be daunting, she is equally adamant that, with the right ingenuity, anyone can cultivate the connections and capital it takes to succeed. Looking to break in? Here’s where to start.

Expend energy in the right places

People expend enormous amounts of time trying to connect with the wrong individuals and resources, says Molina Niño. Energy is a currency, and she recommends budgeting accordingly. If you’re a first-time founder seeking funding, for example, do enough research to make sure you’re focusing your outreach on investors who fund startups in your particular stage and category. Similarly, if you’re looking to speak with healthcare analysts, don’t waste your time attending every science-related meetup in your city. Rather, sign up to receive Meetup.com alerts tailored to your specific goals and interests. Whether it’s securing an invite to an exclusive conference, or converting a cold email into a fruitful relationship, crossing off tactics that are unlikely to serve you pays dividends.

State your intention upfront

“Can I take you out for breakfast?” and “Can I pick your brain?” are excellent ways to turn a busy person off, says Molina Niño. When seeking someone’s attention, communicate what you’re asking for and why. There are those who think they are being judicious or strategic by requesting “just a short meeting” or “a quick call,” but don’t clearly state why.

Molina Niño wants to set the record straight: “It doesn’t matter if you’re asking for 15 minutes of my time or two hours. You don’t get any of my time when you keep me on a need-to-know basis. Tell me what it is you want it for.” If you’re fundraising, say so. Looking to speak with an employee at a specific company about the organization’s culture before accepting an offer? Lead with that. More than making an ask small, focus on making it clear, so as to waste no one’s time.

Start each approach fresh

When you’re trying to get a busy person’s attention, there’s no need to call out what they haven’t done for you, or how long it has been since you last reached out unsuccessfully. Instead of saying, “I’ve emailed you two times. Here I am again hoping to talk,” skip straight to the point. When you contact someone, strive to make them feel good, not guilty.

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Capitalize on targeted resources

Between the steady stream of workplace diversity statistics and her lived experienced being the “only” something in many a boardroom, Molina Niño is well aware that connections and capital are unequally distributed. On the flipside, she’s part of the growing movement of investors pushing the industry to shake the trope of the rich, white, hoodie-wearing male entrepreneur. With these efforts come new opportunities for those who’ve historically been left out. “There’s no question that there’s bias in some corners, but in other corners there’s money sitting there waiting for us,” says Molina Niño.

Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton, for example, announced a $36 million fund that will invest $1 million each in 36 black female founders, a population that received under 0.2% of all venture funding between 2010 and 2015. Hamilton shared the news at the United State of Women Summit and on Twitter, further aiming to democratize access. Dig into what’s readily available, from grants to free listservs and Slack groups exclusively geared toward particular minority groups. Like a buffet at a party, these resources may not be delivered directly to your plate. But they are there for you to consume. They’ll likely go to waste at the end of the night if others don’t get to them first. Enjoy them.

Nail your story

Part of getting “in” is piquing the interest of people who are already highly connected and influential. If there’s one thing Molina Niño sees even the most networked people take interest in, it’s an authentic, well-developed story. “Impact is the new status symbol,” she says, adding that one of the first things many investors screen for is how effectively founders can humanize their impact.

If a first-time founder reaches out cold explaining she founded a calorie-counting app because the U.S. has an obesity problem, for example, Molino Niño will likely understand the utility, but she isn’t especially interested in learning more. The pitch strikes her as impersonal–a contrived attempt to “check the impact box.”

Yet if the founder of the same product shares that she was overweight as a kid and mocked so brutally that she had to change schools, so she designed the app so nobody would have to go through what she experienced, Molino Niño is far more likely to want to continue the conversation. “I’m still going to poke and prod, but you’ve got my attention,” she says. If you have one shot to pitch yourself, establish the “why” around your ask. Then practice confidently and concisely presenting it. Strive to be so compelling that anyone with a conscience is going to want to support you however they can. And, of course, tell them how.

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