As a journalist, I was conditioned to turn to others for answers. Articles, in many ways, are like long-winded equations; you’re solving for X. You have to ask enough people enough questions before a solution comes into focus. And yet despite a decade of training, when I first made the transition from the Wall Street Journal newsroom to literal startup garage, I suddenly found the act of reaching out to people uncomfortable, transactional—borderline dirty.
I initially believed that the purest form of entrepreneurship was to be heads down. My cofounder and I were going to hustle on sweat and merit alone to make it a reality. I cleared my entire social calendar. But, in doing so, I fell into a trap that many founders, especially female founders, do: I lost sight of the value of networking and the power of community.
I’m not just referencing professional, targeted, “here’s-my-business-card” networking, which is also valuable. I’m actually putting a greater emphasis here on what I call “networking-ish”—the casual, day-to-day act of putting oneself out there to authentically build community.
In a statement that will surprise no one: Women feel underestimated in the workplace. We bristle at the idea that others might see our advancement as a handout, or because we know someone in a position of power, or we married the right person—that we somehow earned a seat at the table for any other reason besides our intellect and capabilities. A recent study published in the Journal of Human Relations highlights two reasons why women network less. The first is personal hesitation, a reflexive resistance to ask connections for help (especially if one worries that they can’t repay the favor), and the second is gendered modesty.
But the truth is that many of the best connections, collaborations, and deals aren’t hatched in the boardroom or conference banquet—they’re seeded on the modern “golf courses,” over a sports game, a housewarming party, or across the table at a friend’s dinner. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show 70% of all jobs are found through networking.
If I had listened to my former journalist self, I would have recalled how many major scoops started as random remarks at a dinner party or came from a contact I had made many years earlier from a connect of a connect.
Despite my initial hesitation, the importance of community thankfully became apparent early on. A few months after quitting my job, I decided to take a break from work to grab lunch with Lee Linden, a serial entrepreneur and investor, who happened to be my first video interview when I was a young reporter at Techcrunch.
We ran into each other at social gatherings over the years and managed to stay in touch. Most of lunch was basic catch-up. I also asked for his advice on hiring our first engineer. As we wrapped, there was a pause, and Lee said, “I hope you’ll let me invest, but no pressure.” The comment took me by surprise. In a less than smooth move, I responded: “You want to give me money?” He laughed and said, “You have to change your mindset, you have to realize that you would be giving me the privilege of investing in your company—and that will be the case for every investor you bring on. I was hoping you would ask!”
The lunch inspired me to ask, again and again. More than a hundred pitches later, many of which were from friends of friends of friends, we had raised $4 million to launch Yumi, our early childhood nutrition service.
My cofounder, Angela Sutherland, and I made it a priority to invest in community. Business conferences were a given. But we felt a great deal of responsibility in creating third spaces, the space beyond one’s home or office, to help other entrepreneurs find community, especially female founders.
We started regularly hosting dinners for our friends and friends of friends, rebranding Angela’s home as the “commune.” Some were just for women, some were co-ed, but the purpose remained the same: elevating the women in our lives and helping them multiply their connections. It started with 20 people in LA, and within a year, we had broken bread with hundreds, across multiple industries and cities. No agenda, no sales pitch on Yumi, just unstructured time to connect as humans.
The truth is, the art of journalism or business, never truly boils down to a basic equation. The most meaningful breakthroughs are built on top of layers and layers of human connections—and the willingness to ask.
Here are three ways to build your network:
Optimize for authenticity
Trust the process. If you optimize for a transactional outcome, you’ll attract transactional relationships. There’s so much value in connecting with people because they have similar interests, values, or just a shared curiosity for life. My friend Helena Price, who recently transitioned from being a full-time professional photographer to now cofounder of Haus, a low alcohol spirits startup, says, “if you have immediate goals for networking 1) it isn’t as fun, and 2) you’re often going to be disappointed.”
Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up
Too often, I’ll meet someone excellent and let too much time lapse before following up via email. This is an area I’m trying to actively improve. Some of the most successful people I know are the most consistently prompt and thoughtful email responders.
Give without expectation
If I’ve made a connection with someone, I try to add value in their life soon after. Who knows if that relationship will net any tangible value for your business, but 1) it’s a far more fulfilling way to move through life, and 2) at the very least, you’ll seed some amazing friendships. Giving doesn’t always have to be a grandiose act. Something as simple as checking in on your connects when you’re thinking about them (such as sending an interesting article or just saying hello) will be disproportionately meaningful to the recipient, since most people don’t do it.
Evelyn Rusli, is the president and cofounder of Yumi, a new venture-backed nutrition and wellness company for babies. Evelyn has spent more than a decade as a journalist, previously on staff at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, covering startups and innovation.