Kamla Persad Bissessar
Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar signs a joint statement on advancing women’s political participation.

Credit: UN Women on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(WOMENSENEWS)–A financial help book that I got at a networking event last year has been sitting on my shelf, tugging at me to pick it up. The author, Julie Murphy Casserly, gave an inspiring speech at the event. Her down-to-earth approach on finances stuck in my head: "Financial healing is a process. When you focus only on money, you are disconnected from what you are truly after: your desired life."

After I began reading her book, I was engulfed and I began thinking about a friend who is finishing school and networking with women in the financial services industry. It wasn’t long before I sent an email to tell Casserly that I loved her book and that I had a quick question: Does she ever hire interns at her firm?

I took a risk. She could have said no or simply not responded to me at all. She wrote back saying she was looking to hire one more intern. Just like that, I tapped my network and hit gold.

This is how women today can help build the pipeline to leadership: by nourishing our networks with caring, thoughtful and compassionate connections.

We’ve all heard the word "networking." We’ve all heard how important it is for our careers. We’re all oversaturated with Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In" inspired networking circles. We’ve been to networking events. Networked, networked, networked; but what does it really mean? In my feminist space, it means connecting women.

I have knack for remembering details. When I meet a new woman at a YWCA Metropolitan Chicago event and find out that she’s a financial planner, my mind immediately starts flicking through the mental rolodex. I think, I need to connect her with the woman I met last week at the Mount Holyoke College networking event. Networks aren’t locked to a specific industry or group, they are fluid and often that fluidity is the key to finding out what you do or don’t want from your career.

Asking for Help

Case in point. Without networking, I wouldn’t be where I am today. A few years ago, when I was working full time but looking into a career change, I asked my mentor for help. She not only gave me direct and solid advice, but she connected me with a C-suite woman who spent 30 minutes on the phone talking me through a career in corporate philanthropy. In the end, I stuck with public relations and communications, but from that one conversation I realized that corporate philanthropy wouldn’t become a part of my five year career plan.

Paying it forward is core to my networking best practices. When you’re in the middle of conversations at networking events, it’s not enough to simply say, "I know someone you should meet." You must be accountable to your network, the community that supports and nourishes you. Put together an email, set up a coffee or lunch date or get on a conference call to make an effective connection.

The key to making these connections successful is knowing your audience. If you are unsure of a particular woman’s goals, have a deeper conversation before reaching out to women in your network. This way, when you do, you can be sure to make the best connection possible.

Sometimes, a meeting between two women in your network may not go well, but each encounter provides a valuable lesson. Recently I connected a seasoned organizational development professional with a recent grad. The relationship didn’t result in the long-lasting connection I thought it might. But the recent grad discovered what she didn’t want to do with her life. The seasoned professional gained valuable insight into what motivates millennials; she later applied the information to a career course that she was teaching at a local university.

By connecting two people, you are essentially standing behind both women. You become a bridge for connection that is essential to supporting the pipeline to women’s leadership.

Sobering Statistics

We certainly need the support because the statistics are sobering: women comprise 16.8 percent of Congress, they make up 16.6 percent of corporate governance boards in the United States and 4.2 percent of CEOs are women. And it only gets worse in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), where women made up only 9 percent of electrical and electronics engineers in 2012.

If you’re hesitating to connect two women, ask yourself why (and remind yourself of the statistics). Fear may be holding you back from putting yourself out there. Perhaps the two women you’re thinking of connecting aren’t ready to be connected just yet. Or maybe you’ve lost a few women to changing priorities.

Whatever the reasons, here are a few suggestions to break down any fears that you may have about empowering your network through connections. When meeting new women, ask and think about what problems they are looking to solve. Listen closely and wonder: Who, from the list of hundreds in your mental rolodex, could help solve these problems? Every conversation you have is important, and a detail from a year ago may come in handy today.

A while ago, I sat down with a small business owner. She started her fashion business two years ago. As we spoke, I came up with at least five women in my network whom she should meet. She was looking for advice on a social media strategy and she was hoping to expand her connections to the local fashion industry. I’ve since connected her via email to two women.

I’m telling you these stories because sometimes we think we don’t know how we can help each other. We let fear get in the way, but there are so many ways that we can help and, often, these ways aren’t huge asks. A first impression, a lingering detail and a new introduction can go a long way toward empowering and sustaining your network. Women must nourish their networks and appreciate those who have supported us in our journeys toward creating better futures. Put yourself out there for others and watch your network flourish.

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