How to start networking when you have no connections

How to network with no connections

Finding a job is often as much about connections as qualifications. More than a third of jobs get filled by personal referrals. Obviously, meeting the right people can give your career a powerful boost. But doing that can be hard when you’re new in town, switching careers, or don’t have extensive family or alumni contacts (a situation I found myself in when I graduated from college back in the 1980s). Young people, women, and minorities can feel especially left out of the sorts of established networks that others rely on. So how do you network when you don’t already have connections?

Fear not. There is hope for the unconnected when it comes to building professional relationships.

Sharpen your profile

A LinkedIn profile is a must for a first-time networker. Kayla Lauricella, assistant director of career services at Fordham University in New York City, advises people to set one up early.

“Even if you’re not ready for the networking game yet, you can have an online presence,” Lauricella said. “When you are ready, it can be great for looking up people you are interested in, to discover mutual connections or interests.”

Eventually, you’ll want to reach out—i.e., send your potential contact a direct message. This can be scary, but you’ll get used to it. Be creative and bold. “You want to try to find something in common,” Lauricella said. The most obvious connections are a college or a friend in common, but there are other points of contact: “Maybe a cause you are both passionate about,” she added. If you see somebody who supports the ASPCA, for example, and you’re a passionate dog lover, that can help start a conversation. “Go for it,” she said. “The worst thing that can happen is you don’t hear back.”

LinkedIn has made finding and reaching out to connections much easier. When I was in college, pre–social media, my dad and I went through back issues of my college’s alumni magazine and found people working in fields I was interested in. I mailed letters, which led to a handful of meetings, which led to a summer position and my first job out of college. It really paid off.

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Patience is a virtue

Networking doesn’t always bear fruit right away. In fact, it can be helpful to set low expectations. You’re not going to get a response—much less a job—from the first person you contact on LinkedIn, or even the 10th. “Sometimes it’s a numbers game,” Lauricella said.

When you do get in touch with someone, don’t simply ask for a job, of course. Briefly introduce yourself and request a few minutes of the person’s time, face to face or on the phone, to learn more about their career path, their take on their field, their experience in their particular job. Maybe that person knows others you can talk to. One contact often leads to others, and before you know it, you’ve started to network.

And don’t overlook peers who are on a similar path to yours. They might not be in a position to help you now, but those relationships might prove crucial to your career down the road. And peers are much easier to talk to than busy higher-ups.

There’s no “I” in network

Remember, networking isn’t all about you. For a network to be really productive, it should run in more than one direction. If you see any way you can offer to help someone you’re networking with, suggest it. If you’re ever in a position to help someone else to make a networking connection, go for it. Aside from the good karma, this is a great way to strengthen your own network. (Being known as a “connector” is a great thing, and almost always pays off.) Plus, it can make networking feel more authentic, less intimidating, and even fun.

At the end of the day, making your way in a career is not all that different from so many other things in life—you can’t do it alone. Networking is just a way of acknowledging this fact.

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