As professionals, we’ve heard countless times that networking is essential for our careers. Networking in this country is a means of access and opportunities. This means high-paying jobs, advancement resources, and mentorship– all hinge on who you know.
So imagine my surprise when I found articles referencing networking as being more difficult for professionals of color.
It is 2020, the pandemic has hit, remote work is forced upon us, and people start getting laid off or quitting their jobs. I was one of those people who lost their job.
Being laid off comes with mixed emotions, from the excitement of what is next on your career journey to the dread of being on the hamster wheel of filling out applications and interviewing.
I wanted to be more strategic, so I ultimately paid for a career coach. She told me to reach out to my network before applying, and if I didn’t know anyone at the company I was applying to, I should reach out and network with their employees on LinkedIn.
Essentially to get my dream job, I need to network.
Makes sense. This is why LinkedIn, the platform for professional networking, has become an integral part of job searching. LinkedIn states that:
Now that we determined that having a strong professional network matters, how is your network created? LinkedIn says these are three key factors:
Chart reference: LinkedIn
Of course, POCs have networks—family, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, teammates, co-workers, teachers, church friends, sports teams, and more. So we should acknowledge that when we talk about “networks,” we talk about people with influence and resources at their disposal. In this country, many influential networks are overwhelmingly white.
Although I went to NYU and checked one of the boxes, my white counterpart is more likely to have a more robust professional network than me– which means stronger connections, job opportunities, career advancement, etc.
I knew I needed to grow my network. That is when a basic Google search on “how to network as a POC” surfaced an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Remote Networking as a Person of Color” by Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo.
In the article, they specifically write about how networking has shifted in a remote workforce but emphasize why they believe professionals of color are at a disadvantage when it comes to networking.
Although I was intrigued by the article, nothing I read surprised me. For people of color, systematic and institutional racism in the workforce has dictated everything in our job hunt, from what kind of hairstyle we can wear to what salary we would make. These systems have made it hard for POCs to be their genuine selves at work, which is necessary to network authentically.
Some companies claim to celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion – but when these workplaces are predominantly white, it perpetuates the concentration of opportunities for the majority. So for POCs to gain opportunities at these workplaces, “code-switching” occurs even outside of work – during networking opportunities like lunch and after-work events.
It’s not that simple. The Harvard Business Review article also alludes to the perception of POCs in the workplace:
“Networking may be more challenging for people of color, who may not only experience general discomfort, but also face unique challenges from not being perceived as powerful, credible, or resourceful–this deficit-based assessment often results in less outreach and relationship-building.
Professionals of color are also at higher risk of becoming isolated, struggling to navigate the racial boundaries at social events — in particular, they hesitate to share information about themselves, which limits their ability to be authentic at work and to build deep relationships.”
Changing the perception to fight unconscious biases is why diversity training is critical in the workplace. The saying “work twice as hard for half as much” is true for many POCs in the workplace because many employers, subconsciously or not, may be blocking progress and not giving POCs equal opportunities.
Professionals of color cannot rely on applying and interviewing alone; this is why community and networking are essential. If we want to help each other build generational wealth, we must be willing to hold the “gate” open for one another. Networking is not just friending someone on LinkedIn and asking them for a job or recommendation. We must strategically build our networks to make it past gatekeepers, even gatekeepers who look like us.
As Marley K. states in his article “Black Gatekeepers and Progress Blockers”:
“A gatekeeper is a metaphor used to describe a person who controls access to something. Most times, the gatekeeper doesn’t own the gate (s) he or she keeps. They are working for the owners of the gate… Black people are accustomed to White gatekeepers preventing us from voting, attending public school, going to college, getting jobs and promotions, managing and investing money/wealth, eating at restaurants, buying homes in certain neighborhoods, using bathrooms, or even shopping in stores.
But when a Black person engages in gatekeeping with us, or any person it’s especially egregious. Gatekeeping stops equality.”
Networking isn’t just something we should do when we are job-hunting. I believe that networking is a non-negotiable for professionals of color to progress in their careers.
I ultimately found this job through a former coworker who became a really close friend of mine. She asked me to work at Jopwell probably 2 years prior. I visited the office, met some of her coworkers, and even went to Jopwell events, but I hadn't considered working there because I had a job. Two years later, I got laid off; I reached out to her to tell her that I was in the market for a new job. When there was a role she thought I would be a good fit for, she advocated for me and helped me through the interviewing process, ultimately getting me my position.
If you reflect on your career path, you'll find at least one job that came through personal or professional connections, whether colleagues, family, alumni groups, or friends– these are all relationships. Networking is awkward and can sometimes feel transactional, but if you focus on building relationships, you realize that building a solid network takes time. You should always be networking; it may lead to your next career opportunity.
During the pandemic, it was harder to keep in touch with friends and colleagues. The spontaneous lunches and coffee dates were no longer permitted, so I knew I needed to establish myself on social media. If you are not into posting content to engage with others, you can also join in on the conversations of others and engage with their content. As long as you provide valuable information or interact with people regularly, you can build up your social media presence and find new people to send connection requests to. If you already have personal profiles on these sites that aren’t professional, consider creating separate profiles for business or networking purposes. It will help ensure you always present a professional (but still authentic) image.
A hobby can be a personal interest like dance lessons or a career-driven one like taking a course. I started taking on running and joined a local runner’s club, where I got to network with other professionals outside of a professional setting. Not only is this great for networking, but if you are in the role of a student, this is an opportunity to be curious and ask for the guidance of others because you are trying something new. Most importantly, you learn to be teachable, which ultimately can help you take networking to the next level by asking for career advice or gaining a mentor.
I attended virtual events with topics that were interesting to me. These can be networking events, alumni events, events on career development, about your industry, hobbies, or personal interests. Once COVID limitations were lifted, I started attending a few in-person events. At these virtual or in-person events, I aimed to meet and exchange LinkedIn information with at least one person, which has helped me grow my network organically.
Networking at work is a great way to advocate for yourself and work your way up at that company. I remember a VP at Nike speaking at Jopwell Talks last year, and when asked how he worked his way up to VP, he stated that he was nice to everyone and gained relationships with everyone, including the cleaning staff. He was so well-known that they felt like he was already their VP. Networking is more challenging when POCs feel they can’t be their authentic selves at work. I have managed to network even in the most toxic work environments, and that is because I found ways to relate to people. To build your network, you may have to work hard at relating. Even when I couldn’t relate to my coworkers, I made relationships with external partners and vendors, with whom I still have strong connections. Some vendors, I was able to take their business with me to my new job.
Industry-specific communities help you connect with your peers. It can be very motivating to join a community where you meet people with a common interest. Professionals in these communities share resources and advice to help you grow in the industry. Not only can you network, but you gain knowledge that you can actually benefit from. Building your tribe does not always mean networking "up"; peer-to-peer networking has led to my most authentic and successful connections.