Networking not just small talk, experts tell aspiring entrepreneurs

At Business in Vancouver event, successful managers stress importance of strong connections for women setting out to launch a business

About 120 people, mostly women entrepreneurs, attended the Women in Business event, at the Shangri-La Hotel on September 19 | Dominic Schaefer

The thought of networking makes some cringe, yet making lasting connections is one of the best ways to ensure success, B.C. business leaders told an audience at a Business in Vancouver event.

About 120 people attended the Women in Business event at the Shangri-La Hotel on September 19. The event, moderated by reporter Hayley Woodin, was part of BIV’s Business Excellence Series.

While networking is important for anyone in business, it is especially vital for women, who may not have had as many opportunities as their male counterparts, panellists said.

Building a network is all about forming “genuine connections” with people, said Jennifer Murtagh, chief strategy officer at the BC Women’s Hospital Foundation. She recommends networkers “lean into their discomfort.”

“It’s not about how comfortable you are in in a room, it’s about how comfortable you are with yourself,” Murtagh said.

Networking can be a challenge for introverts, she said, but it becomes easier with practice. Small talk, like asking where a person grew up or discussing hobbies, can lead to a bigger connection down the road.

“I stay away from business questions,” she said. “We’re so much more than our jobs.”

The first connection to make is with oneself, said Angela Austman, partner at Lawson Lundell LLP.

She said knowing yourself and your goals before heading out to a networking event can make navigating the room and meeting others with similar goals more fruitful.

“Ask yourself why you are doing this and understand your why,” Austman said.

Being authentic with yourself leads to deeper connections with others, she continued, stressing that building a strong network takes time.

“People like to do business and spend time with people they like.”

Focusing on your main networking goal is important, agreed Janet Burgess, assistant vice-president for client contact and business intelligence solutions at BlueShore Financial.

Goals can vary and may include professional or personal development and sales opportunities, she said.

“Be a good listener and focus on why you are there,” Burgess said. “Be clear on your goal.”

While meeting new people can make some feel vulnerable, seeking out others who feel the same way can present unexpected opportunities, she said.

“Be open to whatever experience you come across. I have learned so much talking to the introvert.”

While formal networking opportunities abound in the Vancouver area, meeting people does not need to be confined to planned events, according to Burgess. She said new connections can be formed while taking a class, doing yoga or during grocery shopping.

“Volunteering is a great way to network,” she added.

For women finding it challenging to get invited to the networking table, Burgess recommended hosting events and supporting other women by inviting them.

Ben West, vice-president and B.C. regional manager at the National Bank of Canada, said women are underrepresented in many industries, making networking necessary.

Storytelling can help women move from awkward to authentic when meeting new people, according to West, who said using “social intuition” and looking for repeat encounters with individuals can also help nurture a network.

“I encourage you to tell personal stories,” he said.

West recommended seeking a mentor with a diverse skill set who enjoys sharing knowledge. While finding the right mentor can be challenging, focusing on how your goals mesh with their expertise can result in an ideal match, he said.

“To get a mentor’s buy-in, do a little homework.”