Last week, I had the opportunity to attend one of the biggest social good summits in the world -- the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) 2015 Annual Meeting, which brought luminaries, ranging from Bill Gates and Jim Yong Kim to Jessica Biel, together in New York City.
As an aspiring social entrepreneur, this opportunity to discuss global challenges in the same space as more than 1,000 of the top names in business, government, international development and philanthropy, was nothing short of magical and exciting -- and nerve-racking.
After all, I’m still a sophomore in college. Late-night ramen dinners and the dread of 8 am classes are still my reality here in Greenville, NC.
So, how did my somewhat-disorganized, spur-of-the-moment lifestyle end with me flying to the Big Apple? Last year, I participated in CGI University (CGI U), the college-level spinoff of President Clinton’s global gathering.
At CGI U, my commitment to action was FreshSpire, an app I cofounded aiming to reduce food insecurity in America by notifying consumers about grocery store discounts on near-expiring foods.
Still, my experience at CGI U didn’t inoculate me from the anxiety of shaking hands with NGO leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs and others who, by the end of the meeting, announced more than 120 commitments that will collectively improve the lives of more than 15 million people.
I knew I could capitalize on this amazing opportunity to advance my budding social startup. But I also knew I could blow it.
Spoiler Alert: I didn’t blow it. And now I want to pay it forward by making sure you, too, can make the best of the opportunities ahead. Here are six networking strategies to help you survive everything from rubbing elbows with Neil de Grasse Tyson to navigating a campus career fair.
Whether it’s a three-hour industry mixer or a three-day conference, one thing’s for sure: The time (and your chance to make your mark) is about to fly by.
Set some practical goals for what you want to accomplish. It may be finding funding, connections, or mentorship. For me, it was making connections.
If I hadn’t narrowed down exactly what I wanted from the CGI Annual Meeting, I would have come to NYC overwhelmed and returned to North Carolina disappointed.
Do your research.
Most conferences have a website or mobile app where you can access schedules and attendees. Take some time to search through the attendee list. Find people in your field of interest and pinpoint sessions where you might be able to find them.
Sometimes you can reach out to an attendee in advance of the meeting and ask if they’ll meet with you on-site. I was fortunate to get a boost from CGI Lead, a program that pairs CGI U students with young professionals from the CGI community.
Still, it was on me to learn as much as I could about my mentor -- Aled Miles, executive vice president and general manager at ForgeRock -- to get the most out of our relationship.
Can’t set up a meeting with an attendee before you arrive? Continue your research during the conference. When you sit at a table, scan the nametags around you. Pull up the attendee list on your phone and figure out who they are and how they could assist you.
Once you’ve gained some intel, starting a conversation will be much easier. If you’re as lucky as I was at the Annual Meeting, you’ll be sitting right across from a corporate executive at Target in the opening plenary.
Preparation was paramount for me, as I was scheduled to join my mentor, Aled, in delivering a presentation on FreshSpire and the effectiveness of our mentor/mentee relationship over the past few months. This meant collaborating with him in advance to create slides and drafting talking points to relay our message.
Talking points are critical whether or not you’re delivering a formal presentation.
You’re selling your brand, even when speaking one-on-one, so come ready with 30-second, one-minute and two-minute pitches. Some people don’t have time to hear your unabridged life story, but they’re probably open to an engaging snippet.
Also, these two words could change your life (or, at the very least, whether anyone remembers you): business cards. They are the fastest way to pass on your contact information, so if you don’t have any, get some made.
When exchanging business cards, write notes on each one you receive. This will help you remember how to get back in touch. The last thing you want to do is leave a conference with a thick stack of other peoples' cards but no context for following up with the new connections.
Don’t be afraid to ask.
After my presentation at the Annual Meeting, I asked Chelsea Clinton to introduce us to leaders at grocery stores. Chelsea said she was glad I asked, as the worst thing someone could tell me is “no.”
I took her advice, and as a result, scored an opportunity to connect with Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.
The fear of that two-letter word shouldn’t keep you from asking for what you need. Fortunately, your youth already plays to your advantage. Most attendees are happy to offer some form of mentorship or guidance to someone who has your passion for social change.
Practice (practice, practice).
Warning: There’s a big chance you’ll show up only to find you aren’t a networking prodigy. It’s okay; you’re human (unless there’s something doctors should know), so you’re going to make mistakes. And you’re not alone.
Instead of getting down on yourself, get more practice. Research youth-oriented events that can lead you to connections. For example, if you’re an undergrad or graduate student with a specific idea for how to improve the world (or even just your campus), you may want to consider applying for a spot in CGI U, which President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton will host April 1-3 at UC Berkeley.
Like the world leaders at the Annual Meeting, you’d get to make what is termed a Commitment to Action while forging relationships you’ll never forget.
CGI U is just one opportunity for Millennials to gain networking experience, but there are plenty more depending on your interests. Whether it’s that info session on a summer fellowship or that networking event for minorities in computer science, just grab your business cards and go.
Have a good time.
You’re meeting new people, learning new things and, in some cases, taking in a new city. Make the most of it!
At the end of the day, most attendees, no matter their age or career level, want to have a good time. Come prepared, but once you’re there, don’t expend all your energy worrying about who to meet next or what goals you have yet to accomplish.
The conference planners have put a lot of time into deciding what sessions and panel discussions will be the most engaging for attendees. Trust them and trust yourself.
You can’t save the world or change your job status with one event. Take the time to really look at the schedule, attend the sessions you are most passionate about and enjoy the moment.
As long as you have the right mindset, you’re likely to walk away more connected, educated and inspired than before.