Every college graduate, job seeker, and ambitious employee knows the value of networking, but the process of turning handshakes and business cards into a useful web of professional contacts can be daunting.
Evelyn Barahona, Joseline Mane, Colette Phillips, and Raj Sharma, however, have it figured out. These Boston businessmen and women have working a room — or an elevator, in at least one case — down to a science. They agreed to share their networking secrets that will help you make an impression.
Even though Evelyn Barahona, 36, attends networking events every week, these receptions and cocktail hours are not where she makes the strongest connections. In fact, she says, her best networking opportunities spring up in the most ordinary places: elevators, trains, even baby showers.
“I have met the most interesting, extraordinary people just by interacting,” says Barahona, director of business development for Quality Interactions, a Boston company that offers a health care e-learning program. “To me, that’s the epitome of networking.”
Barahona’s first experience with networking came early in her career when, bored with her job, she started signing up for after-work events. Early on, she went to a Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce event and found herself overwhelmed, until one helpful attendee offered a tip that she has followed ever since.
“She said the best thing you can do is introduce yourself and focus on the other person,” Barahona says. “Ask a lot of questions and genuinely be interested in learning about that person.”
Barahona credits her strong network with helping her land her current position and securing her a spot on the advisory council of Floating Hospital for Children. The Spanish-language newspaper El Planeta recently named her one of Boston’s 100 most influential people in the Latino community; she used the reception last month as a chance to do a little more networking.
Marketing and technology entrepreneur Joselin Mane starts networking even before he steps foot into an event. Standing outside a launch party for a new medical service last month,he tweeted about his location, posted a picture of the venue to another social media app called Path, and checked in on Foursquare.
“That lets my community know I’m around,” he says. “It solidifies my brand.”
Social media-enabled networking is not just a personal practice for Mane; it is also his business. In 2008, Mane missed an event held by social media website Mashable. He was so disappointed that he decided to figure out how to prevent such an oversight from happening again.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have just one resource . . . that would promote events I was interested in,’ ” he says.
Thus was born Boston Tweetup, a service that compiles listings for networking events and promotes them on social media. A mobile app that will allow users to search for events based on their own criteria is in the works. Mane, 40, also runs LITBeL Consulting, a company that helps businesses use social media in their branding and marketing efforts.
Mane says his gregarious Dominican upbringing has made him a natural at forming personal connections.
“Everybody’s family,” he says. “It’s just part of the culture.”
Mane advises anyone who’s skittish about networking to get to know themselves — what they want out of the experience and what they can offer.
“The more value you add to the ecosystem,” he says, “the more value you get out of the ecosystem.”
Colette Phillips is the owner of a public relations agency and the founder of Get Konnected, a thriving multicultural networking event with a recently launched digital magazine. So it may be surprising to hear that networking did not come naturally to her.
“There are people who would be shocked to know that I have started off as a somewhat shy person,” she says.
Growing up in Antigua, Phillips was taught that speaking out was disruptive and unladylike, she says. When she moved to Boston for college at age 17, she was initially taken aback by how freely her fellow students challenged professors.
“This is something that I had to work at,” she says.
Indeed, Phillips, 57, emphasizes that networking is, in fact, work. It is a skill that requires effort, practice, and pushing the boundaries of comfort. She tells people to network outside their industries, gender, ethnic groups, and even career level; having a friendly executive assistant on your side can be invaluable, no matter your position.
Effective networking also requires an investment of time and sometimes money, Phillips says. Charity fund-raisers, which draw a wide-range of people, are ideal places to make new contacts, she says, but often cost enough to make a young professional think twice. Nonetheless, Phillips advises spending the money.
“You are contributing to a charity and contributing to your career,” she says.
And when attending networking events, she says, prepare yourself with breath mints, a funny joke or two, and a dose of patience.
“If you are meeting somebody for the first time, they are not going to become your BFF,” Phillips says. “You have to allow the relationship to evolve.”
A few years ago, Merrill Lynch wealth manager Raj Sharma was at a philanthropic event, chatting with a woman who was raising money to build an orphanage in Nepal. Intrigued by her work, he referred her to a foundation that ended up helping out her cause.
“Since that time, she has referred me to six or seven people, some of whom have become my clients,” Sharma says.
For Sharma, 55, the key to successful networking is not to worry about networking, he says. Instead, he prefers to think of himself as a resource: Help people make the connections they need, and the rewards will come.
“Eventually, networking is absolutely beneficial for your career,” he says. “I would not go into it with the mindset of expecting something quickly.”
Sharma had to build his own network from scratch when he emigrated from India in 1980. Though he worked in business in his home country, Sharma was drawn to the media industry; he even had a side job as a disc jockey, playing Western music over the Indian airwaves. So he decided to head to Boston to pursue a master’s degree in mass communication at Emerson College.
Though he has since committed to a career in finance, Sharma remains active in many spheres, as a trustee at Emerson and a member of the board of directors for the Boston Harbor Islands Alliance and the American Indian Foundation.
“At the end of the day I want to do well in my business,” he says, “but that cannot be your singular goal.”