How to gain the exceptional networking opportunities you can get at business school without actually going - and land speaking gigs and clients along the way
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- Going to business school offers plenty of benefits, the biggest one probably being the networking opportunities.
- But just because you don't want to shell out thousands of dollars for a degree doesn't mean you can't build the same high-level professional network on your own.
- Business Insider polled a group of successful entrepreneurs and networkers who've built out incredibly large networks to gather their best tips for building important business relationships outside the classroom.
- Their advice is to capitalize on industry events and social media, and raise your hand for leadership roles in organizations in your field.
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Of the many potential benefits of attending business school, gaining access to professional networking opportunities is at the top of the list.
"The peers, professors, and business leaders students meet in business school are an advantageous resource for graduates years after they've finished their MBA program," said The Princeton Review, which noted that this unique setup is among the "primary reasons why students pursue MBAs."
But what if you want to obtain similar networking benefits without getting saddled with the expense and time commitment of going for an MBA? Are there any other options to create and grow your pool of career-related contacts that roughly approximate what many students describe as the "unbeatable" opportunities of MBA programs?
Those who have made it happen suggest that non-MBA networking not only can be done just as successfully as business school networking, but that the former may offer certain advantages over attending a program.
Courtesy of Kelsey Formost
"The way we network has completely changed in the last five years and, in my opinion, business schools can no longer claim better networking benefits than the internet," said Kelsey Formost, owner of Magic Words Copywriting. "It's easier than ever to find and connect with like-minded people online, especially with social media." Formost added that connections made from shared experience and personal affinities "are more likely to convert" to true connections than contacts made simply by attending the same business school.
"An MBA program throws you in with a bunch of people who are looking to build their networks, but that's not the only way, much like being [on] a sports team will make you more athletic from the training, but you can achieve the same results on your own if you're disciplined about it," added Mark Herschberg, chief technology officer at Averon, a cybersecurity company.
To illuminate exactly how one can build a stellar network without a degree, Business Insider polled people in various industries who didn't go to business school - yet still effectively built their networks and became successful - for their alternative networking strategies.
Hand out a card a day, and then follow up
Herschberg, who in addition to his C-level role at a tech firm has also been teaching networking, leadership, team dynamics, and other business skills at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for almost 20 years, said his "rule of thumb" is to try and hand out one business card a day.
"Some weeks I do none, some weeks I do 20, but the goal is to meet on average a new person a day," he explained. Herschberg achieves this not only by attending events, but also by hosting his own. "It doesn't have to be anything formal," he said. "Even getting friends together for drinks at a bar can help you meet new people if you tell them to bring others."
Courtesy of Mark Herschberg
Of course, the job isn't done once cards are exchanged. "Simply meeting someone does not a relationship make," Herschberg elaborated. "After meeting someone I want to build a relationship with, I follow up and invest in the relationship."
His two specific tactics for doing so are to look for common interests shared with others, and to pinpoint actual ways to help them achieve their goals (helping others ultimately leads to them helping you, too).
"A networking relationship, like all relationships, will take time, so don't expect it to happen instantly," advised Herschberg. "But by putting in a little effort each day, it will pay off and help you build a large network."
Become an industry influencer, content creator, or networking event host on social media
Many non-MBA networking success stories involve the effective use of social media. Formost noted that she was able to create and grow a thriving business from scratch entirely from resources and connections that she found on social media.
"One viral Instagram post brought me more high-value leads than my MBA friends who attended their once-a-year mixers and traded endorsements on each other's LinkedIn profiles," said Formost.
Courtesy of Joe Bailey
A strategic way to use social platforms to meet your networking goals is to position yourself as an expert, or "influencer," in your line of work. "Influencer activity on social media can be instrumental in growing your network," said Joe Bailey, business development consultant at My Trading Skills.
Bailey explained that business-oriented social channels like LinkedIn - which boasts a higher concentration of C-suite executives and white-collar professionals than other social media sites - and Angelist present an opportunity for you to prove your expertise in your field through the information that you provide and post, which can help you connect with like-minded individuals and meet potential clients across multiple industries.
Patrick Ward, editor-in-chief of High Speed Experts, which provides open sourcing information about tech services, has built a substantial network both offline and online via LinkedIn, with over 1,000 C-suite connections.
"I have little intention of going to get an MBA," said Ward. "In my mind, it's an unnecessary expense for value that you can get elsewhere."
The way that Ward leveraged LinkedIn to create a high-level contact list was not just by haphazardly reaching out to make connections. Instead, he was very intentional, using online content creation to establish thought leadership and become a visible influencer in his industry, as well as hosting networking events to create opportunities to form relationships.
Courtesy of Patrick Ward
"Through content creation, I attracted the attention of the Forbes Council's and Ad Age Collective's membership teams," said Ward. "This enabled me to be published in both Forbes and Ad Age, which provides social proof [of my professional expertise]. This social proof is essential for building my network since, when I reach out to senior-level executives to network, I receive a higher response rate as I have legitimacy."
Ward then leveraged his existing clout on LinkedIn to pioneer "LinkedIn Local LA," a regular networking event to help entrepreneurs and professionals leverage LinkedIn. "This has substantially built my network, to the point [where] I have notable business leaders asking to speak at my event," said Ward. "My upcoming event's guest speaker is a current Cisco executive, formerly of Google, Snap, and Boeing, who reached out to me requesting to speak because my event series had come across his radar."
Join professional groups and gatherings that simulate a business-school environment
Bailey also expressed that arranging in-person meetups and attending conferences with other experts, entrepreneurs, and professionals in your chosen field can help you gain influence and cultivate an effective network "at a fraction of the time and expense of the MBA."
While this may seem obvious, being intentional and selective about the venues, associations, events, and conferences you attend can help put you in the same room with a similar diversity and caliber of professionals who you might meet in an MBA program.
Courtesy of Kate Hancock
Serial entrepreneur Kate Hancock - the founder of the medical spa OC Facial Center, the boutique hotel Bintana Sa Paraiso, and other enterprises who built her multimillion-dollar businesses without attending business school - took this type of strategic approach to networking.
"After my business hit the $1 million mark, I joined organizations like Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC) and Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), which completely changed my business and personal life," Hancock said. "I would suggest to others doing the same thing and finding a group of people who are at similar places in their business, and meeting monthly or speaking frequently."
Her well-thought-out choices of which groups to frequent paid off in more ways than one when she received an opportunity through EO last year to attend Harvard Business School for a specialized program, rather than go for a full-time MBA.
Raise your hand for an active role in an industry organization
Another successful professional with no MBA but a wide professional network is Danielle Kunkle Roberts, the cofounder of Boomer Benefits, which provides information and claims service for Medicare policies. Rather than wait to hit a certain income goal, Kunkle Roberts started searching online very early on in her business to find out what kind of professional associations existed in her area of health insurance. Once she found one, she went all-in, volunteering to take on a role on the board of directors - despite considering herself an introvert.
"I was able to find that the National Association of Health Underwriters had a local Fort Worth chapter," said Kunkle Roberts. "I went to a meeting and approached the chapter president at the end to volunteer for any open board positions. These leaders are always desperately trying to fill board positions and this was a total win for both of us."
Courtesy of Danielle Kunkle Roberts
Kunkle Roberts was rewarded for her initiative by immediately being offered a post as the membership retention chair, and began attending monthly board meetings. This introduced her to all the movers and shakers in her industry, as well as a long-term position on the board, where she spent six years and eventually became the chapter president.
"This has resulted in literally hundreds and hundreds of referrals for my business over the years because I was able to network with group health agents who don't write Medicare business, and they are still referring business to me today," said Kunkle Roberts
While many entrepreneurs we spoke with recognized the built-in advantages of attending a graduate business program for network building, there was universal agreement that other avenues can get you to the same place. As Ward concluded: "I don't deny business school can be beneficial, but with a bit of grit and determination, you can create a thriving, impactful business network without dropping six figures on an MBA."
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