Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Networking is a tricky word — especially for women in business. For some, networking conjures up images of crowded rooms full of people in suits exchanging business cards. For others, it might feel like asking someone to do something for you, which can be uncomfortable for many women.
The best thing to do when something that is necessary and critical to success is uncomfortable, is to reframe it. Networking is nothing more than building relationships with people who can help you and people who you can help. Problem solved, right? Women like to help others…but that asking for help from others part is not so cozy to many women. Why? Because we tend to be social and communicative, but we don’t feel comfortable with defining what comes naturally to us. The solution? Build the relationships before you need to ask for help. By the time you need to make the ask, you have already established trust, reliability and familiarity — all the things needed to ask and receive.
When it comes to funding startups and small businesses, why does it seem that the guys play a simple round of golf and come home with a check? Yet, a lot of female founders get turned away by early-stage funders. If you look at the stats, it appears this scenario does play out around the country. For instance, in Small Business Association (SBA) lending, 72 percent of loans go to men, and men in general receive more dollars per loan than women. However, what I believe is happening is that all the relationship building has been going on for our male counterparts for quite a while. When the need arises for help funding that new or growing venture and the ask is made, the relationship originated months or even years ago. Men play golf (or paddle, or tennis, or bowling or 5Ks) frequently. So, when around the nineteenth hole someone asks for a mere half a million dollars or so, the heavy lifting has already been done. And the person being asked already knows they can trust the person making the request. They know a bit about the business venture and know they will be paid back either by loan repayment or through an equity event. The person requesting the funding has already proven they can be an asset to the person investing or doing the lending. They’ll do it through making connections or helping support the funder’s business in some other way.
Women can do this give-and-take relationship building in our sleep. But as soon as the word networking enters the conversation, our internal radar starts blinking the warning lights. But talk to us about our relationships, and we can dive wholeheartedly into that conversation. So, what is the difference? Nothing really, except the words themselves. Think of people who are not close friends or family with whom you have a relationship. Hair stylists, children’s friends’ parents, schoolteachers, high school friends you notice on social media having successful careers, etc. You think of these as relationships — distant maybe, but relationships, nonetheless. Now, think about asking any of these people to make a referral for you. For instance, what banker did you use when you set up your salon? Once you build your confidence to ask these types of questions, then one thing leads to another and you are meeting with a banker. Once they get to know you and understand your business needs, they will be inclined to help you. And, to be sure that you are ready for funding when you need it.
Getting your business noticed early on by people who are connected to the money you may need is what networking is all about. But it isn’t always all about the money. You will need other things to make your business grow. Real estate in an up-and-coming part of town, talent to build out your team, legal support, a great CPA and so on. Networking (aka relationship building) will put you in the position to ask the right people for what you need. Put the shoe on the other foot; a college friend opens a business in your community and reaches out on social media to say, your business looks so fascinating! I just started a business also. Would you have time to get coffee and share your experiences with me? Of course, you’d say yes, and a networking connection has been established. This won’t feel like a preconceived impression of networking. The more you do it, the more it feels like a natural cycle of you help me, I am happy to help you, also.
So, reframe this uncomfortable networking thing, get out there and build relationships. When you are the new success story in town, believe me, everyone will want to network with you!