Since the onset of COVID-19, networking opportunities have all but dried up and disappeared. Most people are stuck at home, limiting their contact with others to video chats, text messages, and social media. Even if you’re living with family or roommates, the experience can be a lonely one -- but for female entrepreneurs on the cusp of their career break, the isolation can feel particularly frustrating.
Regardless of the particulars of their industry or skillset, women need to network to advance their careers. As one researcher explained for the Harvard Business Review last year, “Because women seeking positions of executive leadership often face cultural and political hurdles that men typically do not, they benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts that can share private information about things like an organization’s attitudes toward female leaders, which helps strengthen women’s job search, interviewing, and negotiation strategies.”
Networking is particularly crucial for women with entrepreneurial aspirations, given that they are less likely than their male peers to have personal connections to established entrepreneurs. By proactively forging links to entrepreneurs, talented businesswomen can gain better access to the resources, information, and capital they need to kickstart their ventures.
Research has long supported the value that networking and peer support holds for women entrepreneurs. In 2013, a study conducted by EY found that female respondents who regularly participated in entrepreneurial workshops and support meetings tended to enjoy better access to growth and expansion capital than those who were less active in their professional networks. Researchers further noted that 27 percent of female entrepreneurs who participated in team or mentoring programs reported having “easy” access to funding -- a significant step above the 19 percent for female entrepreneurs overall.
In more typical times, a professional woman might develop her network by attending conferences, alumni programs, chamber of commerce events, or even by spending time at women-attended coworking spaces. By participating in career-centric social activities, female entrepreneurs have the opportunity to gain visibility, showcase their skills, and form the connections and friendships that will help propel them to succeed in business.
For now, though, we’re living through a pandemic. The usual venues that professional women turn to for networking have mostly been rescheduled or canceled altogether -- an understandably frustrating turn of events for hardworking entrepreneurs. But female entrepreneurship networks shouldn’t need to disconnect just because our usual social calendars have paused!
“Networking remotely isn’t difficult at all,” Women Unlimited CEO Rosina Racioppi told reporters for Fortune. “The only obstacle to building a great network virtually is that so many people working at home, especially for the first time, forget to do it.”
She’s right. Let’s talk through a few pointers.
Understand Your Current Network
While few entrepreneurs enjoy being forced to stay in place, the pause does offer an opportunity to take account of the resources we already have.
“Whether or not you realize it, you already have connections,” Stephanie K. Eberle, executive director and assistant dean of Stanford University’s BioSci Careers community, wrote for InsideHigherEd. “Your mentors, advisers, roommates, friends, parents, classmates, Zumba instructor -- they all could have connections who may help you find your next position.”
If female entrepreneurs feel frustrated by the lack of immediately available events, they can review their networks, strengthen existing connections, and do career research that they didn’t have the time for before from the comfort of their couch. Take the time to schedule informational interviews and casual Skype chats; write a few thoughtful messages to rekindle communication with those you’ve fallen out of touch with. Who knows, the conversation could be as beneficial for them as it is for you!
Focus on (Virtual) Network Expansion
Who says that in-person conversations are necessary for networking? These days, there are more venues available for digital connection than ever before. Communication software like Zoom and Skype allows for easy video conferencing, while social media platforms provide a means for female entrepreneurs to locate and connect with other entrepreneurs.
If you want to connect with someone but haven’t had the opportunity to speak in person, try sending them a personable message on Linkedin! People are often more willing to provide advice than you might think. A thoughtful, brief note asking for insight on a specific problem could be the key to starting a longstanding and useful professional connection.
Attend Digital Events
If you planned to attend an industry conference before COVID-19, there’s a chance that it shifted to an online venue. Geekwire recently reported that interest in digital conference spaces has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, and that full-scale virtual events have become the norm. The days of impersonal messaging and laggy videos are long past; today, virtual gatherings offer opportunities for engaging conversations and quality networking.
“Face to face is such a big thing,” Jordan Schwartz, CEO of the conference-centric mobile app producer Pathable, told the tech magazine. “Being able to look in somebody’s eyes when they’re talking to you and see the expression on their face, that’s a big deal. So we came up with this idea of these ‘birds-of-a-feather’ meeting rooms. It’s a Zoom meeting room with multi-way video, everyone jumps on. It’s a replacement for those topical lunch tables that a lot of conferences do.”
True, you may not be able to shake hands or exchange physical business cards with the people you meet -- but opportunities to expand your entrepreneurial network are just as available as they were before the pandemic. Even during social isolation, female entrepreneurs don’t have to feel alone.