Networking is a time to be bold – don’t be afraid to be the one that sticks out.
Sometimes when you are entering into professional environments as a minority of any sort, it can intimidate you into feeling as if you have to fit in a ‘box’. This is especially true when entering professional spaces as an ethnic minority. For us, it is often impossible to hide what makes us different or stand out from the rest.
But rather than letting the fact that you’re the only you in the room make you feel small, use it to your advantage! Use the fact that you stand out to make an impression. Be sure to introduce yourself clearly and make your conversation interesting and memorable. What tends to happen next is that, without knowing it, a bond has been formed between you and the other person because you were able to stick in their mind precisely for being different.
Worry less about what you’re not and embrace who you are.
Often at university I would speak to my friends from different Asian and African backgrounds and they would share anxieties about going to networking events and sticking out as the one of the few people of colour in the room. I even knew of cases where friends wouldn’t apply for certain jobs because they were worried about being judged or stigmatised for who they were. Some feared they didn’t fit what they believed was the ‘type’ of person who should go for that position.
The first thing to do when you’re a minority facing entering a space you want to make an impression in is remember to have confidence in yourself. You have the skills and ability and confidence to enter that space. Nobody should make you feel like you don’t belong there. If you want to be there, you should be there. Period.
Your unique experiences can be your hidden strengths.
Say you want to be a lawyer and had taken the paralegal or previous career route. If everyone around you has followed a a similar career pathway, you can feel as if you’re the odd one out. This has been made clear to me when I’ve met solicitors and barristers who were either in their a second career or had previously been paralegals. They told me about how they would sometimes feel awkward talking about the things that made them different from others pursuing the spots they wanted (such as mini-pupillages or internships). In the end however, they all felt that the experiences they had in their journeys to practice were invaluable to their career success.
It turns out, when we are networking with prospective employers or people we want to impress, it may not seem immediately obvious to mention the things that make you stand out from your fellow candidates. But isn’t that precisely what you are there to do? It is nerve-wracking, but authentically talking about the different events or experiences that led us to that current opportunity is what makes someone genuine. You want to tell them honestly that if it wasn’t for the different hurdles you’d overcome, you would’t be so confident that you have the perseverance and resilience to be successful.
Do it for the culture – be proud of where you come from.
The next thing to acknowledge is that people from different types of minority backgrounds have had their own particular types of upbringing and life experiences that have fundamentally shaped who they are. These experiences are important to explain and give evidence for why you are convinced you will succeed in your chosen field.
Take for example those of us who come from second or first generation immigrant families. What is often the case is that previous generations (parents, grandparents) worked hard so that we could go to university and pursue these very professional opportunities. The consequence is that there is an important legacy and chain of success that is expected to be followed.
At university this sometimes meant that myself and other friends from similar backgrounds were often the first ones to arrive and the last ones to leave the library – sometimes even at the expense of our physical and mental health. Dedication and hard-work was engrained into us from a young age because of the specific circumstances of our stories. Why wouldn’t you want to use these types of experiences to show you are committed to working hard and giving your best?
Feel the fear and anxiety – then go and be great anyway.
You can either walk into the room and think what makes you different is going to be a hindrance or you can turn it on its head and use it as what secures you contacts and leaves a lasting impression. Don’t feel worried that there is a mould that you should fit into in order to be successful and you have to suppress the parts of you that make you seem different. Everyone is unique and there are so many ways that your unique life could actually relate to someone who you thought has nothing in common with you. Really embracing who you are and the things that have led you to where you are at this point is essential.
So why not embrace your own unique story? Who cares if you’re the only one of you in the room? Once you start talking, you’ll quickly realise that you and that room of strangers may have a lot more in common than you might first realise.
Good luck with your networking!