I’ve been back in Grand Rapids since August 2012, and I regularly have individuals reach out to me who want to meet me because they heard I’m “well-connected,” a “natural networker,” or “definitely someone you need to meet.” Business journals emphasize how networking has become an essential skill for those who want to succeed. So, it’s not surprising that individuals want to meet with me, but what amazes me most is how comfortable I’ve become at something that used to feel unnatural.
Meeting new people—especially the first few minutes of the initial introduction—has always made me anxious especially when there’s no compelling reason to talk. For instance, standing in a slow-moving line near other strangers or sitting next to someone on a plane tends to make me feel uncomfortable. I want to say hello, be social, make a connection, and figure out if the other person wants to chat, but sometimes I worry about what to say and I never say a word.

So what changed?

I learned how to ask for help and accept it from other people. After years of teaching students at the college and university level, I was far more accustomed to helping others than asking for what I needed. I learned to develop and articulate my “professional ask.” Essentially, I got better at finding the words to describe how others could help me.


I also found my safe place. For me, it was the bi-monthly event NetWork 2 NewWork where I met some incredible helpful individuals. I generally tell people there are three networking events everyone should attend. Grand Rapids Area Professionals for Excellence (GRAPE) hosts monthly lunch events with a presentation by a local professional. In addition to the informative session, the event brings together local professionals and allows ample time for networking and discussion. (Note: GRAPE published the Grand Rapids Business Blog. No compensation was provided for this article or the recommendation.)

StartGarden hosts monthly Update Night events in the evenings. It’s where entrepreneurs whose business ideas were already funded by StartGarden return to report on their progress and learn whether StartGarden will provide a further investment. The event brings entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, community leaders, and professionals into the same room with a focus on supporting emerging businesses and industries in Grand Rapids and throughout the state of Michigan.

The other event you should attend is the one that best helps you amongst the dozens of networking events and professional groups in Grand Rapids. For me, it was NetWork 2 NewWork. But there are numerous events in the area that help someone interested in networking to find the “right fit.” You can learn about events through social media, event calendar websites, or better yet, ask other professionals you know what events would be beneficial. There’s a place for everyone if you’ll willing to keep looking until you find the right fit.

I suggest going to the same event at least twice a year because you’ll be more likely to see individuals you know. Attending frequently also helps you better understand the event and the organization as well as the individuals who run the event. You can share that information with individuals who are attending for the first time because you already know more about the event. There are perks to being a “regular” at networking events.

I’ve also practiced my elevator speech. One of the first questions people ask is, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” or if I’m initiating, I’ll say, “Tell me about yourself,” or “Tell me your story.” To get more comfortable, I practiced my elevator speech repeatedly in different places and heard feedback from other professionals. I answered the question in coffee shops and at events so many times that I can improvise a response appropriate for where I am and with whom I’m speaking. There is no “right” way to answer who you are and what you do, but the purpose is to engage the other person in the conversation. I’m much more comfortable meeting people knowing I have the words to quickly express what I do and who I am.

I put myself in positions where it was my job to network. I assumed the inaugural Programming Chair position for NetWork 2 NewWork when the position was founded in January 2013. I served as emcee at all six NetWork 2 NewWork this year, facilitated a session on networking at the NewWork 2 NewWork event in May, and I hosted a business communication conference through my own company Starfish Training, Learning, and Consulting (Starfish TLC) in July. I made networking an essential part of my life and established myself as an authority by being willing to share my networking strategies, successes, and challenges.

Ultimately, the secret to my success with networking is related to how I define it. Instead of thinking of it as meeting new people and making connections, I reframe it. To me, networking is making new friends—personal and professional. Once I realized the strangers in the room were friends I hadn’t met yet, I grew more relaxed introducing myself. I was more willing to share more of who I am, and I have discovered new friends along the way. If the idea of networking seems daunting, perhaps it’s time to redefine what networking means to you.

I didn’t always know how to play to my strengths when it came to networking. Participants who attend networking events in Grand Rapids are some of the most helpful, supportive, and amazing professionals you’ll meet. I felt like I belonged way before I felt “good” at networking. I worked hard to fit in and made myself valuable to others by actively listening to learn what they needed and strategizing ways to help and make connections. It took courage and overcoming discomfort to realize how much I have to offer if I’m just able to break the ice and turn a stranger into a friend.