Bringing Back Community
The first definition for community is, according to Webster’s, “a unified body of individuals.” Then the options for the definition vary just like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book. The community could be unified by geography, politics, common interests, beliefs, or, as I like to think, a common sense of wellbeing.
Sometimes, especially in large cities, our own importance gets the better of us and we forget to think of ourselves as part of a larger whole. Instead of being part of a community, we just drift in and out when it suits us. We rarely go out of our way to help each other. And there is a hesitation to talk to someone new, unless we know exactly what he or she provides. In a busy city, no one wants to waste time. Why else would we scan the attendee list before purchasing tickets to a charity event? Ahem.
Since we can’t all charity party hop, we have found other ways to be efficient. We ask, “Can you please introduce me to so and so? I would like to sell to/persuade on/get a job from/get a date with… them.” We rarely say “I would like to get to know them” or “I think I can help them” or “I want to say thank you.”
To be honest, I was getting a little frustrated. Not only was everyone too darn busy to make time for one another, but we also rated an individual’s worth based upon their business card. I recently went to a cocktail hour hosted by and for San Francisco’s entrepreneurial elite. (As an ‘unelite’ I still have no idea how I got invited). One of the hosts introduced us to one another not by our name, but the company we worked for.
“This is XYZ Capital. “XYZ- I’d like you to meet super startup Q and Corporate Entity X.”
Ugh. With all the fancy company names swirling in the air I became anxious as to how I would be introduced. After all, I had just left my job. Was I to be cited as member of my past profession, a ‘writer’, or just ‘unemployed’? (which is, for all intensive purposes of the crowd, was pretty much the same thing as being called a writer).
“Uh, we all have names too,” I said, intent to let something else than my profession define me.
I like networking. And I do admit to an occasional name drop. But this nameless version made me feel dirty. Wasn’t there a time when networking was for long-term relationships? Shouldn’t we take the time to get to know people from all aspects of their life (i.e. hobbies, family, vacations, and favorite M&M color)? After all before we sell to/persuade on/get a job from/get a date with don’t we want to know if we even like them?
Sadly, many people don’t seem to care to know anything about anyone unless it immediately leads to a profitable exchange. My poor business cards feel like they have recently had a series of one night stands.
Not too long after my last event, I went to Seattle to visit old college friends who refreshingly, had no interest in what I did for a living as long as I “was living.”
One friend picked me up from the airport and relayed the weekend’s series of events. There were BBQs, children’s dance recitals, neighborhood markets, and bar outings. Not once was the word ‘networking’ uttered.
“Yeah, we don’t really do a lot of that here,” said my friend. “We just kindof all hang out.”
“Even in tech?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” she said. “We are going to a fancy BBQ tonight. It’s hosted by higher ups from Microsoft and Amazon and lots of techies will be there…”
At the BBQ guys and gals joked around while devouring various delectable pork parts and sipping sangria. Instead of being asked about what I did and who I knew, I was asked about my travels and if I wanted to go to one of their daughter’s dance recitals on Sunday.
“You actually go to each other’s kid’s things…” I asked incredulous.
But it didn’t stop there, the group supported each other through many aspects of life. They weren’t just tech colleagues-they were a community.
It wasn’t until 2 hours in that I revealed my work identity. Perhaps it’s just the northwest, or maybe it’s big company culture, but I was treated as a well-rounded individual.
How do we bring this feeling back to startups where networking is critical? Perhaps we think of each other as a community, not as disposable individuals. Instead of asking “What company are you with” ask “What did you do last weekend?” Perhaps replace our titles with our hobbies. I think it would make for much more interesting conversation. Once we understand each other a bit more, we’ll start to foster a greater community with support mechanisms built in. Plus, getting to know someone outside of business is actually the BEST way to do business.