Networking as a First-Generation Student Can Be Hard. Here’s How to Get Started.

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By AiLun Ku and Ray Reyes, Reprinted from the Harvard Business Review

If you’re a first-generation college student, you might have heard people tell you to network for better opportunities. If you’ve rolled your eyes at that piece of advice, you’re not alone.

The truth is that, for students from underrepresented backgrounds, including low-income households and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, networking can feel like navigating a labyrinth. The unfortunate reality is that white, more privileged groups are still overrepresented in the corporate world, and they control access to the majority of jobs and career opportunities, often through hidden rules of engagement and closed networks that are passed down generationally and tied to wealth or social connections.

These privileges, such as having enough money to afford a college-admissions tutor or cover the travel expenses required to tour campuses before admissions, start early. Upon graduation, knowing the hidden rules and having access can manifest as family members or friends who have connections to hiring managers at competitive jobs or internships. Those who lack the same opportunities, whether due to socioeconomic status or another factor, have to work harder to secure them and may feel pressured to present a fabricated version of themselves to “fit in” in corporate environments.

Despite the support and DEI efforts most workplaces claim to put towards marginalized groups, we still have a long road to travel before the playing field is equal. If you are an early-career professional from an underrepresented community, you may feel pressured to emulate your more privileged peers to make connections with people who can help you access the opportunities that were simply handed over to others. This experience can feel paradoxical. Although the benefits of diverse teams and bringing your full self to work are widely shared, actually getting hired, and then feeling safe enough to be authentic with your colleagues, is a major challenge.

While the responsibility to create systems that nurture and prioritize more diverse talent falls onto leadership teams who are responsible for driving change at the organizational level, know that you, the employee, have the power to step up and drive change, too.

Learning how to make new contacts and gain access to diverse professional networks can help you build social currency, advocate for yourself, find mentors and sponsors who can advance your career, and eventually, pay it forward.

To do that, you’re going to have to navigate a few unique challenges — namely, you’re going to face three major obstacles, or what we call “networking paradoxes,” that often impact employees from underrepresented groups.

Here’s what those paradoxes look like, and how to overcome them. 

The Gatekeeper Paradox

Professional networks are transformative door-openers for everyone and are especially valuable for underrepresented professionals who don’t have access to influential ties. But in the real world, gaining access to such networks can be difficult. People in positions of power and privilege often “gatekeep” or restrict access into these spaces. Those “in the know” decide who else learns about opportunities, gets hired, gets mentored, and gets promoted — concentrating more power among those who already have power, access, and privilege. This narrows the talent pipeline and reinforces exclusivity over diversity. The more exclusive the networks, the more homogenous the workforce becomes.

Too many companies miss out on great talent by limiting their candidate pools to professionals from a small pool of elite schools or small “insider” networks. Organizations are now recognizing that diverse teams are much more effective in driving organizational results. When individuals from different identities and communities come together, it fosters more learning and more exchanging of ideas as people draw from their unique experiences and knowledge to inform decisions.

So, how do you show up in places that have traditionally kept you out?

How to manage this paradox: Every society has a dominant culture. It’s the culture and norms of those who hold power, including access to key opportunities and resources. In America and throughout the Western world, this looks like white, wealthy men with positional and generational privilege who believe their values — and their place in the world — are superior.

Again, this is a systemic issue driven by systemic racism, classism, and other biases that need to be addressed at the leadership level of any organization. For students from underrepresented communities, entering these dominant cultures can feel daunting, and it can be harder to gain confidence to be ourselves in spaces where we are deemed different. Even so, know that you have the power to appreciate your cultural differences — including ethnicity, language, cuisine, and religion — as assets that add immense value to the professional world.

Believing in yourself and building confidence around your contributions can be especially challenging in the face of a work culture that tells you otherwise — but it’s worth investing in.

The first step is recognizing that you undeniably and intrinsically bring something valuable to the table. Think about the different things you’ve learned throughout life.

The truth is, the things that make you “different” — your skin color, economic status, family history, heritage, and culture — are not shortcomings. They add a much-needed perspective to the table. This asset-based thinking assumes (rightfully) that the value you bring to work is not only a product of the universities you attend or the internships secure but also in embracing your unique life experiences and identity as an individual.

For instance, if you’re a first-generation South Asian immigrant with parents who run their own business, you probably speak more than two languages, are adept at navigating between two cultures, and have helped your parents in overseeing the day-to-day activities of their business. This business acumen, combined with your cultural competence, are skills that you’ve developed throughout your life.  That is your unique job-landing story that will set you apart.

Becoming aware of your strengths as a person — beyond formal education — will enable you to network confidently and present yourself as the missing piece to employers’ hiring puzzle. Owning your identity will also help you articulate who you really are, what you want in your career, and how you wish to gain access to it. When you don’t look like the people who occupy the most space in a room, you may fall into the trap of thinking you must do something worthy or deserving to gain attention. But that’s untrue. Remind yourself that your identity is your strength. You have something no one else in the room possesses: your experience.

The Authentic-Self Paradox

It can be extremely challenging to bring your whole self to work when you see few others from a background, an identity, or a community like your own. As a result, many people from communities that are underrepresented in corporate America feel pressured to adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and values of those in the predominant group, masking our true selves for traits that are considered more culturally “normal.” We are forced to code-switch.

Cornell professor Courtney McCluney and her coauthors describe code-switching as changing our “style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” It can look like a Black woman removing her braids before starting a new job to look more “professional,” or using a nickname to avoid awkward conversations around pronouncing one’s name correctly.

Code-switching is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a survival tool intended to ensure our safety, acceptance, and growth at work. However, it also places an undue burden on marginalized professionals to conform and assimilate, erasing our identities and reinforcing biased “norms” about what “professionalism” looks like — racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic ideas around how we should look, speak, and conduct ourselves at work.

This creates an uncomfortable tension: How can you extend yourself to others, and make meaningful connections when it isn’t safe to show up as yourself authentically?

How to manage this paradox: Take your time to reveal your authentic self. Gradually revealing your identity doesn’t mean that you contort your identity to fit another mold. Instead, you assert agency by sharing parts of yourself when and with people with whom you feel safe and comfortable.

Start by observing your colleagues’ office banter about work topics, and even non-work topics like sports, music, or food. Pay attention to how they react to BIPOC colleagues’ successes or failures. What language do they use when a person of color gets promoted? Do they attribute someone’s achievements to their hard work and efforts? A common stereotype that non-white professionals face at work is when our successes are seen as a result of our “innate” abilities or talents, as opposed to our dedication, hard work, experience, and training. Noticing these subtle thought patterns, attitudes, and behaviors will help you set better boundaries with your colleagues while safely exploring how much you want to share about yourself.

Next, put out a feeler. Reach out to just one person on your team, or in your office, for an informal, one-on-one conversation. Finding one person to connect with is often a more manageable approach than reaching out to a group. The idea is to identify a person who looks, speaks, or has different life experiences than yours — usually someone from a dominant social group — and gauge if they can become your ally. Use this time to reveal a little about your background, share your life experiences, and learn about theirs.

If your exchange is reciprocated, you may feel safe and confident enough to reveal more about yourself. On the contrary, if you end up in a conversation where the other person doesn’t seem to understand your perspectives, it’s okay to politely shift to a neutral topic and then bring it to an end. Don’t spend your energy and time with someone who is unlikely to be a true ally. You can end with, “I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me and hear me out, thank you.”

The Proximity Paradox

When we reach out to people to help us advance in our careers, we tend to look for those who are familiar and similar to us with respect to age, expertise, and cultural experiences. That means you’re just as likely as anyone else to perpetuate the biases of creating close-knit groups based on a common identity.

The antidote is to create an expansive network that includes all kinds of relationships. An expansive network helps you in two ways: First, it ensures that your feedback loop is broad and diverse. When we interact with people who don’t think like ourselves, we expand our perspective and learn new things. Second, a diverse network ensures that you don’t end up perpetuating the same homogeneous, exclusive, gatekeeper networks that you may have encountered when you started out.

How to manage this paradox: Connect with people at different levels in their careers, learn from them, and try to maintain the most valuable relationships. Focus on three areas.

To start, think about the people senior to you. Who do you look up to or feel inspired by professionally? Building relationships with them can help you gain access to mentors and sponsors who can advocate for you as you grow in your career.

Second, network laterally. That means, connecting with your peers, friends, colleagues, or those who are at the same level as you. This could be teammates or coworkers in different departments throughout your organization. Reach out to them for coffee or lunch to learn more about their roles, goals, and challenges — then share your own. These connections can be especially good at providing social and emotional support as you navigate your career journey.

Finally, actively reach out to those coming up after you or junior to you. Pass on the support that you wanted to receive when you started out. Moreover, these relationships will help you hone your mentorship skills and learn from people at different stages in their careers.

With an expansive network, you can even begin to build a personal board of directors, or a group of trustworthy people who can offer you critical and encouraging feedback at various points throughout your career. This group could include a mentor, a friend, a manager, an expert in your field, and someone well-connected who can introduce you to new opportunities. Choose people who you feel safe with, who will provide you with honest feedback, who enjoy supporting you, and most importantly, who appreciate your authentic self.

When you’re starting out, it may feel like the world is stacked against you. But know that learning about these paradoxes can help you become more aware, show up with confidence, and make informed decisions about your career.

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