Your Network Equals Your Net Worth

Your Network Equals Your Networth

When opportunity knocked, leveraging the right contacts helped these women cash in. Here’s how.

By Linda DiProperzio

Former golf champion Jane Blalock was in familiar territory – on the golf course – when she worked up the nerve to ask well-known venture capitalist Jean Tempel for advice about expanding her business. While the Jane Blalock Co. was doing well, Blalock realized she needed more capital to grow the company, which runs events for both amateur and professional female golfers from its base in Cambridge, Mass. When Tempel, a social acquaintance, had invited Blalock out for a friendly round of golf, Blalock knew she had been handed a golden opportunity.

On the tee, Tempel asked for help on her golf swing. Blalock gladly obliged, then turned the tables and tapped Tempel for some business pointers. They agreed to have lunch three days later, when Blalock presented her informal business plan. “I told her, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here are my other opportunities,'” she recalls. Tempel was impressed – so impressed that she agreed to find a group of women investors so Blalock could expand yet still maintain control of her company. Since finalizing the deal in January 2006 (and changing the company’s name to JBC Golf ), Blalock has increased her firm’s annual revenue by $1 million.

When it comes to making more money – whether it’s through expanding your own business or landing a better job – it’s all about whom you know, says Gwen Martin, director of research at the Center for Women’s Business Research. “The majority of business opportunities come from connecting with the right people at the right time.” In other words, while most high-level women execs have enough business cards and event invitations to stack floor to ceiling, leveraging the right part of that network at just the right moment can make all the difference.

Angela Ford agrees. “Networking has defined my career,” says the founder and president of T.A.G.Worldwide Inc., a “green” property management firm based in Chicago. Ford’s big break came when she met the head researcher and developer of innovative software tools for Johnson Controls, a multibillion-dollar company that sells products and services to optimize energy use in buildings. The two hit it off and, as a result, Ford recently entered into an agreement with Johnson Controls that cut the cost of an environmental assessment for commercial properties in half. Plus, by partnering with such a reputable company, Ford now has access to clients and projects that her company never could’ve handled before. “It’s like getting invited to a party I would never be able to get into on my own,” she says. Ford expects her annual revenue to exceed $1 million this year, a major milestone for her business.

Alicia Rockmore made a similar leap forward with a well-timed push from her network. In 2004, she and a partner founded Buttoned Up Inc., a company that designs and sells organizational products for busy women. Initially the business was online only, bringing in one or two sales a day. “Our goal was always to get that first product into a major retailer,” Rockmore says. “We just needed the opportunity.” 

That opportunity presented itself when Rockmore ran into a former colleague, who happened to know a key decision-maker at a major retailer. He agreed to set up a meeting for Rockmore, who jumped at the chance and later closed the deal. Soon after that first major sale, the company’s first product – Life.doc, an organizing binder – began to run on QVC and now sells in Target, Barnes & Noble and The Container Store. While she doesn’t disclose company sales figures, Rockmore admits that this breakthrough helped the business grow 40-fold almost overnight. “And it’s continued to grow over 100 percent each year,” she says.

But it’s not just business owners who are reaping the rewards of network strategy. Women in corporate America, too, know that when it comes to making big career jumps, their Rolodex is much more valuable than the help wanted section. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that only 5 percent of people obtain jobs through the “open” job market, while 48 percent win their positions through referrals.

As promotions coordinator at Dillard’s, Cozette Phifer made a point of connecting with as many people as possible. Through one contact, she heard that PetSmart, then just a startup, was looking for talented people. She signed up. After helping turn the retailer into a national success as its head of promotions, Phifer attended a public relations meeting where a new contact from Jenny Craig told her that company was hiring. “I lived near their offices and had been interested in meeting someone there,” says Phifer, now Jenny Craig’s director of corporate communications. “It was the perfect opportunity to get in that door.”
Marisa Thalberg, corporate vice president of marketing for Estée Lauder’s online business, took matters into her own hands five years ago when she worked in advertising for Calvin Klein Cosmetics. After she gave birth to her first child, Thalberg wanted to connect with other women managing both a career and a family, so she founded “For me, it was more about bringing people together that had something in common,” she explains. “I didn’t even think of using the site to network for myself.”

But that’s exactly what happened. Through the site, she met a fellow mom who was a senior manager at Deloitte, the accounting giant. “It wasn’t a field that I was interested in, but I reached out,” she says. Through that key contact, she met a former Estée Lauder executive who facilitated a meeting with human resources at Lauder. It was a meandering path back to her own industry, but it worked. At the time, the company was creating a new position: head of global online marketing. When they were ready to hire, they came knocking.

Networking in 360 Degrees

A large part of creating timely opportunities out of personal contacts is keeping an open mind, experts say. One common mistake for women at the top is cultivating their network only within their peer group, which can limit their options, says Susan RoAne, speaker and author of How to Work a Room: Your Essential Guide to Savvy Socializing (HarperCollins, 2007). “You have to network at all levels – up, down and sideways,” she explains, “because you don’t know where someone is going to wind up.” What’s more, those “small world” moments that occur when two paths cross seemingly at random could instead represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance – if you recognize it at the time.

Before her current post as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for HomeBancMortgage Corp., Catharine Kelly was a top consultant with Accenture, working in its financial services and marketing practices. Kelly read about the resignation of HomeBanc’s CMO and called a former colleague, then at HomeBanc, for the inside scoop. He gave her some insight and arranged a meeting for her with Alan Lee, HomeBanc’s chief recruiting officer.

As good fortune would have it, Kelly and Lee knew each other from their early days at SunTrust Bank, and Lee knew Kelly’s husband from a stint at Coca-Cola. Kelly struck while the iron was hot. She used her newly forged connections with Lee to score a meeting with HomeBanc’s CEO. While he already had a candidate for the CMO job, she impressed him enough that he created a senior vice president position for her. That led directly to her current CMO post. “[The connection] really served as a foot in the door,” says Kelly. “A warm intro is better than a cold intro.”

For Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group, a New York advertising and entertainment agency, and co-author of The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (Currency, 2006), gracious dealings with a subordinate at a former job paid off handsomely later. A few years ago, Kaplan Thaler received a phone call from a woman whose agency had just folded. Kaplan Thaler agreed to meet with her, thinking that she was looking for career advice. Instead the woman offered her work: Two of the woman’s clients had allowed her to take them to any agency of her choosing, and she chose Kaplan Thaler’s.

“It turns out we had worked together years before at J. Walter Thompson. She was a junior account executive and I was a creative director,” Kaplan Thaler says. “She remembered that I was always nice to her, so she was looking for a way to return the favor.” In just one afternoon, Kaplan Thaler’s company won $50 million in new work.

These women’s examples offer further proof that successful networking is about more than making business contacts; it’s  also about taking the opportunity to help others. “No one wants to deal with someone who’s always calling when she needs something,” RoAne says. Thalberg agrees. “It’s like the ‘pay it forward’ concept,” she explains. “If you show people you’re willing to help them out when you can, chances are good they’ll return the favor one day.”

Diane K. Danielson contributed to this article.

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