Last week I received an email from someone on Be Visible who is interested in pursuing work in the field I studied. I was flattered that such a successful young woman reached out to me for advice. She is already much smarter than I was at her age. She understands that connecting with others and asking questions is instrumental to success in our careers but in our life.
Is connecting with others what it takes to be successful?
When I was little I believed that If I went to college and obtained a degree I would be wealthy. I would have a nice house like people on television shows like Full House, Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210. My career would be brilliant because I was smart.
Is being smart what it takes to be successful?
It’s actually quite a bit more complicated.
By the time I reached college I realized that a university degree was not the same as having a career. Even more frightening was that I started to meet people who no idea how to put their degrees to use. They would wallow in self-doubt and work jobs that didn’t suit them just to make ends meet. Relatives would wonder what the point of college was if they still weren’t making a lot of money and working jobs they could have without a degree.
The thing I had in common with them is that, for the most part, they were first generation college students.
We were the first people in our family to actually attend a university. Research shows that students like us are at high risk of never finishing their degree. For a variety of reasons that include factors like feeling like an outsider in our own families to lack of professional, financial and academic support.
Our parents might want to help but they often don’t know how to do so. While my parents taught me everything I know about hard work, perseverance and overcoming obstacles there was little they could offer in terms of mentoring, career guidance, and being successful.
We also missed out on introductions.
The kind of support where your parents can call in favors from various people in their social circle that can help you secure coveted internships, and even jobs that will help you become successful. Where they can say, “Hey Samantha, I heard you want to be an attorney, maybe you should go to lunch with my friend So-and-So who just finished law school.”
The closer I got to finishing school the more nervous I became. I knew I had to do something and getting good grades wasn’t going to matter if I didn’t know anyone that would hire me in anything even closely related to my field. It was the middle of my Junior year and I knew that I needed to shift back my hours at work and start pursuing internships. I applied to internships and kept getting rejected.
Who knew working for free or almost free was so competitive?
I had work experience but it wasn’t relevant to the internships I was trying to obtain. I then figured out that if I started out by volunteering I could introduce myself to people and learn about internships as they became available. This strategy proved worthwhile and one internship led me to other opportunities. I built social capital on pure instinct and had to push through my tendency to be afraid of small talk and feeling like talking about my accomplishments was boastful and annoying.
But it didn’t have to be so hard.
My biggest mistake was thinking I had to know and do everything myself, thinking that other people were figuring this out on their own. Everyone leverages their network! People in the upper and middle classes have been doing this since the beginning of time.
According to Harvard’s Kennedy School, “Social capital is the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”].” It’s not just who you know but about how many favors do they owe you.
My biggest piece of advice to all of you for being successful is, invest in people. The one thing you need to be successful is social capital.
You should learn about your field, be the smartest person in the room sure, but meet people. Follow up with people! Reach out to people. Connect. If you have a distaste for small talk, then make an effort anyway. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone but I promise that if you invest in people your career and life will be all the more fulfilling.
I recently helped a friend with his graduate school admissions essays and he asked me how he could ever repay me. I said, “When you get your MBA and start your company you owe my son an internship.” That is me accumulating social capital for my two year old!
The potential to build social capital was one of the reasons why I am so excited about Be Visible. The platform is all about creating relationships among like minded Latinx Millennials.
It’s about finding mentors but it’s also about forming relationships with peers that will help you be successful in moving up the career ladder. One day your mentor might give you a job lead but that friend you made here will vouch for you with a hiring manager. Someone you meet on Be Visible might introduce you to the person who will fund your startup, or you might connect with someone who inspires you to make a big career change.
The potential is unlimited and together we will rise and pass on our networks and skills to the next generation.