Networking: It takes a village to build a business

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By Likeleli Monyamane

In an article titled “Networking: the key to growth for women entrepreneurs,” Affiong Williams reflects on the role that having a solid network of business associates and contacts have played in accelerating the growth of her business based in Nigeria. In it, she coins the phrase, “it takes a village to grow a business,” adopted from the famous African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The idea that networking is essential for entrepreneurs is not a new one. Every business has a budget to allow business executives and employees to attend conferences that encourage networking with other people in the same industry or in the same professional field because of the return on investment that businesses gain from these networking events.

In my view, two essential elements result in effective networking in business. Firstly, it is having access to the right people, groups, and communities to benefit them and their businesses. Networking is not about just gathering with any group of people; it is about tapping into individuals and groups of people that can offer value and help you meet your objective somehow.

Secondly, it is about translating access to the right people into value gained for one’s business. To do this, entrepreneurs should connect with these people and present themselves in a way that will have these people interested. This means that an entrepreneur should possess the skills to initiate a conversation, strike a connection, and keep people interested in what they have to offer.

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As a woman, networking does not come easy, and I feel that I have to make much more effort to put myself out there and maintain a strong network that can benefit my business and my professional objectives. I have also observed that I am not alone in this. Many Basotho women – whether entrepreneurs or not – struggle with networking. However, research has shown that we are not alone in this and that women globally struggle with making the most of networking.

A 2010 study by GEM found that women network better on social media but don’t network as effectively in their everyday professional lives. The study suggests that women keep smaller and less diverse networks. They also prefer to turn to their family members for advice instead of reaching out to external networks. These factors put them at a more significant disadvantage than men and keep them from benefiting from the value of networks.

One of the reasons we find it so difficult to network as Basotho women are that we struggle to put ourselves out there. Our culture, in general, promotes humility and being reserved. In general, I have found that we experience some of the following struggles:

  • How to express and highlight our strengths.
  • How to articulate why we are better than the next person.
  • How to reach out to people we don’t know. (To be honest, Basotho doesn’t take kindly to being contacted by people they don’t remember to ask about business or seek professional information).
  • We struggle to understand how to present our ideas compellingly.

A lot of why we have these struggles is how we are raised. As kids, we are not encouraged to be confident either amongst our peers or grown-ups. On the contrary, we are encouraged to carry ourselves to keep ourselves invisible. U seke oa phapha! Those who have “loud” personalities are judged by adults and peers alike. It is also rude to just walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself. U nahana u mang? O nahana o ntloaetse! Phrases such as “ngoan’a phakoe se ‘na u ipolela, motho o motle ha a boleloa ke batho” have been used to discourage people from praising themselves and rather wait on other people to highlight their strengths. One may argue that this way of living encourages the same humility that Basotho are known and respected for wherever they go.

However, my take is that the humility needed to make people good human beings doesn’t serve them in entrepreneurship based on two business practices. Firstly, marketing is a necessary business tool to achieve business growth, and the essence of marketing is self-promotion. Secondly, a key element to developing a business model is the need to establish and communicate a Customer Value Proposition. Part of this involves expressing why you are better than other businesses that are operating in the same space as you.

This means that if we are to be successful in business, we need to learn how to build networks with people beyond our immediate family members and how to offer value and benefit from these relationships. Then we need to know how to put ourselves out there and to unapologetically communicate our strengths and the value we offer.