A couple of weeks’ ago, I was invited to my first IRL networking event in nearly two years. Gaydio’s BizMix events are held every month at a central Brighton location and attract a wonderfully broad mix of local business founders and connectors. Recruitment for the event is primarily through word of mouth; appropriate for an inclusive and welcoming space. According to one of the organisers, the ethos of the event is ‘making business mates’ rather than formal corporate connections.
The event was a brilliant mix of socialising and focused work; a smart combination which was elegantly and efficiently compèred. A sit-down meal was bookended with ‘fun’ stuff – a raffle (which I actually won!) – and general chit chat. Once everyone had eaten, there was a moderated, focused discussion where individuals were given an informal platform to speak about their business proposition and what we hoped to achieve out of attending. This kind of directed approach is a dream for ambiverts such as myself who struggle with less structured events. For me personally, this is because I often need a prompt or platform for speaking, rather than wanting (or even being able) to actively assert myself.
One of the co-organisers, Doug Faulkner (who also compèred) explains BizMix’s approach:
"I've often felt at some other more corporate networking events people are doing an impression of the grown up they thought they should have been when they were young instead of having space to just be their whole selves. I know I'm going to have a range of people in the room in terms of confidence, anxiety and ability. It's my job to soften the edges so all are welcome and have a platform to share. That's best done with clarity, a few levels of conversation, and a huge dollop of permissiveness."
BizMix’s empathetic and inclusive approach to networking got me thinking about networking in general and why I have often shirked opportunities to ‘get out there’ and network in a traditional sense. This is despite the fact that business networking was – and still is – big business.
In the UK alone, the Federation of Small Businesses has roughly 160,000 members and the Institute of Directors represents over 25,000 business leaders. There is evidence that networking also works. A 2017 LinkedIn survey found that 80% of its members consider professional networking to be important to new job opportunities and career success.
In a study conducted by Forbes and Oxford Economics and cited by Medium, more than half of business travellers said that 5-20% of their company’s new customers were the result of participating in and networking at trade shows. The study estimated the return on investment on conference and trade show participation at between $4-$5.99 per dollar invested.
So networking matters – but how can it become more inclusive?
Our fellow local business support network Brighton Chamber hosts more than 100 networking events a year and clearly understands some of the challenges networking can represent. Their site explains, "We understand that many people don’t like walking into a busy room of strangers, so we’ll do everything we can to make it easier for you. We can match you up with one of our lovely Chamber ambassadors, who will be there to meet you at your first session."
Sussex Innovation has hosted our Female Founders events for a couple of years now. The event is for founders who identify as female and for whom a specific event and network is helpful and supportive. Daisy Wood – who runs Female Founders and is Sussex Innovation’s Croydon Centre Manager, says, "The online female founders events we ran throughout the lockdowns were 'not normal' networking; we had some really open conversations as a group and everyone who attended was extremely supportive of each other."
Female Founders at Sussex Innovation has hosted speakers who may have a particular pertinence and relevance to the community of female-identified founders, such as Performance Coach Doug Faulkner (also a Non-Executive Director at Gaydio) and Nadia Finer, founder of Shy and Mighty, a consultancy which campaigns for and supports those individuals who identify as shy [Full disclosure: I worked with both Nadia and Doug at Innovation Consultancy ?What If! Innovation].
Nadia spoke about her experience of being a shy person in business and in the world. She told us, "Shy people don’t need fixing. We don’t need to change who we are. But, in a world filled with noise and hot air, it’s time for us people to speak up and stop hiding."
As a performance coach working with mainly female-identified founders, Doug spoke about impostor syndrome and how to overcome it; an issue which sadly prevails for many female founders. Doug says, "It may sound trite, but the only impostor is impostor syndrome itself. It's in each individual’s journey to see how that shows up in them. There's nothing wrong with a healthy sense of apprehension when choosing to stretch yourself and take risks, but we all need reminding now and then to get out of our own way."
Sussex Innovation is currently canvasing our membership and wider network for views and insights into how individuals find Female Founders events useful and ways to improve and build on the experience. Please let us know your thoughts!
We’ll leave the final word on BizMix and the secret to its ongoing success to Doug. He says, "What's lovely about facilitating a business networking conversation hosted by a queer-owned-and-run organisation is we don't have that hurdle to jump over in the race to great connections. Gaydio Brighton's team is made up of queer people and queer allies. So as soon as you walk through the door at one of our events you're already accepted. It's nice to have one less barrier to connection and -- if I'm honest -- as a queer person myself I see it as our ‘secret super power’ when it comes to getting on with others. It means we can learn what we need to learn then crack back on to focus on making all of the businesses in our community thrive."
The next BizMix event will take place in Brighton 13th October. You can buy tickets here.