Before she enrolled at Insead Business School outside Paris, Melissa Lim tapped the business school’s 50,000-strong alumni network. The American was admitted to the Insead MBA in March 2018 and started searching for graduates who worked in fashion technology, her intended industry, on LinkedIn.
She wrote a message to the VP of marketing at Farfetch, a London based luxury clothing e-tailer, explaining her goals and asking for a brief phone call to hear how an MBA helped the alumnus.
The graduate connected Lim to Farfetch’s managing director, who offered her a three-month internship in New York ahead of the first semester of the MBA in August 2018.
“My previous background and network were in Big Tech. I wanted the MBA to broaden my horizons and meet other people with different backgrounds and pursue a global career,” says Lim. She joined Microsoft in the US after an undergraduate degree at Berkeley in California.
MBA networking tip: start with who you already know
The chance to craft a large and varied professional network is a big draw for would-be MBA students looking to advance their career, says Gopika Spaenle, associate director at the MBA Career Center at Georgetown McDonough. Classmates, faculty and alumni are an invaluable source of advice, guidance, and can facilitate introductions to employers.
But students should start with who they already know, according to Margaret O’Neill, head of MBA marketing, admissions and careers at Cambridge Judge Business School. “We often underestimate the value of friends, family, work colleagues, clients and classmates,” she says.
To build interesting conversations, ask about their professional experience and what they know about you — you may be surprised, says O’Neill. “Use that information to reflect on how you want others to see you, what genuinely motivates you, and the knowledge and skills you want from the MBA.”
Networking in the MBA classroom (and beyond)
The diverse and dynamic MBA classroom is a wonderful place to expand your existing network, says Sabyne Moras, head of the career service at Italy’s SDA Bocconi School of Management. “The variety of backgrounds, geographies and cultures means broad relationships are built during the program that last forever,” she says.
Graduates are also an exceptionally useful resource, says Charles Labelle, associate director and head of employer engagement at Insead’s Career Development Center. “Alumni are receptive. They were once here trying to do the same thing.”
He recommends that students reach out to alumni working in their target companies or industries and ask them to share their story. “The trigger is getting them to talk about themselves. There’s also the nostalgia element and alumni wanting to give back,” says Labelle.
Persistence is important — building a network takes time. “No does not mean no; it means not right now. In another 10 days or so, send another email, but do not make them feel bad for not responding.”
It is important to ask good questions, listen attentively and to stay in touch. “Share articles that might interest them, and updates about your MBA experience. You won’t get a return unless you invest in the network.”
O’Neill, at Cambridge Judge, agrees. “Think about what the person you are speaking to is gaining from the interaction,” she says. “You are building a relationship. It is not a one-off transaction.”
Throughout the 10-month Insead course, which is also taught in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, Lim kept in touch with the Farfetch team, updating them on her MBA projects and meeting for coffee when they were nearby.
She was offered a full-time job as a senior product manager. She accepted the offer and after graduation began work on an initiative to bring Farfetch’s technology to traditional retailers in October last year.
“The key to good networking is personalizing your outreach,” Lim says. “I get a lot of MBA students messaging me now, asking about my career. It helps when you have a common interest: I also reached out to the director of product at Farfetch who used to work at Microsoft in the Bay Area too.”
Business schools themselves utilize their networks by inviting employers to meet students at events on campus, such as business plan competitions, or to deliver guest lectures or collaborate on research with academics.
“Attend as many campus events as possible,” advises Moras at Bocconi, which organizes some 300 events each year. “Business connections are very important,” she adds.
Business schools also offer guidance through dedicated career coaches. Cambridge Judge in the UK, for example, runs “personal impact” workshops to ensure students present the best possible versions of themselves online and in person.
Confidence is key. “For those who find networking awkward, pitching their career goal in front of their classmates and business school staff can help them to relax and find the right things to say,” says Bocconi’s Moras.
Increase your reach with LinkedIn and other social networks
Technology is changing how MBA students network. LinkedIn, for example, is a useful tool to establish contacts quickly, conduct research and showcase work.
“There is more and more interaction online. LinkedIn is now an essential tool for professional networking and job hunting,” says O’Neill from Cambridge Judge.
She adds that engaging with interest groups builds credibility and visibility. “Social media allows you to build a personal portfolio beyond your CV and showcase a variety of skills via film, presentations, TED Talks.”
Business schools run their own digital networking platforms, a Rolodex of thousands of alumni in multiple countries around the world. But Labelle says that few Insead graduates keep their profiles updated, so extra research may be required.
Online platforms seem unlikely to match the close bonds formed through networking in person, but they are a good starting point. The same rules of engagement apply: cultivating and sustaining a fruitful network requires thoughtfulness, persistence and hard graft.