Emma Isaacs is an entrepreneur who runs the membership and networking organisation Business Chicks. With over 25,000 members across Australia, Business Chicks is the premium network for professional women from both the corporate and SME sector. She talks to Emma Lyons.
You’ve been described in the media as one of the best-connected people in Australia. How have you achieved this?
I suppose it’s through having a real interest and curiosity about people. My first business was a recruitment company and now it’s Business Chicks, so the common denominator has been people. I ask a lot of questions, I’m friendly to everyone I meet, I don’t make judgments of others, I try and help out everyone who I come in contact with. And that style builds reciprocity – I’ve found that people are happy to help me in return. I’m also the type of person who puts myself out there. I’ve sat on different boards and contributed my time to different organisations, and that’s opened doors for me. I network everywhere I go – nowhere is off limits. I chat with people on planes, in the lift, in cafes, while I’m on holidays… but I never sell anything. That’s tacky.
Networking is about relationship building, and it takes time to build a relationship and to build trust. Business Chicks has obviously been great for me too – I’m lucky to have the experience of meeting so many incredible people on a regular basis – from our speakers through to our members and sponsors all around the country [Business Chicks is sponsored by Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Travelscene American Express and Republica Coffee].
What mistakes do people make when networking?
The obvious ones… Thrusting business cards in people’s faces; not really listening; not following up; not asking enough questions; being too timid or being too brash – both can be just as bad. And the worst one is asking “what do you do?” too early in the conversation. That question is asked by people who don’t know what else to say. It’s important to build rapport and find commonalities first. You can learn about ‘what they do’ later or when you exchange business cards at the end of your chat. I also find that people don’t ask enough to be introduced to others. People can’t read your mind that you’re looking to get to know the brand managers at Coca-Cola, or the partners at PwC. You have to ask to be introduced, and then take action.
What would you suggest to people who are fearful of networking?
Networking has so many negative connotations and people are reticent to put themselves out there. I’d suggest that if you’re looking to improve your networking results that you find some non-threatening environments to practice in, and then fake it ‘til you make it. To start with, all you really need is a smile, and the ability to say “Hi, I’m Dale”, and the rest flows from there. Networking has been said to be one of the most career-critical, yet under-developed tools that managers need to have. It requires training, confidence building, and strategy. A lot of the best businesses I talk with have networking plans for their people, and this aids in their development and growth.
You’ve met Richard Branson and spent one on one time with Bill Gates. How did this come about?
I was introduced to Richard through a mutual friend and he came and spoke at Business Chicks. The event sold out within four hours and we had around 1600 guests there. It was great – he’s just a nice, fun guy who’s taken tremendous risks and he’s mastered the art of delegating and getting good people around him. He’s got a magnetic energy – he just kind of draws people in, but he’s also not what you’d expect – he’s more considered and reserved. I was lucky to spend some time with Bill Gates at a really small party last time he was in Australia. We sat on a lounge, in front of a fire and just chatted. We talked about the early days in business and how he remembered clearly being a team of six people working from his garage. We talked about his kids, about Melinda. It was amazing. I pinched myself when I left.
How do you top that?
Well, they are some of the best experiences I’ve had, but I get the same type of buzz from meeting an entrepreneur who’s re-mortgaged their house to get their business to the next level, or anyone who’s shown huge courage. One of the frustrating things about the events we run for Business Chicks is that the big names sell events, but it’s the lesser-known speakers who are usually the best. We’ve had Gregory David Roberts who wrote the bestseller Shantaram who escaped prison, fled the country on a fake passport, set up free health clinics in the slums of Bombay, was a guns runner, a drug dealer… We’ve had people who have started orphanages; people who have led teams into disasters like the Bali bombings and the Thailand Boxing Day tsunami. We’ve had paralympians and comedians and people who’ve overcome tremendous adversity – they’re the real people I love to meet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had our members write to me saying “that changed my life”, so it’s nice to know we have such an impact.
What are your top tips for networking?
- Dedicate time for networking and research which groups or events you enjoy the most
- When you network, always have a focus on others, asking lots of questions and showing a genuine interest
- Don’t be embarrassed to move around at a networking event – the worst outcome is to get stuck with the one person the whole time. Speed networking events work are great for meeting lots of people at once.
- Be positive, upbeat, friendly. People will gravitate toward you.
- Remember your manners and always follow up. Handwritten notes always trump emails. Ask people if you can stay in touch (but never ever add them to your mailing list unless they’ve specifically asked for it, or you’ve asked them and they’ve accepted.)
- Have fun. Don’t think of it as networking, but a chance to meet other great people who you can share a genuine connection with.