You better (net)work.

Some years ago Lesa Mitchell, who is vice president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, one of North America’s largest private foundations dedicated to entrepreneurship and community engagement, hosted a seminar on women and technology in Silicon Valley. The “women in tech” topic was trendy, and she hoped she’d be in for a crowd. But only two women showed up. (One of them was former Google whiz kid and current Yahoo top dog Marissa Mayer.)

Mitchell’s seminar was part of a large tech industry conference, and men far outnumbered the women in attendance. The organizers griped to Mitchell about “how hard it was to get women out” to the event. Turns out, many more women had been invited than actually showed up. They simply opted not to attend.

I get where these women were coming from.

There was a time when I wasn’t all that crazy about attending networking activities like conferences or wine and cheese events. The munchies were great, the free wine even better, but in all honesty, when my choices were an evening of schmoozing with strangers or Taco Tuesdays with my family, networking took a backseat every time. Besides, I rationalized. It’s not like networking was actually, you know, paying work.

And that’s where I was so wrong. Because networking really does pay. Especially if you’re in business. And because there are so many time-starved women who, like me, opt out of networking, it turns out there are a whole lot of us missing out not only on career and business opportunities but also on cold hard cashmoney.

Research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation suggests that women entrepreneurs, especially those in technology, raise 70 per cent less capital than men do. And the reason, according to Lesa Mitchell, is that we lack access to networks. We don’t have them, she says, and when we do, we still struggle to fi gure out how to actually use them.

One of the key challenges, she pointed out in a recent interview, is that women don’t always make time for networking, especially in situations where there’s no immediate payoff (i.e. no specifi c reason to attend the event). More research, such as one study that suggested women were more likely to pull out of networking events they’ve already committed to attending, backs her up.

I observe this everywhere. Male entrepreneurs I know are often meeting each other for coffee and talking shop. Meanwhile, my female counterparts and I are torn between the huge, urgent pile of work on our desks, and the little (and big) people who need us at home.

But think about this: how many opportunities have come your way completely out of thin air? Now think about how many have arrived at your doorstep because you knew someone who knew someone else, who suggested you check into something and BAM – a new pathway opens up.

In the last year, my business has taken some leaps and every single one of the leaps has come directly from my network. Insights and opportunities I gleaned not from my oldest dearest friends, but from newfound friends I’ve met while networking.

One of the reasons men are able to raise more capital, Mitchell argues, is that they consciously cultivate networks by attending conferences and events where investors are likely to be. Simply put: they put in the time beforehand, and when they need the money, the relationships are in place.

I have a good friend who went from unknown to internationally recognized in under three years. Her secret: The belief that her “network is her net worth.”

Meanwhile, I continue to sit around many discussion tables only to listen to complaints about “old boys clubs.” I get it, I do. Gender bias is real. But you know something else that’s real? The transformative power of new relationships on careers and businesses. Taco Tuesdays rock, but this year I’m committing to let Dad wear the sombrero while I grow my network. My wish is that you do as well.

Eleanor Beaton
About Eleanor Beaton

Eleanor Beaton is a writer and consultant who has helped some of Canada's most successful women entrepreneurs build influence and make an impact through courageous and unforgettable storytelling.

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