The World Will Help You, If You Ask the Right Way

by Alan Harlam
August 15, 2015

Alan Harlam is the founder of the Social Innovation Initiative (SII) at the Swearer Center for Public Service, and teaches a course on Social Entrepreneurship that introduces students to the transformative impact that organizations have in society. His work as a social entrepreneur is informed by 20 years as a consultant, turnaround manager, and community volunteer.  

On a recent summer day, I overheard Leo Liu in a conversation with a mentor while I was visiting Brown University’s Summer B-Lab - an entrepreneurship accelerator for students.

Leo is a recent graduate of Brown’s Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship (PRIME) and passionate about the field of robotics. He was asking about networking. Through Linkedin, he found a senior executive at iRobot and spoke to him about opportunities at the company. The executive suggested that Leo arrange a tour of the company and offered to put him in touch with someone who would help with scheduling. Unfortunately, the executive didn’t follow up, and a week after their call Leo decided to drive to the company and ask for the tour directly. When he arrived, the receptionist was unable to help him and he came home empty-handed and a bit discouraged.

He’d taken the executive’s lack of response as a rejection. I convinced Leo that his spontaneous trip showed great initiative and virtually guaranteed that he could use it to get the executive to respond and that he had nothing to lose by following up to ask about the tour and a brief informational interview. I gave him an outline and Leo wrote the email - within 10 minutes, the executive responded and agreed to both.

I have met thousands of Leos who don’t know the world will help you, if you ask the right way. Many students get stuck when networking. I’ve discovered that while there are many real barriers, the perceived ones carry the most weight and usually break down into three lines of thought:

  1. “I didn’t even know that this is something I should do.” Many students - especially first-generation college students - are never trained or told why to network in the job-seeking process.

  2. “I don't expect that people will help me if I ask them - so I don't ask them.” Again, many students simply aren’t comfortable, or empowered, to ask for help from adults.

  3. “I don’t know what to do once I’m there. What if I offend someone?” This is common among students from non-western cultures, like Leo, who want to be respectful and worry about bothering or angering someone “important” with too many messages.

So, what did I write in the outline for Leo? Below I’ve shared several rules to guide your next email that will hopefully help you navigate these barriers and take some of the mind-reading out of networking. The examples in quotations are taken from an email that Amelia Friedman ‘14, founder of the Student Language Exchange, shared with me.

Do your homework.

Make sure you’ve done your homework and (obvious as it sounds) you’re asking for advice or assistance from someone that can actually help you. This means taking the time to learn about their industry, company, and position ahead of time. Caitie Whelan ‘09, founder of The Lightning Notes, says, “Make it clear you've done your homework and know the language they speak. Check out their YouTube clips, statements, articles they've written. Yes, it takes time, but it makes you stand out when they see you've gone the extra mile.” Doing this research goes hand-in-hand with the “ask” - don’t ask for help that you could obtain on your own, somewhere on the internet. You want someone to help you, not educate you.

Example: “I have been going through lists of Brown grads trying to find entrepreneurial Brown alums that I could learn from. I read that you have been involved in early stage ventures, and I'm sure I could learn a lot from your diverse experiences in the finance and consulting industries! ”

Create connections.

Once you’ve done your homework, your next task is to help this person see why you are reaching out.

What is the relevance of your request to their experiences? If you’re authentically interested, it doesn’t matter how much prior expertise you have. What’s more important is how connected they feel to your story.

Example: “As a 23-year-old building Student Language Exchange from the ground up, I'm actively seeking mentors who have done it before. [...] I noticed that you are actively involved in your alma maters, Brown and Columbia - we operate programs at both institutions.”

Make it easy for them to help. 

Don’t be shy about your request - they will ignore you or turn you down if they are too busy or aren’t inclined to help. And make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Be specific with what you’re asking for - a call, an informational interview, connections in the field - and describe the topics you want to explore with them. Acknowledging that they may be too busy to help right now (ie. your email isn’t their top priority) is often an effective and respectful part of your ask.

Example: “I'm planning a trip up to New York next week and I'd love to pick your brain on some of our current challenges. Would you be available to grab a quick coffee?

In my next post, I’ll outline what to do once you’ve got a “yes” from someone to help you. Stay tuned, and remember: someone out there wants to help you - but you need to ask.