On Thanksgiving last year, I walked into the home of a new friend to join his family for their annual celebration. There among the holiday party guests was my friend's father. He didn't remember me but I certainly remembered him. He helped me get my business off the ground by giving me the name of a contact 20 years ago.

From there, I had gone on to create a company that helped over 10 million people around the world in over 50 countries. Seeing him again reminded me of how important, and often easy, it is to help others succeed around you. 

Back in 1998, I was living in South Africa and had a vision for how experiential-learning-based training tools could help people around the world, youth and adults, learn essential entrepreneurship skills. That way, they could create their own employment opportunities in economies that produced relatively few decent jobs. I had never started a business, and my only experience in the economic growth sector was for a small not-for-profit in Africa.

Around that time, I was accepted to participate in a global conference for young entrepreneurs. During one of the sessions, a gentleman from the World Bank spoke about the work his institution was doing to teach basic business skills to women in sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of his talk, I ran down to the conference room stage to speak to him before he disappeared into the crowd of conference participants. I lugged the bags of training materials I had been carrying around for a networking moment just like this!

When I got to the stage, I introduced myself and excitedly showed him the materials, explaining how the training tools work. The man listened patiently for a minute and then interrupted me and said, "I get the gist of what you're doing. I'm not the right person to talk to, but here's the name of the person at the World Bank you should reach out to."

Fast-forward six months later, and, thanks to that referral, I was introducing my training products to the leading Washington, D.C.-based global development organizations by hosting hands-on demonstrations in a meeting room at the World Bank.

When you're a 26-year-old social entrepreneur who is new to the global development sector, has a product no one has heard of, and is extolling a methodology not yet accepted as common practice, it helps to leverage the name recognition of a well-known institution to get people through the door.

Out of those sessions, I obtained my first overseas contracts in West and East Africa and solidified new clients who I would end up doing business with until I sold my company two decades later.

Here are two things to remember the next time you make a business connection:

Not all introductions need to be time consuming.

Yes, sometimes it's important to first check with your contact to see if it's OK to make the introduction. At other times, it's fine to hand over an email address or make a quick e-introduction. This morning, I was approached to be a speaker, however the topic wasn't up my alley. I took less than one minute to forward the email to someone I know will appreciate the referral. If I had waited to make the "perfect introduction," I may not have gotten to it at all, or not before another speaker had already been identified.

Be selective.

A lot gets written about being selective about the work relationships you choose to leverage in the form of introductions and recommendations for younger colleagues and entrepreneurs. That makes sense, you don't want to burn out your most valuable friends and contacts by too-liberally sending younger entrepreneurs their way for help and advice.

But just as important is being selective about the contacts you pass on to the entrepreneurs so they don't burn out. Their time is precious too, and it's all too easy, when playing the role of beneficent mentor, to overload them with leads that have only a small chance of paying off. You need to check your "disease to please" and be judicious about which referrals are worth anybody's time.

Published on: Nov 15, 2018
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