09 March 2012

"But you only play with boys, Mom!"

In December 2009, I was writing my company Christmas cards when my daughters, ages 7 and 9 at the time, said “Mommy, you only play with boys!”

Every year, I send 100 Christmas cards with a personal, hand-written message to the best and favorite people in my business network. Looking at the list, Frances and Emma were right. 100 cards. 100 men. I never looked at it that way before. I saw 100 cards. 100 best contacts.

I am the only woman in my network!

OK. The odds are stacked against me because I work in Telecommunications, mostly with Data Centers and Satellites, and there are 100 men for every 1 woman (just like my network!!). There are women in Human Resources and Marketing, but I deal with Engineering, Sales, and Senior Management, so most of the women are not relevant to my business. My secondary industries are Banking and Private Equity and there have been a total of three women in the teams (other than secretaries and receptionists) and two were juniors.

I am not a passive networker. I plan, deliberate, and choose the people I know, so industry demographics are a facilitator to the lack of women in my network, not the primary reason.

The reason is that I built myself an all-male network, not as the end goal, but because it was the most effective way of reaching my business and career goals through networking. I love working in these male-dominated environments. I love Telecommunications and High Finance. I love my job and I built a network that allows me to excel at it. To work well with men, I needed to learn how to work well with men. So I had male mentors. To be in the inner circle with the decision makers, I had to know decision makers, and they were also men. I had no female role models to follow, so I followed male role models.

Because I was mentored by men on how to succeed in their environment, I learned at a young age that the men appreciated that I am a women, and not another man. That it was critical that I remain feminine and true to myself, not to try to be one of them. Sage advice. But they also taught me about the Bimbo-test. The tricky question that I should expect in the first 30 seconds after an introduction to see if I have the merit to be taken seriously or if I am just a pretty face. Tough advice – but invaluable. I think that I get the Bimbo-test from about 75% of the men that I meet for the first time. It’s OK. I am prepared.

Back to my story. My daughters, being the budding business women that they are, gave me a target. I had to meet one woman in 2010. The criteria was that she had to earn a place on the Point 6 Christmas card list which meant that she had to be a) senior and we had to have b) developed a business relationship. I didn’t know where to start because I was completely inexperienced in dealing with business women.

I typed “Women in Aerospace” into Google.

There was a hit!

A professional association called Women in Aerospace Europe had just opened in in The Netherlands – only 45 minutes from my house! Spooky. It was founded by Simonetta di Pippo, Director of Human Space Flight at the European Space Agency and Claudia Kessler, CEO of HE Space Operations, an engineering recruitment company that places a lot of staff at the European Space Agency. This was a good start! I filled out the membership form and went to their first Annual General Meeting. I was the first time I had ever been in a room with 40 women. It was quite nice and very, very different from what I am used to. Now I make it a point to attend the monthly dinners in Leiden and I have become active in the organization.

At the same time, I changed my networking approach at conferences. I started walking straight up to women and introducing myself. The first time was two years ago next week, at Satellite 2010 in Washington, then at IBC in Amsterdam, then at Satellite Business Week in Paris, then at Comsys VSAT in London, and then again at Satellite 2011. It is a normal thing for me now. I will do it again at Satellite 2012 next week.

I exceeded my target and my daughters were happy. Last Christmas, two years after the start of the project, I sent Christmas cards to my top 125 contacts and the list is 100 men and 25 women. I have a new target now: expand the top to 150 and make it 50:50. Not because I am an equal opportunity networker, but because the benefits warrant an equal split.

What has surprised me most, and pleased the kids so much that they claim the credit, is that my contact with women has taken me on a path that I did not expect. The fact that you are reading this Blog is a direct result. Women in Aerospace Europe was a very young organization and needed volunteers. So I volunteered to give a Networking Training Workshop to a group of WIA Rocket Scientists in Germany and helped promote the Mentoring Program developed by Mindy the Astronaut. There is a strong demand from members wanting to improve their networking skills so we are currently developing a training program to offer Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced Networking Skills courses for WIA members.

And it is spreading! Point 6 has started giving networking courses to the companies of the WIA members, such as HE Space. Also, I find myself speaking around the world about Networking Skills. For example, I am moderating a session at Satellite 2012 on “What’s Next for Mobile Satellite Services Equipment and Service Provision?” but I am also giving a talk on “Improving Your Visibility” at SpaceX for WIA members in Washington. Then at WIA in Toronto in the summer! It is so exciting! Germany, Netherlands, USA, and Canada! Where next?

Then there is The Networking Workshop, The Book. Actually, the ebook series. Each book will explore and offer advice on specific networking skills. The first will be Meeting People. The Book, the Training, the Mentoring, and the Lecture Series. This is great! My daughters are proud of their Mom and the eldest has added Business School to her list of things she wants to do. And I have added a business target that Networking revenue will match Consulting revenue by the end of 2013.

The moral of the story is that no matter how old you are, and no matter how skilled you are, you can still open up new avenues through effective Networking. And don't reject criticism, no matter what the source.

This is the first International Women’s Day where I feel I have made a contribution.


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