December 10, 2019
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The Talent Mixers

Specific needs, specific solutions. The networking industry is catching up to it.

The Talent Mixers
Illustration by Sorit
The Talent Mixers
outlookindia.com
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The Schmooze Diary

  • Bangalore Entrepreneurs, Startup Gurgaon and Delhi Entrepreneur Network are some of the open networking groups near you
  • Ivy league and top colleges have alumni networks offering mentorship as well as contacts for business
  • Most networking events are highly structured. The case is that casual interactions yield less.
  • For most groups, you don't pay to join. At the meet up, pay your bill.

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One of the many hats entrepreneur and former ad honcho Amit Shahi wears is that of a talent mixer, someone who brings people together—people who, in the ordinary course of life, would never have met. The government is now funding his project, 'Indiafrica: A Shared Future’, with approximately Rs 12 crore, the sole aim being ferrying of groups of Indian entrepreneurs to African countries on touch-and-feel missions. “As a concept, Africa has already caught on. We are leveraging that by introducing individual entrepreneurs to counterparts in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and a dozen-odd other places,” says an upbeat Shahi.

The fledgling networking project sheds some light on the expanding fraternity of Indian businessmen even across borders. “What stood out is the enthusiasm for exchange,” says Shahi. In Ethiopia, for example, the organisers, a university, had to step in and say “enough” so that a discussion could finally end. But, adding a rider, he says “whether these will forge useful business ties or not is another matter”.

“Plenty of ideas tank because of bad advice. Matchmaking is a way to refine what an entrepreneur is going to do.”
Prajakt Raut, TheHatch

What’s certain is that networking of all shades—through alumni clubs, paid-for programmes, easygoing mixers, breakfast meetings, and gratis mentorship—is emerging as a new calling card among Indian entrepreneurs. It’s rapidly evolving from  grope-in-the-dark unanswered e-mails/empty chairs in large halls/expensive parties that don’t graduate beyond social events etc to a focused effort whose returns are seen as long-term rather than immediate. “Indians are eating problems for breakfast, chatting up people half or twice their age, and putting cash down to belong to networks that either focus on problem-solving or, simply, help them do some social climbing,” says Ayeda Ravindran, a CEO coach and ‘energy therapist’ in Bangalore.

A while back, Ayeda, whose clients include stressed out mid-level executives seeking a way out (networking is a contributory factor to their stress), attended a typical informal mixer to suss out the hype. “It was a breakfast meeting, at 7 am, so that day started really early. There were 20-odd people, each of us paid Rs 7,000-10,000 to be there. You got to make a presentation, exchange cards and then you leave,” she says. Ayeda didn’t go  back because the mixer was expensive, and didn’t deliver results.

“The mentorship idea has changed so much, specialised centres catering to individual needs is needed,” says Sairee Chahal, a 36-year-old currently bootstrapping Fleximoms, a venture that connects women who have put their careers on hold to raise families, with potential employees. Every month, the women members meet, in Mumbai, Pune, Chandigarh or Delhi, in small groups, to have “curated conversations”. Chahal only gets paid when she places a candidate successfully. Until then, the struggle is to keep the 2,00,000 members up-to-date on their resumes, fully prepped for head-hunters, and actively engaged with entrepreneurs. “We’re very focused, it’s not a kitty party. We map skills, create a plan and network all the time,” she says.

Chahal says the old style of networking involved getting introduced to someone through a friend or a relative. Today, networking has moved to being almost fun. “The new idea is you don’t network with a sense of ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’. You instead engage with projects and people you believe in.” The emphasis: people who you are ‘comfortable’ with. Which is why there are very few networks that compare with a top-rung international college. Ask Vibha Kagzi, CEO of an education advisory, ReachIvy, who graduated from Harvard Business School and lives in Mumbai. “I spend 98 per cent of my networking time engaging with alumni networks associated with Harvard. And 1 per cent of the time engaging with lots of Indian networks,” she says. Vibha’s too young to belong to the secretive YPO or Young Presidents’ Organisation, but she has considered yeo, and has joined the Indian Merchants’ Chambers whose education committee she heads, as well as Teach For India, apart from the one-on-one networks she builds through her own education consulting business. “My e-mail is inundated with invitations for events. Mumbai’s networking calendar is never empty. On any day, you are forced to be very selective,” she says.

“Most people retire in mid-level jobs...confronting that reality is hard. Networking is both a way out and a problem....”
Ayeda Ravindran, ‘CEO coach’

Not too long ago, the odds didn’t favour a young Indian entrepreneur who sent an e-mail to a successful businessman asking for assistance. “You would just go unanswered. That, at least, is changing,” says Archit Gupta who runs ClearTax, an e-returns intermediary. He met Vijay Shekhar Sharma, who manages One97, the mobility VAS company, through contacts in the US, where he worked till about two years ago. Vijay, an active investor and VC, had offered him a space to host a hackathon. “We just bonded,” says Archit, 27 and now living in Delhi. Over time, Vijay has turned out to be a guide. “For the basics, I have always turned to Vijay, such as for guidance on how much to pay employees, how to negotiate with clients, how to make a customer understand my value proposition,” he says.

Since Archit is a tech expert, and Sairee Chahal (whom he met through Vijay) isn’t, he also helps Fleximom’s founder with software-related issues. They meet, perhaps once a month, calling it “two entrepreneurs chilling out”. “An entrepreneur, unlike an employee, mostly spends time alone. You need to grab a beer from time to time with someone in the same position,” he says.

Ayeda in Bangalore warns that many people network indiscriminately on the off-chance that they might find a deal, vendor, client or mentor. Sooner or later, though, they realise there’s only so much space at the top. “Most people retire in mid-level positions, and confronting that reality can be tough. Networking is both a way out, and a problem—it can help you spend more time around work-related people, upwardly manage your boss, and get new ideas. But it may not guarantee a rise to the top,” she says.

Prajakt Raut, who runs TheHatch, a not-for-profit that helps “very raw” entrepreneurs reach start-up stage through introductions with seed funds once they are “ready”, believes mentorship and networking should be focused. “Plenty of ideas tank because of bad advice. Matchmaking is a way to refine what an entrepreneur is going to do.” He says there’s a difference between entrepreneurs and CEOs who network and those simply flapping their arms about wildly. The networking ‘industry’ is specialising to accommodate demands from various industries. Some are useful in sorting out everyday problems of business. Others end up as a pay-as-you-go breakfast that you have to wake up too early for.


Edited online to correct "India Future of Change" in the published version in print to "Indiafrica: A Shared Future"

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