Networking is an invaluable part of personal and professional learning and growth and a key component to establishing community and finding success in the world of startups and entrepreneurship. GlobalForce Tech Consulting Founder and Principal Consultant Qyana M. Stewart, MS, shares some lessons learned from her networks and how networking is a tool that helps us to be champions for our missions and our communities.
As we approach the holiday season, I’m reminded of all 2020 has dropped into our laps. This year has been one for the history books. It’s caused many of us to think and reflect on the life we want to live and has forced us to draw closer, figuratively, to the ones we love. This time of year, for me, is often a time of deep thinking and reflection. As I strategically prepare for 2021, I’ve been reflecting on the essentialness of networks and their role in my personal and professional life.
A network, unlike a family, is intentionally built – slowly and diligently over time. It requires attention, cultivation, and an immense amount of respect to maintain the interconnectedness and slow tilling needed to strengthen it and watch it grow. Networks require a level of sophistication and commitment families don’t. I distinguish between the two for personal reasons – my ties to my own family aren’t as strong as most. The networks I’ve built, however, are more robust than I could ever imagine.
When I first ventured out into the wondrous world of entrepreneurship, I didn’t have a strong network. I had years of experience in the nonprofit sector and a few solid years in tech under my belt. My former colleagues were fantastic resources when I stepped out on my own. A few even lent their time and talents to my first client projects. Like many areas of entrepreneurship, I quickly realized I needed to extend myself far beyond my own comfort levels to meet and connect with people who knew much more than I did. I’m so glad I pushed myself, opening the door to many opportunities that served as a reminder of just how important and significant networks really are.
In 2019, I attended close to 50 networking events. I jump-started my tour-de-networking with a few signature events for entrepreneurs. The most significant of these took place within the first half of the year. During these engagements, I met some of the most amazing, phenomenal, and awe-inspiring women. I met women like me, who were passionate, giving, smart, tough, resilient, spiritually grounded, and above all, willing to welcome me with open arms. As I continue to grow each year, and as my personal and professional networks evolve, I reflect on what I’ve gained and learned from some of my networks. Below is a quick highlight reel and tribute to the GOATs.
I was beyond excited to attend the 2019 Hello Alice Circular Summit in Sonoma, California. It wasn’t my first time in California, but it was my first trip to Sonoma. For many years, I dreamt of traveling to this beautiful part of the country. I’m glad I waited. Hello Alice, co-founded by Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore, is designed to help female entrepreneurs grow their networks to, in turn, grow their business.
Everything about the experience was magical. The event, where over 300 women entrepreneurs from all over the world convened, was mind-blowingly amazing. There I met Jewel Burks Solomon and Melissa Bradley.
Jewel Burks Solomon, Head of Google for Startups in the US and Managing Partner at Collab Capital, an investment fund she launched to close the funding gap for Black entrepreneurs, spoke at the event. She was the first Black woman I ever saw with the title of Product Manager. It was an absurd realization then, and it still is now. I intentionally attended the hiking excursion to connect with her – a Black woman tech entrepreneur like me, with the same professional title as mine. The gems Jewel humbly shared with me during that hike are ones I will never forget. I’ve proudly watched her career highlights like so many others and am still in awe of all she’s accomplished.
Melissa Bradley – She needs no introduction! She’s an inspiration to so many women. I also met Melissa at Circular Summit. Unlike Jewel, I wasn’t familiar with Melissa’s work before the event. All 300 women in attendance had the honor of listening to her address the room as the opening keynote speaker. Her delivery was direct, succinct, pointed, and intentional. She wanted every woman within the sound of her voice to know and understand that we were needed, our ideas needed, our businesses needed, and that we, women, were needed. I learned, like everyone else that day, I also needed a Pillow and a Mirror: A pillow – someone who could soften the hard blows that entrepreneurship as a woman throws at you. A mirror – someone to call you out when you needed it, but who could also reflect back to you your awesomeness, remind you of who they know and believe you to be. When I got the opportunity to introduce myself to her, I jumped at the chance. That meeting would be one for the history books – my history book.
Melissa personally introduced me to 1863 Ventures, where I enrolled and completed the Emerge Program – a business opportunity that opened several more doors. Afterward, Melissa and her team selected me to pitch at the HI-HERImpact DC Pitch Competition. I, along with four other growth-stage women social entrepreneurs, showcased our businesses for $25,000. I didn’t walk away with the prize, but I did walk away with an unshakable belief in my work and my mission. When Melissa and her co-founders launched Ureeka, GlobalForce Tech Consulting (GFTC) won one of the first business coaching competitions. Because of her enormous generosity, when opportunities that will affect change in the Black and Brown entrepreneur community land at her doorstep, she and her team leap into action, sharing those resources with the masses. GFTC was accepted into the Georgetown Law & Social Entrepreneurship Practicum. And, as a direct result, GlobalForce For Girls, Inc. was born. To say that having her in my network means everything to me is a vast understatement. What she does isn’t based on magic; it’s based on an undying love and appreciation for Black people, our struggle, and, more importantly, our progress. This network, the New Majority, is one I’ve never been prouder to be a member of.
There is an ugly and hateful myth that Black women are catty, aggressive, don’t work well together, and are always “hatin’ on each other.” We’ve seen this myth show up in places like the entertainment and movie industry and in corporate America. I’ll save my thoughts on this myth for another post. Still, it’s important to highlight here because it is indeed an ugly myth perpetuated throughout our culture. But it’s just that – a myth. Over the past three years, I’ve seen more beautiful examples of women – Black, White, Latina, Asian, Indian, LGBTQ+ – showing up and out for each other than what gets reported on the major news networks or on the big screens. Because we are often counted out, overlooked, underappreciated, and underrecognized by mainstream society, we consistently find ourselves advocating for each other, uplifting one another, counting on and protecting each other. This is the core aspect of GFTC’s mission – to create a safe space for women and women of color technologists to design, develop, and deploy technologies that solve some of the world’s most complex social problems using technology. The inclusion of women and, more specifically, women of color is intentional. We are changemakers, mentors, nurturers, and innovators. This network is built from women seeing themselves as extensions of their own siblings – sisters. I don’t have biological sisters, but I’m proud of the sisterhood I do have.
While reflection can ofttimes be daunting, I’m glad I engage in this process every year. It’s genuinely made me realize that we, as women, and female entrepreneurs especially, are #strongertogether, now more than ever.
None of us know what next year will bring. We can only hope that it will bring positive change. Reflecting reminds me of what I have yet to do, and it also reminds me of all I’ve done – the milestones accomplished, the accolades collected, the failures lamented. It reminds me to take a step back, review how far I’ve come, feel excited about how far I’ll go. It also allows me to say thank you! Thank you to the thousands of women I’ve met along the way who have welcomed me with open arms into their network. I’m grateful for you, for the opportunities we’ve shared, and for the milestones, we’ll share in the future.
We want to hear from you! What are some lessons-learned and opportunities gained from building and leveraging your network? How are you hoping to grow that network in 2021? Leave us a comment below or tag us in a tweet or on LinkedIn. We would love to learn more about your mission and how we can help.