Networking today: Bridging social distance with technology

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At 8 a.m. on a recent morning - coffee mugs in hand and Danish at the ready - more than 50 people gathered to "Zoom the Room" in a flurry of socially distant entrepreneurial networking.

Sponsored by the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, and orchestrated by business strategist and author Lucy Rosen, the hour-long internet Zoom session was one of the many efforts undertaken by the DRCI and the town of Bluffton to keep local businesses energized.

DRCI was established as the town's business incubator to grow the area's economic base innovative start-up or early-stage companies. The impact of COVID-19 has expanded the corporation's efforts and responsibilities.

"We are busier, to be sure. With the implementation of the Business Resiliency Program put in place by Bluffton Town Council, we are engaged with a larger number of local businesses," said David Nelems, vice president of innovation. "Oftentimes, it is a single phone call that our DRCI staff can handle in a simple interaction, but we are also seeing the need for deeper engagement, more conversation, training and assistance."

DRCI uses mentors - experienced business people who have essentially "been there, done that" - to help guide new and growing companies to success. Working relationships also exist with local chambers and organizations including SCORE - a nonprofit resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration - and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

Nelems has found that many people who were only thinking about starting a business have initiated that effort.

"While this pandemic has caused so much turbulence, there are quite a few people that want to be more in control of their own future by starting their own business, or make solid plans on how to grow their existing one," he said. "We are also very adept at using all of the great technology out there to still meet and plan, manage our workloads and contacts, communicate with our companies and the businesses in the region."

That's where "Zoom the Room" comes in for a lot of those businesses.

"Two months ago we first did this, and it was absolutely unbelievable with 50 people, lots of great networking. We're going to continue to do this until we can meet in person," Rosen said.

She is the author of "Fast Track Networking; Turning Conversations into Contacts," among other publications. Her orchestration of the "Zoom the Room" is a prime example of her skills in networking.

Once everyone has logged in to the platform and introduced themselves, Rosen breaks them up into smaller groups in Zoom "rooms." After about 10 minutes she re-sorts the groups and periodically continues to re-sort until the end of the session.

"Not only does everyone get a chance to talk about themselves but then they all get to meet each other," Rosen said. "Over the course of an hour and a half you've pretty much had a chance to meet everyone and get together, which is super cool."

The Zoom events are open to anyone with proper intent, by contacting DRCI, the chamber by phone or on either group's Facebook page.

And while it is a networking event, Rosen stresses that "It's not sales. This is not 'This is who I am, hire me today.' My entire thing about networking that I've really tried to get across to everyone is networking is not about you and getting your needs met, but about who you know who does other things. It's about who you know who can help others," she said.

"It's really a give-before-you-get mentality. Once it becomes a give rather than a get, it becomes less about you and more about others and that means people are more open to sharing," Rosen continued. "If you give first, the chances of the giving back to you are far greater."

Rosen said that this style of networking is different from the usual format. In most networking sessions, people hand out business cards, say what they do, and see who can hire them. Not so in the Zoom format.

"It fills my heart so much when someone comes on networking and says 'Hi, my name is such and such, and I know all these different people who do all these different things, and I want to share it with you," she said.

One of the people who "Zooms" and shares is Linda Klingman, a human resources consultant. "I work with small businesses to help them with any of their HR issues. I write handbooks, job descriptions, coaching everyone all the way up to business owners so they can develop their employees so they can develop their business," Klingman said. "When I network, I ask what are you looking for. If you have a catering business, I'll say I know this person or that person who can help you with that. I'm a member of Business Networking International and I have met hundreds of people. Through the chambers and through the Human Resources Association, I try to connect people."

The Pittsburgh native has been in HR for 25 years, with a company in her hometown. She had been working for three weeks in New York City starting another business when 9/11 happened.

"I truly learned to try to help as many people as you can and it will come back to you," said Klingman. "I always thought it was better to give than to receive, and the thing I've learned the most is you can always pay it forward. Maybe I'm not going to get help from the person I've referred, but somebody else is going to come along who is going to pay forward. I'm always trying to meet new people. It's great to be able to connect people."

Chef Lynn Michelle Hicks of Hilton Head Island is also enthusiastic about "Zoom the Room."

"It's a tremendous amount of networking with a lot of contacts. There are people that I cook for now and they have referred me to other people and other places," she said. "There is a lot of good information in 'Zoom the Room.' And seeing new people, new faces and connecting the faces with their names. You're really seeing the visual of the people and not just on the phone. It was understanding what other people do with their companies, and then the interaction. I encourage anyone to Zoom."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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