For a low-key first daughter, Malia Obama stirred up unexpected controversy when the media learned that she interned as a production assistant on the set of Extant, a new CBS show. The program stars Halle Berry and is produced by Steven Spielberg. Quite a gig for an almost-16-year-old. Never mind that her tasks involved fetching coffee and helping with the computer shop alignments-not glamour assignments-charges of nepotism flooded the Internet.
I say, "more power to her!" We all need to learn how to leverage our networks if we want to succeed. True, Malia Obama may have the world's best network, but using connections to find an internship shouldn't be a privilege reserved for affluent children.
Building one's network is especially important for those who weren't born into a web of high-level relationships. Personal connections make the difference between a resume that gets read and one that gets thrown in the trash. In fact, 80 percent of new hires come from a "hidden job market," where positions are not advertised but rather passed along when people share them with friends and professional contacts.
I've seen hundreds of low-income students win high-profile internships by building their networks. They do it by engaging in the same careful and detail-oriented process that business leaders use to maximize their investments, political leaders use to garner contributions and journalists use to cultivate sources. The key is recognizing that you have a network to tap into and that you have something valuable to offer as an intern or employee. In other words, you are as deserving of that internship as any wealthier or better-connected person.
My organization, The Opportunity Network, teaches students how to map their networks by creating visual diagrams of everyone they know. These students come from some of the most underserved parts of New York City. Many are first generation Americans, whose extended families live outside the United States. In spite of these challenges, they are always surprised by how many contacts they already have through their schools, families, churches and youth groups. Chances are they have never tried asking any of these contacts for help in finding an internship or summer job, or for advice about career planning.
We also show students how to think and act professionally. That's another advantage that wealthy students gain, like the ones at Malia Obama's private school. They experience interactions with professionals through the course of daily living. They understand a firm handshake, professional dress and eye contact. Our students also learn how to leave a professional voicemail, how to protect their reputations on social media, interview skills and resume savvy and workplace norms and etiquette.
It pays off. While none of these low-income students have had a chance to meet Halle Berry or Steven Spielberg, they do secure internships at organizations like Deloitte, HBO, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And once they start their internships, they know how to use the same set of skills to leverage the experience for full time jobs.
So instead of griping about how Malia uses her dad's connections to campaign donors, we should be applauding her for learning early on how to open the right doors. More importantly, we should be making sure our own children learn the same lessons.