Women (Net)working It

Like most women, I grew up with the notion there was something distasteful about networking. It was smarmy and sleazy. People of poor character would put themselves "out there" to be seen and heard, build that Rolodex and mingle unnecessarily -- quite clearly schmoozing. Networking was equated with artifice, pure and simple.

As a child, I was taught not to speak out of turn, not to be precocious. Behaving meant not drawing attention to myself. And this was reinforced as a working professional -- I thought if I hunkered down and did good work, good things would happen. I'd be noticed and rewarded. In hindsight, I really wish I'd known better.

Five years ago was my turning point: my networking renaissance. And I've come a long way since then.

It started while I was quietly going about my career as a restaurateur. A former colleague from McKinsey sponsored me and encouraged me to join The Chicago Network (TCN), a group of 350 professional women. Since then, I've attended many TCN dinners and lunches with speakers and without, held sessions on being a restaurateur and on career metamorphoses (with the World Bank & McKinsey behind me, I'm the poster child for career renewal), sponsored other accomplished women to TCN, reached out to help family members with jobs, hosted events at Vermilion, participated in a fundraising fashion show and reached out to help my niece find connections during her college admission process. I've hosted intimate, private dinners at home for a spectrum of women, from leading architects to leading federal court justices, authors and academics. I've drawn upon TCN for investors (two of the largest women owners of business in Chicago and the CTO of Cisco chose to back Vermilion), and over the years cultivated mentors and friends.

Being a member of TCN turned out to be quite the opposite of what I thought it would be. It's not the old boys' golf course. It's better. I was asked this question recently: Women are known to be competitive rather than foster each other's successes -- so why is being in a network any different? It's hard to describe, but in this self-selected, contained group, the thread that unites us is unique and nonthreatening. Secure in our own achievements, we celebrate each other's accomplishments. It's a strange, incredibly supportive sisterhood, the unwritten code being that we always respond to another member's email or call, preferably within a day. To be explicit, none of us are Mother Teresas -- wrapped in selfless giving -- but TCN draws the best out of all of us.

When I expanded my restaurant, Vermilion, to New York City, I decided to join the International Women's Forum and their New York Women's Forum, another group of 350 incredibly accomplished professional women. And as a Forum member, I've found myself having a cup of tea with Janet Robinson, then-CEO of The New York Times, in her office (also a Forum member), hosting the head of the New York penitentiary system for an Iron Chef dinner at Vermilion and lunching with Susan Ungaro, the president of the James Beard Foundation.

Little could Susan and I predict that our Forum lunch last May would lead to us pooling our strengths and passions to create a program called Women in Culinary Leadership (WICL). Through our scholarships, visibility events and leadership internships, WICL aims to break the "gastro-ceiling" for female chefs and restaurateurs. We are now partnering with the National Restaurant Association to back our cause of promoting women in restaurants -- the second-largest employment sector in the U.S.

I am now also a member of 85 Broads (an ex-Goldman-founded global women's network) and a member of the Economic Club of Chicago (yes -- it has men too). I found myself recently at a surreal, thoroughly enjoyable ECC lunch where Sheryl Sandberg berated a room full of primarily male chieftains on how little the corporate world has supported women in their quest to have it all. But here's the best part -- I've found my ECC network equally as helpful as my women's networks.

For what it's worth, here are my three tips for women (and men) embarking on this path. First, there are a vast number of networks out there. Pick carefully, as it's so easy to get fragmented. Second, you will get out of it only what you put into it. If you attend events and meetings on a passive level, at best it'll be a novel social forum. And you risk losing the fundamental reason why you joined in the first place. Finally, networking is not necessarily about belonging to a formal association -- it's critical to do even within your work environment or firm. Find mentors, be visible, create your own network. Do not just hunker down and do good work and wait for the world to stop and notice.

Networking is about self-confidence and self-advocacy. For me, it's been an amazing five-year journey of self-discovery. I now unabashedly admit that I network. And that I do so proudly.

Reprinted with permission from November 19th 2012 edition of Splash by the Chicago Sun-Times.