Four years ago Rubina Azizdin remembers being asked to help broaden the reach of the career counseling program for Central Penn College.
She needed to book speakers and other employers for the program. She had to build relationships, find people who could help her expand the college department’s footprint, which would essentially help students find rewarding careers. It was on-demand networking, essentially.
But what did that even mean in the grand sense? Networking?
“To be honest, I didn’t know what that meant,” Azizdin said. At the time, she was working on the West Shore, but lived on the East Shore in the Harrisburg area. She wasn’t sure where to start.
She had more questions than answers.
“What am I going to talk about, how do I get people interested in our college? Why would people be interested to come out of the blue to speak? I didn’t understand what people’s interest levels were,” she said.
Fast forward to today and Azizdin has helped to raise the college’s profile in the community. She helps lead the annual Women’s Leadership Conference at the college, which is in its third year, and recently started her own networking group. She’s been honored with several awards recently too.
She sat down with CPBJ to share some of her recent experiences: how she grew her networking skills and built her networking community. The following Q&A was edited for clarity and length.
CPBJ: How did you start networking once you joined Central Penn College?
Azizdin: I was brand new to the area. I didn’t know anybody. I would go to these events and I would talk to one or two people and try to follow up, but I didn’t feel like it was very effective. Sometimes you would get a response and sometimes you wouldn’t.
Then I started doing a little more research and I knew there had to be a selective group of people whom I need to be networking with, ones that would catch people’s eye. For instance, like Tracey Jones. She was one of my very first speakers. We never had speakers for our department. That’s what I came up with. Having her come into speak added more value and excitement to the (career counseling) program. It gave others motivation to be a part of that. When you see something good happening, something positive happening, you want to be a part of it.
So yeah, we basically started out with no speakers and now we have an entire Women’s Leadership Conference filled with amazing people. There are people now who are lined up who want to be speakers or featured.
CPBJ: Overall, why is networking important with the position that you have at Central Penn?
Azizdin: I have to build relationships for the college and I have to build partnerships. One of my biggests responsibilities is to coordinate events – speakers, attendees and even job and intern opportunities for our students – It’s very important that we have community partners.
You have to be able to sell what you are doing. People aren’t going to be able to spend their time and energy on an event that is not going to be a benefit to them. You really need to know what to say. The people I bring in, they are CEOs, they have their own coaching businesses –= you have to show them how it will be a benefit to them and to the college as well, and to do it for free.
CPBJ: What do you see as the biggest challenges students face when trying to network?
Azizdin: Self-confidence, being under-prepared and the lack of experience. Maybe they don’t have as much work experience as they would like when they are meeting and greeting business professionals, so that will strike to their self-esteem or their lack of self-esteem.
The other piece is awkwardness. It’s hard for some students who are introverts to go up and just start talking to people and talking about personal things like their profession, their major and who they are.
CPBJ: How do you help them overcome that?
Azizdin: We coach students on what to expect. We explain what a networking reception means. We’ll talk about how to come up with different ice-breakers with somebody and a discussion starter. We talk about how to produce an elevator speech. The biggest thing is simply explaining the important reasons behind networking.
A lot of our kids are first-generation college kids from Philadelphia or Baltimore and they have never had the opportunity to go out and use their soft skills. They don’t understand what that means. They never had that grooming or that coaching. We start with the ground up when we talk about networking. Networking does have an art. You need to know why you are doing it and who you should talk to. You don’t want to talk to every single person in that room. Get a scope of who is going to be at the event ahead of time.
We host events on campus to help people practice that, such as networking receptions and job fairs. One of the biggest areas that I have been helping is the Women’s Leadership Conference. They get to meet and greet with actual real people and so they understand the pressure of having to network but also get that encouragement as well.
CPBJ: What is the definition of purposeful networking and how do you teach that?
Azizdin: I always attend with a purpose. I know I’m going to get asked where do you work, what do you do? I always have information rehearsed in my mind about what I’m going to be talking about.
There are always certain people who I want to talk to. You want to go to events that are relevant to you. Is there a certain person that you want to talk to? Is it an organization that is close to your heart that you want to help out with? Or, are to you going to explore just to meet new people.
Networking also builds social relationships and that’s where I created my group. Feedback that I have been getting from professional women is that they don’t feel they have that sense of support. They don’t have that sense of real relationships, authentic relationships. Everything is built around business and once that event is over, that’s it. There’s not any real connection being made.
CPBJ: Tell me more about your networking group, R.E.A.L. Women’s Alliance?
Azizdin: R.E.A.L. stands for relationships, empowerment, authenticity and laughter. It was created for support and a sense of belonging. We want to build authentic relationships and have a sense of support for one another.
In business networking, everybody knows everybody, but you don’t really know them. We are trying to connect people beyond their job titles and their business titles.
Looking back four years ago, I would have never thought that I would be starting my own networking group and meeting so many people. Four years ago I thought networking was go and find people and see who you can get to help out the college. Networking didn’t mean building a relationship with somebody, sitting down and having a cup of coffee and picking their brain.
CPBJ: Anything to add?
Azizdin: It takes a certain type of person to build relationships and to maintain them. I network with people because I want to continue that relationship. You need to know how to constantly be in touch with them. Checking in with them. How can I make sure that I stay in touch? I always, always, always believe in saying thank you. If I can publicly and personally say thank you, that’s a big thing for me. People appreciate that. They really do, and they will do more for you.
You also have to have the everyday values, the old-school values. Thank you, following up, maintaining those relationships and being authentic. Acknowledge people for their successes. It’s so important to recognize people for what they are doing.
At a Glance
Rubina Azizdin handles career counseling services for students at Central Penn College. She teaches part time and works with the college’s international students.
She also operates a community-based parenting program for WellSpan.
She recently was awarded the West Shore Chamber’s Luminary Award and was honored the with Ella Frazier Award from the YWCA.