Mar 3, 2017

The Power of Connectedness

I’ve written before about my desire to tackle the problems that lead to the achievement gap in our society. When you boil the problems down to their core, you’re left with one consistent theme: those from the lower economic classes who want to get ahead in life are limited by a lack of opportunity and exposure. My previous article describes how an AI agent can help address those lacks through universal education. Here, I want to lay out an approach that I think may be even more powerful.

Much of the world’s attention has been on the executive office of the United States these past few months as Donald Trump has settled into the office. So far, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. Some of the criticisms of the president are based on the seeming hypocrisy of his populist rhetoric juxtaposed with his own origins. Trump likes to claim that he is a self-made man, having received “nothing more” than a million dollar loan from his father to get his first business off the ground. This seed sprouts into the argument that the 45th president has ridden the coattails of his father’s success to the most lofty position in the world.

Whether you place weight on these criticisms or not, it is undeniable that a person’s personal connections do much to determine their success in life. Personally, I need very little convincing on this point: I simply have to look at how I’ve benefited from my own connections.

The Story of David

My professional career essentially began at the age of 15. My mom insisted that I get a summer job to start making some money. I had no desire to follow in the footsteps of my brothers to get a near-minimum-wage job unrelated to any of my personal interests. Fortunately, I was in a privileged position: my high school had a structured internship program for seniors. I wasn’t yet a senior, but I went and asked the internship coordinator if she knew of any companies that were willing to pay an intern over the summer. I ended up spending my summer days working in the IT department of a local medium-sized business, learning a fair amount about the field and getting paid about twice the minimum wage.

My next internship search was a couple of years later in college. I knew from my parents and brothers that good internships early on in college were an important stepping stone to a good job after graduation. After one aborted attempt, I returned to my network for help. This time, the aid came from my now-father-in-law, who worked at a major corporation with a top tier internship program. He put in a good word for me and the next thing I knew I had spent two semesters in a world-class professional setting making good money.

While much of my career progression since those first two internships has been more opportunistic, it would be hard to overstate the importance of that early experience in getting me where I am today. It’s the rare candidate straight out of school who had the caliber of experience I showed on my resume. And in each case I can draw a very clear connection between the people in my network and my success. This advantage has played out in a thousand different ways since then. Just recently I applied to an interesting role and quickly discovered that I knew five different employees of the company through my LinkedIn network. I reached out to one of them and my application was immediately moved to the top of the stack for consideration. I’m now at the point in my career where it’s easy to take this type of advantage for granted; I must constantly remind myself that most job applicants are simply ignored when they apply to a role because they don’t have the advantage of knowing someone on the inside.

For the sake of comparison, I want to lay out a parallel storyline. This is fictional, but closely mirrors the stories of several people in my life.

The Story of Jake

Jake lives in a single parent home and needs to get a job in high school to help pay for his clothes and food. After several weeks of driving around town and filling out applications, he is hired to be a cashier at Wendy’s, making minimum wage. He works through the summer, putting in at least 40 hours every week. But he doesn’t make enough to tide him through the school year and has to continue putting in hours in the evenings and weekends. Between the job and his social life, his grades slip from a B average to a high C.

Senior year rolls around and Jake applies to a handful of universities. His grades aren’t enough to get him into the top school in the state, but he ends up at a large university that is reasonably well-respected. To save money, he lives at home. Despite taking out student loans, he has to keep working part-time. At least he’s a shift manager now, making 50% over minimum wage.

Jake knows that internships are important, but most of the good ones are unpaid. He does manage to squeeze in one semester at a pretty good company, but other than that he needs to keep up his hours at Wendy’s. He takes university a bit more seriously than he did high school, and graduates with a B average. Luckily, the job market is healthy when Jake graduates, and he lands an entry-level job related to his major making $50K per year. He’s doing better than plenty of his friends from high school.

Having worked for his entire mature life to this point, Jake has no problem throwing himself into his new job. He always stays late and puts in some hours on the weekend. After a few years, Jake’s efforts are rewarded by his boss with a promotion. He’s now making $65K per year and older people in the company plot out a path for career success for Jake: a promotion every three to five years, hitting middle management in his 40s, and being able to retire around 60. Not too bad.

To be clear, Jake’s story isn’t bad. He does better than most Americans and exhibits the admirable traits of a strong work ethic and perseverance. But in terms of career success, Jake’s story isn’t mine. And there’s no fundamental reason that it shouldn’t be.

How the 1% Gets Ahead...

The only real difference between my career trajectory and Jake’s is that I got a helping hand from people in my network early and learned the value of progressing in my career through the people I know. I would argue that on every other dimension Jake should be doing better than me.

While this anecdote is dramatized, it’s highly indicative of a driving force behind the achievement gap in our society. The most successful get “handed” opportunities while the rest have to work for their success. Trump’s dad gave him a million dollar loan. My father-in-law to-be helped me get a top tier internship. While these anecdotes are illuminating, they don’t tell the whole story: this societal “favoritism” continues throughout life. My first six years in the professional workforce have allowed me to cultivate a network that was critical in me raising funding for my first startup and will undoubtedly play a key role in whatever is in store for me next.

This is how the successful get ahead. They don’t just worry about the skills that show up on their resume. They don’t focus on putting in long hours at the office, staying humble, and earning their fair share. They’re constantly on the lookout for opportunity, meeting people, exchanging favors, and trying to get ahead. This is true for virtually every investment banker, management consultant, lawyer, and Fortune 500 CEO in the world.

Many people have come to see the ambition and opportunism of the 1% as purely negative traits. But I see no reason for that to be the case. While each of the behaviors I listed above can be twisted to acts of selfishness and evil, they can likewise be wonderful and beneficial to society. Trading favors as a tactical way to get ahead with no underlying care for the individual with whom you’re dealing is bad, but helping out a friend is unequivocally good. Flitting from conversation to conversation at a mixer looking for the person who can be of the most use to you is shallow and annoying, but engaging in meaningful conversations with as many people as possible helps everyone have a good time and get something out of the event. If you view ambition as fundamentally negative, that’s fine: this article really isn’t for you. But I reject that notion myself; we all have the right--if not responsibility--to make the most of ourselves as we might, and to rise as high in society as we can.

...and How Everyone Else Can Too

Of course, the point of this article isn’t to point at what successful people do then encourage people to follow that template. There’s no shortage of material online doing just that, exhorting readers to get out their, network, and build their connections. And that’s all great, assuming it comes from a place of authenticity. For my own part, I’ll encourage you to check out Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People and Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone. There’s plenty of good material in each of these classics to get you started.

No, the point of this article is to talk about how technology can help create a future where the network-driven divide between the most and least successful no longer exists. You see, I think a massive opportunity has been missed by the technology in the market today.

Why is there no prominent social network for connecting successful professionals as mentors to the up-and-coming? Theoretically something like LinkedIn could play this role, but it doesn’t. I know plenty of my colleagues who would be excited for the opportunity to find ambitious young students interesting in hearing about their experience. And there’s no shortage of those students in the world. And yet there’s a failure in the marketplace: there’s nowhere that these two parties can aggregate to find each other at scale.

The network relationship management tools out there today fall woefully short of the needs of the market. This space is broadly encompassed by Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tool for selling things to customers. Many of my colleagues have repurposed these tools for their personal networking, but it’s really not what they’re designed for. As such, there’s a gaping hole in the market where professionals are looking for a networking aid and not finding one.

Imagine if this mentor/mentee social network also helped you identify other professionals with whom you share a common interest or passion. I, for instance, would make use of the network’s capability to meet other people in the Midwest excited about the ability of AI to shape our future. There’s no dominant medium for me to do that today. And how bizarre is that?

Imagine if this social network had tools for you to actively improve the strength of your existing connections. Rather than focusing on a conversion funnel that ends when you’ve “sold” as CRM solutions do, what if the network treated each of the people you knew as a lifelong relationship to be made as strong as possible? A platform with that focus would do things like tell you when a connection has a trending social media post that you could comment on. It would identify popular online articles that match the interests of your connections, flag the article to you, and remind you to send it to your connections with some of your own thoughts. And it would do all of this intelligently to make sure that you’re engaging with your connections on an appropriate cadence to keep the relationship top-of-mind while not being a nuisance.

I think it’s a travesty that this network doesn’t exist today. It’s frustrating for me personally: I wish that I had closer personal connections with the professionals that I know and such a tool would be an enormous help in that effort. But it’s borderline unacceptable that this platform doesn’t exist for someone like Jake. What if instead of logging on to Facebook a couple of times a day, the Jakes of the world could get on this platform and find people willing to help them out with knowledge, feedback, and introductions? Wouldn’t that be something.