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“Here in Brazil we don’t network — we make friends.”

I remember the first time I heard this phrase. As I replayed the words in my head, I thought about the journey that led to the creation of our first South American office. I thought about the business relationships my partner and I formed and the friendships we made along the way. I thought about how so much of our work in Brazil doesn’t feel like work, but rather like building bonds.

In the U.S., “networking” has a mixed connotation (at least to me it does). Indeed, for many, the word conjures images of large, impersonal conference centers, unwieldy client management software and pesky emails. However, as my experience in Brazil taught me, networking — when viewed as relationship building — can be an incredibly valuable personal and business skill. We just need to change the way we think about it.  

As the co-founder of an education company, I urge families to consider the school’s alumni network when selecting a university for their child. What you learn in your classes certainly matters, but it’s as important to think about what happens beyond the classroom. I encourage families to look at post-graduation employment rates and even where students are working after graduation. More importantly, families should consider how students are getting these jobs and to what extent alumni are involved in helping new graduates.

Reframing the conversation about college admissions this way develops students who are better prepared for the workforce; they recognize that the school they attend is not just a place to acquire knowledge, but to build relationships. The same holds true for working professionals: When selecting a graduate school or any other form of higher education, it’s essential to ask yourself not only what you will learn, but also who you will meet there.

Seek Opportunities to Reach Out

There are few things that bother me more than emails that feel templated or forced after an initial interaction. Whether you meet someone at a conference or in a one-on-one setting, always be sure to follow up with a note that references specific points from the conversation, and continue to keep your exchanges personalized from there on out.

Networking is not a one-size-fits-all activity, so your approach shouldn’t be, either. When you think of networking as the opportunity to make friends, it’s only natural that you’ll feel compelled to share information and exchange knowledge. Think of what would pique the interest of each one of your contacts. This way, when you stumble across an interesting article or learn something new, you’ll know just who to share it with. If you keep your contacts at the top of mind, they’ll feel the same way.

Stay Organized

Years ago, my company attempted to implement Salesforce, but given the personalized, customized nature of our interactions, we found we needed a system that was (you guessed it) more personalized and customizable. So, we made one of our own.

For my co-founder and me, it’s important that the platforms we use offer maximum flexibility and accessibility on the go. With this in mind, we created a Trello board — which we designed according to our own needs — to track our interactions with our clients and prospects: who they are, how we met them and when we were last in touch. Most importantly, the very exercise of creating such a system forces you to be thoughtful about how you’re building relationships. No matter what system you use, it’s essential to keep your contacts organized; just be sure to choose one that works for you.

Reframing my sense of how networking works has transformed me from a skeptic into an enthusiast, albeit perhaps a little late. I truly believe that starting a conversation about networking and its value in college (and even high school) will change the culture that surrounds it, and in the process, create more thoughtful future business leaders.

Just think of all the new friendships waiting to be made.