Connecting with Bill Gates: Networking in a Shrinking World

MR Rangaswami

Founder,

Sand Hill Group and Indiaspora

Connecting with Bill Gates: Networking in a Shrinking World

MR Rangaswami

Founder,

Sand Hill Group and Indiaspora


“Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, people with ideas, and people with opportunities.” - Michele Jennae

Is there a chance that Bill Gates is part of your extended network, but you had no idea about it? Quite possible, isn’t it? But in these times of social distancing and everything virtual, how does one go about networking? Though the pandemic has changed the rules of the game, the foundation of networking and network building, remains the same. How does one go about building networks, forging relationships, and fostering trust in a digital construct? Is it radically different from an in-person approach? While the world en masse has adapted to a remote work scenario, what adjustments and tweaks are necessary to build a network online?

In this episode of the Zinnov Podcast, Nitika Goel, CMO of Zinnov, chats with MR Rangaswami, Founder of Sand Hill Group and Indiaspora, and a serial networker and network builder, about the core tenets of a network, the difference between a network and networking, and what it takes to build a network in the digital construct. From laying down the traits necessary to network successfully to explaining how networks and networking should be perceived and approached at various stages of one’s career, MR shares examples and practical advice to become a successful networker – both in-person and in the digital world.


Transcript

Nitika: The famous saying goes, that ‘your network is your net worth.’

And there is no better way to accentuate the importance of networking in business and the corporate world than this quote. The relationships that we forge as we go along the way, shapes our careers, lives, and even our personality. It broadens our minds, opens up new avenues. However, the onset of the pandemic, the rules of networking have changed, and drastically. But the game is still the same.

Hi, I'm Nitika Goel, CMO of Zinnov, and your host for today. Welcome to another exciting episode of the Zinnov Podcast. Conventionally, we would meet, make eye contact, shake hands, talk about the person that we are meeting, finding out a little bit more about their lives. However, the pandemic has completely changed the rules of the game.

What does it mean to network in a digital construct? How do you build relationships in this new paradigm? Today, I have with me a networking guru and industry veteran, a person who has not just been a part of communities but has helped build communities. MR Rangaswami. MR as he is known as, is an entrepreneur, investor, corporate eco strategist, and a philanthropist. He co-founded Sand Hill Group and was profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, something I’m sure, many of us hope to achieve sometime in our life. He has also co-founded Indiaspora, a non-profit organization that unites Indian Americans to transform their success into meaningful impact in India and on the global stage. Welcome to this podcast, MR.

MR: Great to be here, Nitika.

Nitika: Great. I must start by bringing up your own networks, MR. You are well entrenched in the technology community in the Bay Area. You are connected with investors, start-ups, large companies. You’re connected with political leaders - I saw a picture with you and Joe Biden - and you are of course, connected with the Indian diaspora. You are networked as part of so many heterogeneous communities, and in fact, have extended your profile not to just be parts of communities but become a community builder. Can you walk us through this journey of yours and the thought process behind it?

MR: Absolutely. I had quit corporate life, and I was trying to find my next stage in my life. And I became an angel investor. And that’s what got me into the Wall Street Journal, because that was a new category, I had gotten started in that field. And the Journal wanted to see what an angel investor looked like and what they did. But when I was doing angel investing, what I really found was a passion to connect people, to meet people, to add value to people - and that was my foray into building networks.

A lot of people think networking is network. Networking is really a means for you to connect with people, to get your agenda forward. You want to get a favor, you want to do something - that happens through networking. But network is building a community that has shared values and rules and ethics.

So, the first network I started was in the tech industry, and like I said, a hundred CEOs and leaders in software space. I put my values out front in this network by saying the entire profits of this network goes to non-profits and NGOs and charities. Right there on day one, I set the value of this network to be one of sharing and giving, as opposed to taking and profits. And so that was my first network that was, gosh, 20, some years ago. And over time, we’ve given millions of dollars to non-profits, but also really the network has shared, mentored, advised, invested in - both start-ups and NGOs.

Then I got it into my second network. I decided to get into the whole sustainability and green arena. This is a network called the Corporate Eco Forum. It’s a group of 70 of the world’s largest companies. We work with their Chief Sustainability Officers to mitigate climate risk, to lower that greenhouse gas, to increase renewable energy consumption and so on.

Then the third network I started most recently is Indiaspora, which is a leadership group of doctors, lawyers, tech folks, artists, academics, and government leaders to really be a force for good. And so, what we do here at Indiaspora is to really get into political and civic engagement, to get into philanthropy, promote entrepreneurship and innovation. Those are the three networks I’ve started. One is about 25 years old, one is about 15 years old, and one is 10 years old. But all three networks is still thriving, growing and still around.

Nitika: Thank you for that, MR. Love the story and I know we are also connected on Indiaspora. I know that you’re doing great work in that space. But you brought up a very important point and I think that’s very good for our listeners to understand - and I’d like to just delve into that a little bit more - is you talked about the difference between a network and networking. And I think very often, people make the mistake where they constantly look to extract from the groups that they are part of, but often struggle to add value back in.

So, what are some of the things that people could do in order to create and add value, so that they’re a meaningful part of a network rather than somebody who’s just on the periphery?

MR: Great question there. And this is a mistake that everybody usually makes in the beginning, and that is, you want something from Bill Gates. So, you go try to meet Bill Gates. You try to get something from him. The opposite would actually be better - if you really wanted to get to know Bill Gates, you want to go meet Bill Gates, and you want to give him something that he goes, wow, somebody is actually giving me something! And then you build a trusted relationship that you then bring Bill Gates into a network. And it’s a two-way street.

So, whenever I meet people, I would first - one, find out about that person, really get to know what his or her interests are, and then try to see what value I can add to that person. Whenever you meet someone, you try to be helpful to that person, rather than say, I need something from them. Because the ‘I need something’ will come naturally, after you’ve formed that relationship, and then you try to add value.

The second thing I do is when you meet someone, the conversation needs to be interactive. Lot of times, we can get excited and keep talking all the time. So, the ratio of you talking to you listening is 90% of 10%. You don’t want it to be that way. You literally want it to be 50-50. If you can make that happen. Or, let them talk 60%, you listen; you talk 40% because most people like to be listened to, not talk to. So those are two important principles I would advise everybody keep, when they either go proactively to meet someone or they accidentally run into someone.

Nitika: I think that’s a great point, MR. Another question that I had as a follow on from that, is very often, even when you’re looking at value, it’s not you add value to that network once; it could mean that you need to do it at periodic intervals, before you can really take back value from that network. Is there a rule of thumb that you need to be able to contribute to a network five-six times before you really start looking at extracting value from that network itself? Is there some sort of guidance or structure that you can provide for that?

MR: I’ve built three networks now. We’ve inculcated this whole value system of giving and sharing and taking and receiving. It’s a holistic approach. Sometimes you need to take, sometimes you need to give, and it’s hard to put this into a formula. But you have to start with the mindset of giving. But then, you can also be taking. So, I wouldn’t really say any number of times you give; you give if you have the propensity to do so, but you may not be having that kind of capability or talent, and you may want to get something from someone. It’s going to come naturally, but just go into it with this mindset of giving and not taking.

Nitika: Understood. I also wanted to talk about the fact that you said you brought together people who are like-minded with a sense of purpose. But a network is really a loosely coupled group. And what are the rules that really make a network sticky? Because there are so many people with different priorities and daily lives to lead, and then to spend their time, additionally, on certain tasks, activities, meeting people. How much commitment is required and what are the things that really make the network a sticky place?

MR: The first thing is it has to come naturally. Let’s say you’re working in your company and you want to create a network. It’s not like something you just go make happen. There have to be some areas of interest. There has to be some values, and these all have to come out when you create the network. Just giving you an example of a network within a company. Maybe they’re a whole bunch of people who like to talk about cricket. That becomes a network - these are all the cricket fans. But then, you’ve got to set some rules and value systems for this. That’s where it is shared by the network itself. It’s not one person setting values. So, all the people in the network have to say, this network is about cricket. This is about talking about matches, talking about stories. But then they have to set rules and values that say, hey, one person can’t hog all the time, or the other thing is you have to bring something to the table. It kind of builds and evolves. But it’s something that you have to have shared interests and shared values. So that is key.

Nitika: Great. I think that’s a perfect segue to my next question. One thing we’ve often seen is that people struggle to manage multiple networks. So, if they have a work network, they’re very good with maintaining their networks at work, but they struggled with building out heterogeneous networks.

I'm sure you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. And one of the great parts about a person who’s good with networks is the ability to have heterogeneous networks. So, how can people really build that and put in sustained effort in order to manage different types of networks?

MR: I think it’s a good question here, because it’s easier to form a network within your company because you’re spending time with your colleagues eight, ten, twelve hours a day, and things emanate from there. But the question is, how do you do this outside of work? And that depends on obviously your interests, your hobbies, and your passions. With going outside of your company, you have to get outside your comfort zone.

Let’s say for example, you are very keen on knitting. The thing is, you got to go outside to find it. And in the old days, you might meet people; but in today’s digital world, you have to get more creative. It’s because of the days of COVID, everything is digital. And so, it takes a different form, but I think the end of making networks outside of work is you need to have a vulnerability, it’s showing that you have emotions, you have passion, it’s finding like-minded people who have that.

I don’t think everybody is wanting to go outside of work and create a network. And it depends on a certain kind of personality. Are you an extrovert? Maybe you’re an introvert, but you want to try to get to know more people. So, it depends on each person.

Nitika: Absolutely. Picking up from what you shared, we need to be able to access and really leverage digital mediums in order to build networks in case you’re interested, of course. But a key aspect is traditional wisdom dictated that you’d look somebody in the eye, shake a hand, be a part of conversations, have those networking dinners - where you actually build or forge a relationship based on physical proximity.

Obviously, the last one and a half years have changed that completely. And while digital structures are allowing us to access networks, how do you create deeper connections, especially when you’re doing so digitally.

MR: This is very tough to do because I was talking to a CEO today and he said, ‘You know what? In the digital world, we have all these Zoom meetings, but we start the meeting, we go right into the business and everybody leaves the meeting at the end.’ So, this connection that happens in the physical world was so important. That kind of connection on the digital world is something we have to bring into the equation. When you start this digital network, you got to make that kind of magic happen. So, when you started digital network, maybe the first 10 minutes is just have everybody go around and say something interesting that they did or what they did this weekend. We got to create that connection, that we got naturally in the physical world, we got to unnaturally make this happen in the digital world. Second, if it’s a one-hour network session, maybe 10 minutes at the beginning is for this kind of time, maybe you do 40 minutes or something of regular meeting, and you allow the last 10 minutes where people can hang around. We have to deliberately and intentionally provide this kind of environment for this to come into the digital.

Nitika: That’s a great point, and I think, something that we should also start doing. So, at the end of this podcast, MR, I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions of how was your day and what did you do. The other question that I had was very often, we’re able to network effectively with our peers. But it’s very hard to network up. How does a person really start networking up? You did talk about being vulnerable and having the capacity to put yourself out there. But is there any advice that you have for people in how to build networks, especially when you’re building networks up?

MR: What I would do in this case is the good news about the digital world now is for example, if you’re trying to get to Bill Gates - let’s use him as our poster child - is I would try to find his public agenda, which is out there. He’s going to be talking at this meeting. He’s going to be talking at some other meeting. So, if you can get an entry into those meetings, then you raise your hand, you ask a question, and one of those times he’s going to take your question, and then you form that connection. And maybe that leads to you being able to send an email to him.

You got to find, even in today's digital world, when you’re attending a meeting or a keynote talk or something, if there’s a way to raise your hand, if there’s a way to post a question on chat, take advantage of that kind of stuff in meetings that you go to. Maybe you ask Bill Gates ten times a question, and maybe you get lucky the tenth time and he takes your question. And then you parlay that into something bigger afterwards.

Nitika: I think that’s really great and very sound practical advice, MR. The other question that I thought would be interesting for our listeners to know is, are the rules of networking really different for men and women? What has your experience been?

MR: Unfortunately, this is still a male dominated world, and at Indiaspora, for example, one of the rules we laid down clearly was gender equality. Not diversity, gender equality. We said 50% of participants have to be women. Unfortunately, we’re only at 30% and this is one of, I would say, the better networks. But in most cases, the problem, is both in the digital world is same as the physical world - a woman, like you would walk into a meeting, and there are ninety guys and maybe five women. So, what we’re trying to do, for example, when we invite people, we try to invite, 50 men and 50 women.

We try our best in our networks to really make sure that the women are comfortable, they feel equal, they’re not the small minority that’s going into a meeting. It takes a lot of effort. And on women’s part as well, you can’t expect every woman to be outgoing and aggressive. So, we got to - on the organizing side - make it welcoming. I think it’s a two-way street. Women have to try more, but the network has to also be more inviting and more accessible.

Nitika: Those are great points, MR, and I think the perfect end to our conversation. If you had to summarize the top things for a person earlier in their career as they’re building a network; or a person who is a middle or a senior level person in their career and looking to be a part of networks, would they be the same things or what should they be thinking through?

MR: When you’re starting life, I can just recall my own example. I accidentally found a mentor. And, so I would say for people who are just starting out and people who want to build a network, or be part of a network, continually be looking to see if you can find a mentor in this network. That is really important because this person I found and became my accidental mentor, went to another company later and he was able to pull me in to this other company, and have me joined that. And has helped me many times in life in different facets. For the young person, it is using the network to find a mentor - that should be really the biggest priority.

When you get into middle and upper management, you’re looking for different things. You’re looking for maybe, finding people who are like you in other companies. You’re trying to learn some new skills that would maybe move you up in the management chain. And so, it’s a very different set of objectives and priorities in the middle and upper level.

Nitika: Great points, really sage advice. And before we sign off, MR, I would love to understand, is there any interesting or funny anecdotal stories that you have in terms of a networking faux pas you’ve made?

MR: Uh, many. But once I remember one of my non-profits, that we were going to give them an award and it was a considerable amount of money. And we had chosen a non-profit where the woman who was going to be receiving the award was pregnant. So, what happened was, the award was going to be three months later. And so, she actually showed up at that meeting. And of course, instead of introducing her as someone who’s expecting, I used a politically incorrect way to do so. It still haunts me today. And I was actually booed by the audience. So, that still sits on my mind.

Nitika: Absolutely. Thank you, MR. I think we’ve had a great conversation. Understanding the difference between networks and networking, having the capacity to put yourself out there, as well as being vulnerable, having the ability to share your thoughts, being able to continually give to the network and understanding when you can take.

I think having a fundamental understanding that it’s a two-way street is very important. You also talked about a very interesting dimension about being consciously or intentional in the way we approach things, as we go through the networks or try to build our different networks - whether you are a person building the network or a person who was contributing to the network, I think all of these things will hold us in good stead.

So, thank you so much for your time. I’m sure our listeners have gleaned a lot of valuable information, insights, and things that they can use in their everyday lives as they look to become better networkers and become richer contributors to networks themselves.

MR: Terrific. I hope people will build networks that make an impact. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. And also, one last piece of advice, anytime you build one of these, give it a lot of time. It’s not something that happens overnight. Like I said, my networks have been 25, 15, and almost 10 years in the making. Give it a lot of time, and you’ll get a lot of rewards.

Nitika: Thank you again for your time, MR. A pleasure always to have a conversation with you, and thank you to our listeners. As always, we have a rich repository of leaders as a part of our podcast and continue to listen in. Take care. Have a good day.


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