Making connections

The importance of... networking. The two most crucial questions for Christians in the public square: "Who should I know?" and "How can I help you?"

August 14th, 2009

Connections are often the difference between the success and failure of an organization or individual. Those who are "well connected" may succeed while other more passionate, talented or visionary but less connected individuals and groups flounder. Some might disparage this as the privilege of the wealthy, but it is a simple sociological reality that there will always be some people who have more influence than others.

So what is a Christian posture toward connections? In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch commends servant-hearted investment of social capital in others. He says, "The basic thing we are invited to do with our cultural power is to spend it alongside those less powerful than ourselves." My friend Jason did that for me when he introduced me to Andy Crouch. I had read Andy's book, and found it deeply helpful in thinking about my work as an entrepreneur seeking to embody the gospel in a business venture. Jason made a connection for me that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

When Andy and I sat in a crowded coffee shop in New York's West Village, I witnessed Andy practicing what he preached. He took time out of his schedule to invest in me, a friend-of-a-friend, whom he had never met before. His perceptive questions and suggestions helped me clarify what I was doing and what I needed, and focused me on a question that I find myself often asking: "Who should I know?"

I would suggest that this question is one of two crucial questions for Christians in the public square—particularly Christian entrepreneurs. Who are the people who already care passionately about what I'm doing? Who are the people who have more wisdom and experience to offer helpful critique? Who are the people who would want to invest in a venture like mine? Who are the people who would be delighted to promote what I'm doing? In other words, what are the natural connections? The question is not just who could help, but who wants to help?

The other crucial question is, "How can I help you?" As a relatively young, relatively inexperienced and relatively un-connected entrepreneur, I find this to be a challenging question. It is much easier for me to identify the people who I think can help me than those that I might be able to help. This more difficult question was pressed on me by Kenny Jahng, an advertising and media guru turned seminarian and soon-to-be intern at Redeemer Presbyterian Church's Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI). At one of the EI fellowship events, I lamented to Kenny that I was always asking for help from others, but didn't have anything to offer. Kenny gently rebuked me and reminded me that there needs to be reciprocity in any satisfying relationship. He forced me to think about the question, "How can I help you?" in a several different ways that have crystallized how even the "little guy" can have something genuine to offer in a relationship.

"How can I help you?" may be answered in terms of an introduction. Who are the people I know that would have wisdom, experience or passion in a particular field to help someone else? At a monthly EI event, I met Kari, a young soon-to-be-entrepreneur. She was preparing to launch Rubina Design, a social venture that uses her passion for graphic design to help women entrepreneurs in poorer parts of the world. I was delighted to introduce her to Alex, CFO of Rising Tide Capital, a Jersey City based non-profit that empowers and equips entrepreneurs from low-income communities. (If you've heard of Rising Tide, it is probably because Alex's wife, Alfa, was recently named one of CNN's 10 Heroes of 2009, and received well-deserved accolades from President Obama.) Alone, I wouldn't have been much help to Kari, but I knew that Alex could be, and I was delighted to make the introduction.

In other cases, "How can I help you?" is answered in terms of wisdom rather than a personal introduction. Jessica Jackley is a treasure trove of wisdom on building a social venture. She is the co-founder of Kiva, an online service that connects people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty. Jessica visited Uganda and began to ask people she met, "How can I help you?" The answer she heard was that people needed capital—very modest amounts of capital—in order to begin or sustain small businesses. Kiva addressed the problem by connecting an almost entirely untapped market of lenders ("ordinary" people in the United States) with entrepreneurs, and in seven years grew from concept to lending over $60m with repayment rates above 96%. Redeemer's EI invited her to their 2009 Forum to share her story and her wisdom with entrepreneurs, investors and advisors. In short, they were connecting little people like me with wise, experienced people like Jessica. I now frequently follow Redeemer's example by pointing people to Jessica as a role model and source of wisdom.

Calvin Chin, the director of Redeemer's EI, frequently asks me, "Do you know _____?" It is his way of combining the question, "Who should he know?" with "How can I help you?" One of the introductions that Calvin provided was to David Kidder, CEO of Clickable.com. Like Andy Crouch, David kindly invested his time in the friend-of-a-friend whom he had not met before. And, like Andy, he had penetrating insight into the questions that I ought to be asking, and the ways I ought to be building a business. Without Calvin's introduction, I would not have access to people like David, who have such deep insight in building a business.

It is tempting for me to think of connections merely in terms of people, and to neglect the world of ideas. Yet an introduction to an intellectual giant who has done the heavy lifting in your field is a valuable introduction indeed. In his introduction to John Owen's Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Kelly Kapic recounts a conversation with his wife:

During recent conversations we had been praying that God would provide a mentor for me while I was working on my Ph.D.—someone who would ask the hard questions, challenge my thinking and living, and consistently point me to the Father. As we sat talking that morning, in what had become normal language around our home, I began another sentence with, "Do you know what Owen said yesterday . . . ?" Stopping me, Tabitha interjected, "You are being mentored. Listen to how you refer to John Owen, as if he were still alive. He is your mentor."

I think it is fair to say that I have profited as much or more from introductions to the writings of folks whom I may never meet—and I don't even have to impinge on their time! The same friend who introduced me to Andy Crouch also introduced me to the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, who I would count as a mentor in the sense that Kapic was mentored by John Owen. (My wife graciously puts up with my daily discoveries of "Newbiginisms.") Introducing a friend to a writer who has penetrating insight can be one of the most valuable connections an Christian can have.

There is yet one more type of connection that is simply indispensable for the Christian life, and particularly for the entrepreneur: the friend who asks the hard questions and gives honest, loving critique. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy." (Proverbs 27:6). The soundness of a business rests on the reliability of its assumptions. It takes courage and wisdom for a friend to challenge those assumptions in ways that are helpful. This is so much the case that it is wise to invite this kind of critique so that good friends know that they are being good friends by asking the hard questions. Not to invite those questions is to hazard Christian life and business alone.

 

Graham Scharf is a father, the husband of a developmental pediatrician, and the author of The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone. He has worked in team development, taught early elementary grades as a NYC Teaching Fellow, co-founded Tumblon.com, and is full-time dad to his 8- and 3-year-old daughters.

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