If you have a networking event coming up and you're absolutely clueless on where to start, former U.S. president Barack Obama has got your back.
On November 1, Obama hosted the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit in his Chicago hometown. The two-day event featured main stage speeches, breakout panels and networking opportunities for over 500 rising and established civic leaders from around the world.
Obama was the last to speak during the opening session, where he gave a speech on his inspiration behind starting the Obama Foundation, stating he wanted to create "a hub, a venue, a place, a network" for young people of all backgrounds to meet and learn from each other.
"If we can create an architecture, a platform for those young people to thrive, grow and scale up all the amazing stuff that they were already doing locally and not just to root themselves locally, but then be able to germinate and seed change all around the country and around the world, " Obama said, "then there's no problem we couldn't solve. There's no aspiration that we might not reach."
Obama also made a point to remind his guests that this summit shouldn't be treated simply as a fleeting experience, but as a larger learning experience.
"Our goal is not to present some fixed theory of how change happens. Our goal at this session is not to pump you with a whole bunch of PowerPoints, data, information and a blueprint for how you are going to go back and do the stuff you're already doing even better," Obama said, "because in many ways we want to learn from you as much as we want to maybe share some of what we've learned."
Instead, he emphasized that he wanted attendees to see the two-day event as a "big brainstorming session" and an "experiment in us trying to have a collective conversation."
Obama ended his speech by providing these four guidelines on how to network during the summit that you can easily pick up for your next networking opportunity.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a colleague going with you to this event, you're likely not going to know many people in the room.
This is your opportunity to "listen to the people you're with," Obama said.
And not just the people commanding your attention on stage and panels, he added, but those people who are alongside you as part of the audience.
"In breaks, during meals, share your stories with each other and try to make a connection, forge relationships," he said.
One especially important point: Turn around and seek out someone who seems nothing like you.
"Find somebody who is not like you, who doesn't look like you, who doesn't think the way you do, who has a set of experiences that you don't – on the surface at least – and share," Obama said.
As you embrace your surroundings and new people, it's also important to remember your opinions and values, he says.
"I want you to have a strong point of view and don't be afraid to articulate it," Obama said. "But make sure that when you disagree you're not disagreeable."
Obama emphasized that "real change comes through persuasion and openness to others."
If you choose not to speak with someone because they are different from your gender, sexuality, race, religion or other defining factors, then "you will not grow and you certainly will not help the person next to you grow."
"So have a point of view, be rooted in your experiences and don't be afraid to share those," Obama said. "But listen, be open, don't be partisan."
Had it not been for young people across the country organizing over the "amazing tool" that is social media, Obama said he wouldn't have been elected president.
"But if it is blocking you from having a conversation or seeing somebody and recognizing them and listening to them because you are so busy trying to get a picture," Obama said, "then you are, I think in some ways, contributing to what separates us rather than trying to break through."
He encouraged others to take selfies with each other if they felt like doing so after their conversations, but reflecting on his own experience, Obama found that the issue seemed trivial.
"One of the weird things about being president is I found people were no longer looking me in the eye and shaking my hand because they approached me [to take selfies]," he said. But by setting some boundaries upfront, he said it would allow him and wife Michelle to "have actual conversations."
Although you're more often than not attending networking events for professional gain, Obama recommended letting yourself have a good time.
"The work all of you do in local communities, the work you aspire to do on an even broader stage, is hard," Obama told guests. "It's full of frustrations and setback and for every step forward that you take, sometimes it feels like there will be two steps back."
Having fun will also allow you to appreciate what you do as you see others fighting the same fight as you, he adds.
"There are a lot of other people out there who are rooting for you and feeling the same frustrations that you do and sharing the joys of those small successes that can turn into big successes," Obama said.
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