By Kevin Anselmo
Have you ever felt an author(s) wrote a particular book for you even though the individual(s) didn’t know you?
That was the case for me after reading Who You Know – Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks. Authors Julia Freeland Fisher, a researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, and Daniel Fisher, a subject matter expert for the US government, make the brilliant case for why it is imperative to expose students to networks.
One key theme stands out: "Opportunity sits at the cross section of what students know and whom they know." Students certainly need to graduate with skills that are transferable to the workplace. But without a network, those skills can’t be connected in the optimal way to the best and most appropriate challenges. The Fishers highlight research that points to a non-disputable conclusion: social connectedness is vital to getting by and getting ahead. The book lays out a host of statistics and examples that underscore this point.
As you think about your academic and career journey, surely you have found this to be true, right? I was fortunate to have an amazing experience living and working in Europe (Switzerland for eight years, Germany for two). Initially, the opportunity arose because a family member connected me to one of her neighbors, who ultimately connected me to the Executive Director of an international sports federation based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
I was lucky – I had a family member who helped steer me in the right direction. Because of who I knew, I was connected to opportunities to use my skills in an optimal way in Europe. The Fishers point out startling data demonstrating the relationship gaps between students coming from low-income families compared to those coming from middle class and more affluent backgrounds.
Networks need to consist of both strong and weak ties. A strong tie might be a caring family; a weak tie can be a casual acquaintance. Both are important, but weak ties are the individuals better positioned to help connect an individual to new opportunities. I’ve seen numerous examples in my life in which someone I casually knew directed me to an interesting client or project. Schools face the challenge of trying to foster both strong and weak ties. There are a number of interesting examples offered in the book of schools and organizations that are effectively doing this.
The digital revolution has made it more possible for individuals to connect to anyone around the world. Throughout the years of running my own business, I’ve seen this first-hand by interviewing different leaders on the Informational Interview 2.0 podcast as well as other shows I previously hosted. Many of these individuals didn’t have the foggiest clue of who I was before I reached out to them. Inviting such individuals on my podcast expanded my network and enabled me to learn many valuable insights from their experiences.
I believed that students should and could do the same, which led me to start the Global Innovators Academy and ultimately launch the Interview an Innovator course experience. It has been exciting to see first-hand students interview interesting entrepreneurs and innovators and then write their own compelling stories that are published online.
The Fishers’ book has helped validate some of my own assumptions. It also elevated my thinking about what is at stake in providing students with opportunities to connect with others.
Never in my life has there been as much uncertainty about the start of the school year due to the pandemic. One certainty is that online learning will increasingly become part of education. In many ways, it’s daunting. At the same time, it can be viewed as an opportunity to connect students virtually to professionals and mentors. I encourage all administrators and educators to read Who You Know for inspiration on how to make such connections possible for students in your particular context.