After over 12 years working in the disability non-profit sector, I have heard a lot of professional advice that has enhanced my career. I have been given valuable advice that includes “don’t send an email out when you are feeling stressed, angry or frustrated” to “arrive at work at least 15 minutes before you’re actually supposed to be there.” But from all the wonderful and helpful nuggets of wisdom I’ve received, the best piece of professional advice I have learned and applied is the importance of networking.
In today’s workforce, who you know is just as important as what you know. I feel that for people like me who are visually impaired, it is even more essential to network and build strong working relationships that can help lead to career success. Employment opportunities and career advancement for the blind and visually impaired are pretty low with only 30% of us working and I have been able to maintain my employment over the years primarily through my connections.
You might be wondering how a person with vision loss networks and meets people. The answer is something I had to figure out through a lot of trial and error. Typical networking advice does not always work for those of us who cannot see so I had to add my own little twist to the experience. For example, when I attend social or professional events I have never attended, I will sometimes contact the coordinator in advance and let them know that I have a disability. Doing that gives them a heads up and allows time to explain that I might need some extra help like a person to guide me around the room so that I can meet people. Other times I will just come to the function, sit down and converse with people who are sitting nearby. I have learned to not be stressed, put a smile on my face and allow the conversation and interaction to flow naturally. I know that some people might feel uncomfortable with interacting with a blind person so I don’t let that ruffle my feathers and I just take things as they come.
When I attend these functions, I use them as an opportunity to share about my work at the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI) and my life as a visually impaired person. For example, a few weeks ago I was attending a Black Public Relations Society chapter meeting and met a person who had worked on a White Cane Safety Day event in Florida. This day, occurring nationwide in October, is a public awareness event where drivers are educated on safety around visually impaired pedestrians. I was excited to talk to the person I met and learn about the public relations campaign she led. I was also excited to learn that she was willing to help CVI with our own event. We exchanged business cards and the following day I sent her an invite on LinkedIn so that we could stay connected. I am looking forward to building this connection and learning from her expertise. This is a prime example of the power of networking and its possibilities. You just never know who you are going to meet or what things they are going to offer you.
Specifically in the non-profit world, networking, which can also be called relationship building, is key not only to my personal role but contributes to the overall growth of CVI. Meeting and interacting with people can lead to long term relationships which blossom into them becoming donors, volunteers and referral sources. My role as CVI’s public education coordinator gives me an incredible opportunity to meet all kinds of people. Through my speaking engagements, exhibits and facility tours I have an opportunity to engage people from the community in conversations about vision impairments.
As a result, I have become a resource to my contacts who work for SunTrust Bank, Turner Broadcast Company, The Gap, Macy’s, the Coca-Cola Company, The Federal Reserve Bank and many others. What started off as one-time interactions has now grown into mutually beneficial business relationships. Some of my contacts call or email me for advice and input on projects they are working on or just have general questions on accessibility and/or sensitivity issues. Just recently, one of my contacts from the Gap had lunch with me and we talked about working on a project for October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. She wants CVI to work with her company to bring more understanding about visual impairments to their employees.
Whether I am meeting people face-to-face at work or a social function, I take networking very seriously but try to relax and have fun with it too. Building those relationships are a big part of my career success and the best piece of professional advice I have received.