Years ago, when I decided to start a fashion brand to fight poverty, I needed a lot of support – and I got it. I reached out to an extensive network of people I’d met over the years, and while I did receive some raised eyebrows, skepticism was far outpaced by support, advice, and even free help.
In fact, some people believed in me more than I did. “You should show at New York Fashion Week,” a friend in marketing told me over coffee.
I smiled, said thanks, but my inner skeptic was raging. The world’s most prestigious fashion event? Never in a million years.
Now, almost a decade later, I did just that: I was named a Designer to Watch for Tuli, my ethical fashion brand, and was featured in a NYFW runway show produced by Flying Solo on Sept. 10.
A lot has changed since Tuli was just an idea, and one huge, often overlooked one is this: I’ve since become a military spouse and, as a result, no longer have the wide, in-person professional network I called on when I started my business. My early career was built on networking, but as a military spouse, those deep roots and longstanding contacts dried up fast.
I’ve moved with my husband four times in the last seven years, and every one of those moves took us over an ocean. Just when I started to establish a network, twice in a country where I barely speak the language, we were gone.
And unfortunately, fashion is an industry where it’s not just what you know; it’s who you know.
Out of necessity, I’ve found a way to build a network despite our constant moves. Being a military spouse can feel like a career handicap – and I’m not here to pretend away its challenges – but there are some advantages we can harness as well.
I may not have as wide a network in one single city, but I do have contacts all over the world. That means I get insight from a variety of perspectives and, because my network stretches across cities, my extended network of friends-of-friends is enormous.
Here’s how I’ve learned to network fast:
Lean in to being new in town
This took time for me to feel comfortable with, but now, I approach a new duty station with shameless candor about being contactless. I join networking groups, fashion industry groups, small business groups – anything. I attend their events. I tell people I just moved here and am looking to meet people in my industry.
Look, I get it: This feels awkward. Nobody wants to enter a room waving a flag: “I need friends!” I’ve found that, as long as you’re confident about it, people are eager to make introductions. We’ve all been to that party where we don’t know anyone, so people are sympathetic. I wasted time early in my days as a military spouse trying to fake it when veracity gets you farther.
Take it online – but be personal
Some of my closest business friends are people I’ve never met. Much of the business world has become virtual these days, so it’s an obvious move to network online. That’s not new. But mass liking and generic DMs don’t cut it anymore. There needs to be personality behind your online persona.
For a long time, I felt such imposter syndrome with Tuli that I tried to exist online as a bigger brand than I was. The result? The brand voice was sterile, unapproachable. Once I started showing my own sense of humor – and my own face – on Tuli’s account, I started growing, and I started connecting with the types of people I needed to meet faster. People like seeing the humanity behind a brand.
I’m not just talking about social media. I’ve emailed people I admire and have started relationships with them. I’ve been ignored plenty of times, but sometimes, people respond – and some of my biggest supporters have come from online connections.
Make it about how you can help others
I’m not saying you should make your relationships transactional (please don’t!), but I have found that considering how you can help others pays off. This doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr in the name of networking, but if you’re already planning something that could benefit someone else, invite them in.
For example, I hosted a fashion networking event in Tokyo a few years ago. It was free, and included food, drinks, and a short workshop on posing. I held it in a studio and asked everyone – models, photographers, stylists, makeup artists – to have fun creating. I supplied Tuli jewelry and asked to be tagged in any resulting photos.
Everyone involved benefitted: the studio owner, photographers, models. I got a lot of publicity and made even more connections. Just last month, someone reached out to me with an opportunity and told me she’d been at that event, all the way back in 2015.
Since then, when Tuli has coordinated photoshoots for our jewelry, we invite apparel designers to join at no cost. They get free, professional photos, and tag us in exchange. It’s not any additional work for me because we would be holding shoots regardless, but it’s a chance to help others who then become industry contacts for me.
I don’t do it expecting the favor be returned, and not everyone I meet can or will help me. Sometimes, it’s just about having fun and learning from someone whose experience is different than your own. And sometimes, people pass your name along at just the right moment.
Being at NYFW in person was an incredible experience for many reasons, and one of them is that I met a ton of people. It was so valuable crossing paths with influential people in my industry. In-person networking is still huge.
But when I got home from New York, my inbox was filled with friends of friends asking to feature Tuli in their blogs, introducing me to wholesalers, and just saying hi. My long-distance network showed up, too – virtually.