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Build Your Career Get Ahead

How to Use Your Alumni Network for Business Success

Alumni network success
Credit: Jasni/Shutterstock

Most college graduates have one thing in common: They don't take advantage of their alumni network. Your school's career center has programs designed to connect students with alumni and alumni with other alumni, and those connections can be powerful.

Most people spend four years in college piling up student loan debt; students pay for an alumni network in some shape or form (whether they realize it or not). If you are looking for a job, new clients or a way to broaden your network, follow these tips on using your alumni network to succeed in business.

Your alma mater can likely help you get a local business off the ground. For instance, Widener University in Pennsylvania has its Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that is highly engaged with the local business community. Over the past three years, the center has helped clients start or acquire 85 businesses that created 279 new jobs.

One function of the SBDC is that it provides clients for the senior project course in which students develop business, marketing and/or financial plans to help local companies launch or expand their businesses. Students contribute about 600 hours of consulting per semester to clients. Annually, undergraduate and graduate students in the small business administration work with more than 12 small business owners and provide around 6,000 hours of consulting to entrepreneurs.

The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is another great example. It recently launched the MN Alumni Market. "It's an entire e-commerce site/marketplace that sells alumni-made products and features a ton of small businesses and entrepreneurs' products," says alumna Madelyn Pung, chief marketing officer of Hippy Feet, whose company has sold its wares on the site.

"It's been a tremendous success, because it makes it easy for alumni and friends to purchase products and support each other's companies in a non-traditional way. It also promotes networking with fellow alumni and opens up new opportunities to collaborate."

A lot of schools have alumni networking events and mentorship programs for students and alumni to get involved with – two benefits which are the most commonly offered alumni perks.

Debra Rizzi, president and partner of Rizco said her alma mater Bucknell "has embraced technology and offers professional development webinars, schedules online speed networking through a proprietary chat platform, and provides a free Bucknell alumni app that can pinpoint an alum who lives around the corner, on the other side of the world, or works at a specific corporation, within minutes."

Grinnell College in Iowa holds Pioneer Weekend, which according to its website, is an opportunity [for students] to "showcase and validate their ideas, experiences, and innovation through a three-day competition." There are cash prizes and a focus on educating, networking and fun.

"Alumni serve as mentors, provide mini workshops and serve as judges. We also connect teams from the competition who are interested in continuing to work on their business ideas with alumni who can provide mentorship," says Monty Roper, director of the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership at Grinnell College.

When contacting other alumni, you all have one thing in common – the college you attended. On LinkedIn it's easy to find other alumni. You should list your alma mater on your profile. Then when you click on the college name, it brings you to a group, such as this one:

Click the See alumni button. LinkedIn will then display a list of where alumni live, work and what they do. You can search alumni by title, keyword or company. LinkedIn also displays the year your fellow alumni graduated. You could even choose to search by graduation year in case you wanted to find people who graduated the year you did. Send a friend request to get them in your circle.

As a 2009 graduate of Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland, Selena Rezvani, a recognized author, speaker, and consultant, expected to lose some of her connection to the school when she moved to Philadelphia following graduation. But Johns Hopkins has done a remarkable job of keeping her and others connected through their online social networking site, GoHopOnline, she says.

"Thanks to this site, I've seen a direct impact on my speaking and consulting business, which focuses on developing women leaders. One specific example is [that] I was running an online survey to collect data on perceptions that professionals have around stretch opportunities they do or don't pursue at work. By posting the survey to GoHopOnline, I was able to drive my response rate up and collect high-quality data from real professionals – something I needed to crystallize my study."

Also according to Rezvani, GoHopOnline offers:

  • A pay-it-forward culture to the online community, whereby mentoring options are preselected when you join.
     
  • A map feature that allows users to see exactly which alumni are in their region.
     
  • An element of informality on the site balanced with targeted audience focus that allows alumni like Rezvani to connect with business school graduates specifically (versus students from all of the various schools).

In fall 2017, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, launched its ClarkCONNECT program, which allows for a modern way of networking between students, alumni, faculty and parents.

"ClarkCONNECT gives students access to workplace opportunities, mentoring, and advice while providing alumni, faculty, family, and friends enriched engagement opportunities with the university,” says Donna Curry, ClarkCONNECT's director.

"Through ClarkCONNECT, we are bridging the traditional academic experience to an experience that extends far beyond campus. It introduces our students to the broader Clark community – both virtually and in person – for mentorship, college-to-career exploration and advice, and career-related opportunities."

During her summer internship at Opportunity@Work, senior Maddie Bowers learned from Clark University alum Laura Faulkner about the value of mentorship and gained practical experience at the nonprofit social enterprise based in Washington, D.C.

There, she helped develop a plan to create an action-oriented employer organization that would drive all aspects of the organization. The opportunity put her in contact with top employers throughout the country; she served as an outreach and communications resource between CEOs and the president of Opportunity@Work.

There's a world of opportunity in alumni networks. Get out there, get networking and get that new business.

Marisa Sanfilippo

Marisa is an award-winning marketing professional who loves to write. During the day, she wears her marketing hat in her marketing director role and at night she works as a freelance writer, ghost writing for clients and contributing to publications such as Huffington Post and Social Media Today. Follow her: https://twitter.com/marisaasan