How to Reach Out to Industry Professionals without Being Awkward

There you are thinking about some awesome project you could do with your students that would authentically connect them to “the real, working world”, provide meaningful learning for them, and frankly — make you and your students feel awesome and accomplished. You mentally check your personal Rolodex to see if you know anyone who could help you or connect you to some industry expert, but you come up short. (Networking has never really been your thing, after all.)

Instead of stopping there and letting your classroom dreams die, consider the possibility of reaching out to a professional that you’ve never talked to before.

Before that picky little voice in your head tries to convince you that 1) you don’t want to bother people, or 2) your idea isn’t really that big of a deal, or 3) you will feel super awkward and probably stutter and it will never work, let me stop you right there.

Connecting students to the working world and providing authentic learning scenarios is deeply important work. Students deserve to — and need to — feel that there is a purpose for their learning beyond “this will be needed in college,” or “this will be on the test.” That idea you have to engage your students in the world? … it’s worth it.

Here’s some information and strategies to provide you with a positive mindset and productive actions so you can connect with people outside of your classroom walls and do meaningful work.

Know This: Industry Needs You

One of the beneficial changes of our time is that industry and education are finally beginning to work together, purposefully and consistently. As much as teachers and schools are yearning to figure out how to engage their students and do things that will fulfill college and career-readiness standards, so too is industry trying to figure this out.

Businesses need to support schools in their communities and they need to support teachers and the education process as well, not only to create a pipeline of talent that will one day work in the business, but to support and revitalize the communities in which the businesses are established. A business will not thrive if the community it is in does not. A business that is in an area where no one wants to work, live, shop or dine will not last.

While some businesses will pick up and leave if the community it is in does not create adequate financial support, that can be a big decision and a bigger headache that many will try to avoid. Moves are expensive. Employee turnover is expensive. For the most part, it is best for a business to stay where it is and help its community thrive.

As an educator, you are a valuable resource for businesses and professionals. Walk that walk in your outreach to industry experts.

Know This: Forging Industry Relationships is Like Dating

You wouldn’t message somebody for the first time on a social media site and ask him or her to marry you, would you? (Would you?! For our purposes here, I’m going to assume not.)

Networking and building industry partners, for the most part, follows the same sort of process that dating does. You start by introducing yourself. You learn a little bit about each other. You get a sense of what the other person is interested in and what that other person wants. You throw around some ideas for what you two could do together, and then you set a date for when that will happen. You assess how “the date” went and you take it from there.

Too often at career-pathway conferences, I hear people talking about their efforts to reach out to industry professionals that have fallen flat because they “went for it all at once.” Basically, out of the blue they sent a message that asked, “would you like to marry my school/students/program/*insert relevant word here*?” They crammed every little detail into a massive email and wondered why they never heard back.

Put yourself in the industry partner’s shoes. What would you do if you got a random mile-long request like that? Would you even read it all? (You have papers to grade and lessons to plan, so odds are, probably not!)

In that case, here are two things TO DO that will make your approach much less awkward and much more successful.

Do This: Be on LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the social media site that, as far as I observe, has the fewest educators on it. My assumption is that (like how I used to think of the site) teachers think it is for corporate people who are trying to find a job. If this is how you think about LinkedIn, let me assure you, you are missing out on a whole wealth of information and connections to those in the world outside of education.

Someone once described LinkedIn to me as “Facebook for the working world.” I agree with that, except LinkedIn is more like “Facebook for the working world without the angry rants, cat videos and political memes.” It’s a place where you can feel like a grown-up — a professional — share civil discourse, and most importantly, connect with industry professionals who could make an awesome partnership for your students.

Once you’ve connected with industry professionals, you can keep tabs on their interests and work through articles, etc. that they post, which has a high chance of serving as the information you reference when you reach out. (This is also great fuel for more curriculum connections in the future.)

You can be as active, or as voyeuristic, as you want on LinkedIn. Just like most social media sites, the more you engage with people, the more they show up on your feed and the more you will show up on theirs.

Once you’ve gotten yourself on the site, it’s time to grow your network. Here’s where the reaching out part comes in that makes some people cringe…where the potential awkwardness lies.

Do This: Introduce Yourself and Start Small When You Reach Out

Remember, building relationships between schools and businesses is like dating; you’re playing the field…in a professional way, not in a gross, creepy way.

It’s much easier to approach someone you are already connected with about a project or partnership, rather than approach someone, connect, tell them all about yourself, and ask to work together all at once.

My greatest successes in forging industry relationships have started with a simple message when sending a “connection request” based on the research I’ve done. Since these days I am the director of an early college high school program, my initial reach out “want to connect?” message looks something like this:

My actual connection message to someone who works in the tech industry in a international bank: Hi, “So-and-So.” I’m building a program at Stamford High School (CT) where there is a heavy focus on design thinking. Students are also pursuing an A.A.S. degree in Computer Science. It’d be great to stay connected to someone in the industry as we grow! Regards, Kristin Veenema

My actual connection message to someone who is the Director of Digital Marketing and happens to have gone to the same university I did: Hi, “Such-and-Such.” I’m building a program in Stamford that supports students in pursuing their associate’s degree in CS while they are in high school. It’d be great to stay connected to someone working in digital marketing, and to a fellow stag alum at that! Regards, Kristin Veenema

That’s it! I establish who I am, why I want to connect, and I don’t ask anything of them in return. Now the door is open.

“So What?”

There can be a great payoff to investing time in making connections with people outside of education.

For example, reaching out through LinkedIn connected Early College Studies to Innovate Stamford,a multi-million dollar grant awarded the city to help turn it into an Innovation Place

By working with Sam, the manager of the grant, our students are involved in solving problems that are occurring right here in their very own city. The learning is authentic and it has real consequences.

This is what can happen when both industry and education stretch beyond their walls…and sometimes beyond their own comfort zones…to make connections with one another.

The initial reach out might feel awkward to you, but if you take it slow and start with a simple introduction, at least you won’t necessarily look awkward!

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