African Americans want more economic power and greater opportunities in Corporate America. Some minority leaders say networking is the answer. Last week hundreds attended a Power Networking Conference in Cleveland. It's goal was to teach learn african americans how working together can improve economic conditions. 90.3's Mike West has more.
Mike West: For 4 days the Cleveland Convention Center was packed with professionals, business managers, and community leaders. They came to the Power Networking Conference to hear from black motivational speakers, celebrities and religious leaders. They included Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson. The conference was sponsored by about 2 dozen corporations and organized by Cleveland native George Fraser, a motivational speaker and author who has also been called one of the most powerful black leaders in the country. You may think of networking as going to lunch or attending cocktail parties hosted by companies or trade associations, but Fraser says there is a lot more to it.
George Fraser: Networking fundamentally is serving others the essence of networking is giving not getting. Most people are out here networking the wrong way. They're out here networking to get something - wrong, you network to give and as you give you get. In fact if your not giving your not getting we have to define what networking is in the context of our community. We know that it is morally grounded and spiritually rooted it's about serving each other it's about investing each other it's about working through and with each other that's what networking is for us.
MW: Fraser insists "casting bread upon the business waters" is a big part of networking. He says African Americans need to cooperate more often and not look at fellow minorities as competitors but instead see them as assets.
GF: I think networking is very important in our community. I think it will determine the economic future of black people worldwide. It's time that we connect the dots. It's time for us to support those companies that support us.
MW: Working together is only part of Fraser's networking philosophy. He believes networking is the missing ingredient that's needed to pave the way for black managers in non-minority firms. And fraser says networking is a method to help demand, and receive better service from the companies patronized by African Americans.
GF: We have everything we need to succeed. We have freedom, we have civil rights we have voting rights and public access, we have education and we have training, we have a $572 billion economy... the only thing we need now is each other. That's the glue that holds it all together.
MW: The major sponsor of the conference was The Ford Motor Company. Representatives were front-and-center at many events. They admitted their intensions were to create good feelings among attendees that would eventually translate into sales. Ray Jensen is the director of Minority Supplier Development for Ford and a believer in power networking. He says it helped him rise among the ranks. But he says it takes more than social skills to make it to his level.
Ray Jensen: Networking is the tread that waves the cloth of opportunity. If you don't network you'll never get to the point where you can impact those who can very well support you in your growth and make it happen.
MW: But slick networking skills may not be enough. Jensen says although ford and other companies have goals of giving more of their business to minorities, you have to have something of substance to offer.
RJ: First you gotta have talent, you've got to believe you have something to offer. And the thing we usually say to someone who comes to ford looking for opportunities. We ask them to convince me that you have something of value that I can use to "wow" my customer.
MW: The conference also featured workshops that provided "how to" information. Advice for folks who want to network their way into companies like Ford, and then work their way up the corporate ladder. John Steele conducts diversity training and executive coaching. He offered a class on the "do's" and "don'ts" of networking. Tips range from learning about the background of people you hope to talk with in a social setting to keeping a free hand to greet others. Steele says people need to watch their alcohol intake and avoid having sticking fingers from handling party shacks. He says business leaders notice these things especially if you are African American.
John Steele: It's common sense and we realize at times we are under further scrutinization around the filters of how the sticky hands and the drink might be perceived. So it is sort of common sense but i think it's important for us to be even more conscience about given the fact that in many environments we often still find ourselves being the ones that stand out so to speak.
MW: Besides good manners, Steele says conversation can also be challenging for minorities who may find some topics or comments awkward.
JS: Part of the etiquette too, is how do you even talk about race ? Is it okay to discuss, not okay, if someone says something that doesn't quite land for you right, do you make a comment to the person. Quite often your playing mental gymnastics of how you behave and particularly when you're the only one.
MW: About 7,000 people attended the conference, many of the business and entertainment events sold out. Organizers are already planning for next year, and they promise the conference will be an annual Cleveland event. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.