New Word, Old Job
Coming to terms with being a connector...
Most of us aren’t one trick ponies, but society still treats us that way. “What is your talent?” we’re asked from an early age. “Everybody has one. What’s yours?”
For the 99% of us that aren’t born prodigies, answering that question is frustrating. It can lead to unhealthy self-doubt and a feeling of purposelessness.
Sometimes, however, it’s not that we aren’t talented in a special way, but that there isn’t a word for what we are. Not every skill set has a name. As we progress as a species, we are finding words to describe sets of diverse talents that add up to a single identity. Malcolm Gladwell mapped out new conceptual territory by defining several of these identities in The Tipping Point: “maven,” “salesperson,” and “connector.”
Darrah Brustein has a lot of interests and a lot of talents. She’s written a children’s book and started a payment systems company. After college she entered the fashion industry, and a few years later found herself selling high-end audio equipment. Depending on how you look at her past, you might say she either lacked direction or was cursed with an overabundance of skills.
Neither was true. As her career evolved Darrah kept coming back to one of Gladwell’s words: connector. It was a word that she related to, and she realized that it described her set of skills perfectly.
After this revelation, she doubled down on her contacts and started a connecting company called Network Under 40. The company now operates in four cities with a network of about 30,000. Its mission is to intersect friendship and business, helping people kickstart real, meaningful relationships.
We were excited to pick the brain of a Breaker who happens to be a master in our own field. Read along as Darrah breaks down the art and science of connecting…
You are a true Renaissance woman. What draws you to connecting people?
For me, it’s a gift that I didn’t know was a gift. I think we all have gifts, or at least a predominant one, and it took me a long time to recognize that connecting isn’t something other people are invested in in the same way as I am. Being a connector or a convener is my number one skill.
Why do you love connecting?
I look at the world like a big puzzle, and for me it’s a really cool thing to find the connector piece. It’s seeing that thing and trying to bring it together with something else.
What’s the key to bringing two people together?
I think it’s part art and part science. The art of it is a feeling. The science of it is knowing when something is mutually beneficial.
What makes a bad connector?
The connector is a bridge. Not all people do that; some hold onto their contacts very stingily.
“I look at the world like a big puzzle, and for me it’s a really cool thing to see something as a connector piece.”
Is there a history to the concept of connector?
I don’t know, but I imagine that in any community the role of connector is very important—a person who sees the nuances and helps build something bigger and better.
Like, who knows how many unsung connectors there have been throughout history?
Right. I mean, the beauty of connectors is that they are puppeteers, making things happen, not in a manipulative way, but putting the sparks together to combust in a beautiful way. They usually don’t receive the credit, nor do they want it.
What were you like growing up? Always a connector?
I’ve always been an outgoing person, but I am an introvert at the same time. Having a twin brother who’s the total opposite, I had to sort of be that person to balance it out. I’ve always been the one who wants to help you be successful and happy to take the first beat. I can play the person on stage and the person backstage. I think most connectors are driven by the gratitude from those whom they bring together, yet you don’t always understand your own efficacy.
When did you start intentionally bringing people together?
I have always been intentional about it, I just didn’t have a language for it. The skill is intangible and if that’s the case, you often just aren’t able to find the word for it. I was in my early twenties when I learned the word.
“I can play the person on stage and the person backstage.”
Is there a difference between a planner and a connector?
Oh yeah. A planner isn’t necessarily a good curator. They’re good at doing the logistics. They can often be one in the same; the person doing the planning is often the vessel doing the connecting. But you don’t just immediately evolve into being a connector.
Also, to be a connector, you have to be selfless, open, and curious. You have to pay attention to certain cues. If you’re only focused on your own goals, you aren’t going to be open enough for relationships to occur.
Have you had people get weirded out when you tried to connect them?
I think most people you’re connecting trust you enough to receive it. The only time it may be a little weird is when they’re first still getting to know you and they have this lens of “what’s in it for you?” In some cases I had people be like, “Are you sure this isn’t a sales pitch to butter me up for something?” I mean, if I walked up to you on the street, Isaac, and said, “Hi, I’m Darrah, we’ve never met but I’d love to connect you to some people,” you’d probably be like, “Go fuck yourself.” Then it becomes about deepening the relationship enough for them to understand that it’s more than that.
I would never say that to you! How did you turn your status as a connector into a business?
One of the businesses that I run is called Network Under 40: a networking platform designed for young professionals to connect, without getting hit on or sold to, in an environment that they actually enjoy. We’re doing that in four cities right now, but our goal is to be in forty cities by the time I’m forty. We are very much on our way to doing that.
How do you prevent them from hitting on each other?
You can’t, but it’s really about building a culture and communicating that that’s not the point. I’d say about 50% of the people who come to out events aren’t single, which helps us let them know it’s not a singles event.
People have a bad taste in their mouth about the word “networking”—why is that and how can you maneuver around that?
I think it’s a really critical thing to mention because I do think the term networking gets such a bad wrap. Some people do it selfishly, basically ruining the integrity of networking. In my head, networking is just a fancy word for relationship building, and I think people network all day every day even if they aren’t aware of it.
With our brand, it’s something I’ve really struggled with—I hate the concept that comes to mind for some people. On the other hand, it’s a mutually understood word we can share in a common language and then we can explain how we do things differently.
“You have to pay attention to certain cues. If you’re only focused on your own goals, you aren’t going to be open enough for relationships to occur.”
What do you do to combat more selfish, predatory networking?
It’s really about setting expectations and establishing a culture where the negative isn’t acceptable. Usually, we weed out self-promoters. When I started it over five years ago, there were 94 people, 90 of whom were my friends, so it was really easy to spread a message about what we were and what weren’t.
Is there anyone you look at as an ideal connector?
I had a feeling you’d ask me this. When I went to Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual conference, Klaus Schwab, the founder, was such a convener on a global level, it gave me someone to aspire to. When you walk into an environment where global leaders are spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to be there, regardless of the cold or shitty accommodations, I realized that it could be a job—being a convener on a global level.
Where do you see this all evolving after you? Is there a mountaintop of connectivity across your brands?
It’s an evolution. By forty, I want to be in forty cities and sell. I want to take a lot of that and formally or informally coach other younger entrepreneurs on a bigger scale. If I’m still in Atlanta, I want to have some sort of incubator here where I can help younger people understand the things I wasn’t aware of and didn’t have a language for, and help breed them to become connectors themselves.