etSAP, NETIP, SABA, SANA, SAJA—it’s easy to get lost in this confusing alphabet soup of acronyms. But these letters represent thousands of South Asian professionals and students who have joined organizations that help them meet and greet, move and shake, and generally get ahead in the networking disco. And the plethora of events doesn’t end at job banks and national conferences. Summer picnics, book readings, development seminars and holiday galas all give members a chance to collect cards and deal digits with others as connected as themselves.

But how useful are South Asian professional organizations to your career? Can you—the starving student or success-grasping grad—get a career kick from such groups? Yes—but you have to know how to work the system.

Hints For Networking Your Way To The Top

Get involved. Join a committee that interests you, and you’ll find like-minded people. Giving service, says Debra Feldman, is a “great way to get to know senior people in an organization.” One of your new committee co-chairs might also be your gateway to that job you’ve always wanted at the World Bank or on Wall Street. And even if she isn’t, you’ll still have a new buddy to play basketball with or go out to coffee with.

Give everyone a fair chance. Looks can be deceiving—so be careful how you judge someone based on the first impression. Maniktahla says, “Never disregard a contact you make simply because you have a negative first impression. Opportunities come from the strangest places, so you should always leave all avenues open. Just because initially you may think a person is annoying or you find that you have little in common with them does not necessarily preclude a deeper and more meaningful interaction down the road.”

Bolder is better. If you’re searching for a job or internship, have the guts to cold-call othe members who might be able to help you. Members of a professional organization are likely to be open to being contacted and helping others out. Ask people whom you’ve gotten to know well to introduce you to their friends and potential contacts. Ghosh describes how at one cultural outing, he was able to successfully connect a member who was seeking a job with one whose company was currently hiring.

Mesh flexibility with focus. Kalita’s number one tip for students and recent grads is to “be focused in [your] job search but also be flexible and open-minded.” A student should be willing to consider a job offer at a small town newspaper in the midwest as a starting point to a dream job, but have enough confidence in her own talent and potential not to “sit in front of an editor and tell him you’ll do anything.”

Know how to network

Professional organizations are breeding grounds for networking opportunities—not only to discover job and internship opportunities, but also to bond with others who share your interests. And since they cater to South Asians, such organizations can offer you even more than the average networking organization can. Mitra Kalita, Washington Post reporter and current president of the South Asian Journalists Association, says SAJA exists in part “to promote the advancement of South Asian journalists.” The more focused agenda provides greater opportunity, since members are especially keen on helping each other out. Debra Feldman, executive talent agent and founder of JobWhiz.com, adds that ethnically-focused groups “tighten the circle” and allow people to connect on a more personal level.

But how does one plunge into the intimidating world of schmoozing to success? Salil Maniktahla, president of Washington, DC’s thriving Network of South Asian Professionals, explains, “The heart of networking is … how you interact with others, and how you accept what they might have to offer has a huge impact on your success with finding a new job or learning about potential opportunities. If you take the good with the bad, you will probably go much further than if you reject contacts summarily.” Showing a genuine interest in an organization and its members is the key to not just making contacts but, more importantly, to keeping them. By pursuing two of his favorite hobbies through NetSAP—rock-climbing and motorcycle cruising, Maniktahla has been able to make contacts on the road and hanging from the harness.

Abhijit Ghosh, a longtime member of NetSAP and co-founder of NetSAP’s very successful special interest theater group, STAGE, agrees with Maniktahla. “Networking and opportunities arise as a byproduct of following your interest in NetSAP-DC. The social outlet of finding people who share common interests will facilitate growth in the professional and networking sector.”

Lead your way to success

For young professionals who don’t have two-page resumes, volunteering time as an officer or a board member in a professional organization can be an invaluable skill builder and resume booster. Employers love candidates who exhibit commitment to a cause and the responsibility to take charge.

Maniktahla, who as president managed more than 3,000 members of NetSAP-DC this year, “learned a great deal about my own limitations and my own personal weak spots.” He explains that he now knows what he should improve to help make him be a more effective leader next time around.

And finding those key leadership positions is also easier with focused professional groups. After all, being the big fish in a little pond can be a great advantage, Feldman says. While a young physician might struggle to become the president of the American Medical Association, an officer spot on the board of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin might be a more achievable goal—and great way to build experience.

Representing the desi

Organizations like NetSAP and SANA are more than just bundles of networks. They also help members connect with their roots and learn about the many faces of South Asia—from the Indo-Caribbean to the British Indian to the ABCD. Ghosh says they offer ways to “develop from the common ties and values that South Asians share.”

As part of its charity foundation, the Association for American Physicians of Indian Origin is currently hosting a nationwide dance program by acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer Hema Malini. The South Asian Networking Association, a group that serves “the professional and entertainment needs” of New York City’s hip, happening, professional population, regularly throws parties, hosts performances, and sponsors galas with a desi spin. SANA has hosted acts such as South Asian a capella group Penn Masala and speakers like actress and activist Nandita Das. Last year, NetSAP-DC organized a successful South Asian literary festival that featured South Asian VIPs like director Mira Nair and writer Chitra Banerjee Divakurani.

Debra Feldman, executive talent agent and founder of JobWhiz.com, adds that ethnically-focused groups “tighten the circle” and allow people to connect on a more personal level.

Stumbling blocks

Of course, the road to success isn’t always smooth. Watch for potential potholes on your superhighway to success. Feldman warns new members to not be overzealous and to carefully set limits. While volunteering one’s time is a sign of commitment, dedicating 30 hours a week to a cause may not be reasonable or even worthwhile. It is important, Feldman says, to always “weigh cost and benefit.” Be reasonable—you can’t make it to each and every meeting. She emphasizes the power of email and telephone lists. Person-to-person interaction is certainly important, but it’s definitely possible to make contacts through distribution lists and discussions.

It’s also important to always follow through on projects you’ve committed to. Ghosh says, “Many people like to become involved to get credit but choose to put nothing into the project and/or not reliable.” Taking ownership for a project is vital to earning the respect and appreciation of others.

The key to success lies in striking a balance between being apathetic and overextending yourself. Be selective when choosing who and what to dedicate time to. Keep an open mind, but focus on making friends with people you admire; work on committees with projects that make you tick. Smiling and schmoozing and organizing and managing are well received when they are well intentioned and unadulterated. No one wants to hand out a job, or even a job interview, to someone who has “I’m here only because I want a job,” stamped all over her. Someone who needs a job and is able to demonstrate skill, interest, likeability and personality is a more welcome candidate. After all, genuine passion and drive strike the greatest chord of all. n

Published on November 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of NetSAP
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