Three, Two, One—Network!

Can a networking relationship be forged in six short minutes? Columbia Executive MBAs put the theory to the test

Shruti Joshi stands perfectly poised in her three-inch pumps and stylish knee-length dress, a wineglass held casually in one hand and a list of names in the other. Looking at Joshi and the 200 or so executive MBA students working the room in Columbia University's Casa Italiana one late afternoon in July, one could take this for any old cocktail party—except for the fact that everyone is on a tight schedule over the next hour. Attendees will meet eight people for six minutes each, with one 15-minute break.

If this sounds a whole lot like speed dating, well, it is—except this event is more likely to match entrepreneur with venture capitalist than cat lady and dog lover. The event was designed to bring together students from the EMBA-Global program, a partnership between Columbia Business School and London Business School, and the Berkeley-Columbia EMBA program, a partnership between Columbia and Berkeley's Haas School of Business. The goal is to enable the EMBA students to form valuable business connections.

Take a Relaxed Approach

Before the sessions begin, Joshi, a 2009 Columbia EMBA-Global student, says she's looking forward to meeting students in the different programs and to expanding her network. "Considering what we're told about two minutes being enough time to make an impression, six minutes seems like plenty of time," she says enthusiastically. "At least you leave with eight new contacts that you can follow up with." This shouldn't be too hard for Joshi, who schmoozes easily with everyone she meets, drawing connections and speaking of her own ambitions to manage global brands overseas.

The speed-networking event was first attempted two years ago by the Columbia EMBA program after Tom Jaffee, a Columbia MBA alumnus and founder of the speed-dating network 8minuteDating.com, decided to take the concept of speed dating into the corporate world. Today's participants were asked to go online to fill out a form including their own details as well as what kind of people they would like to meet before they were matched by computer. EMBA students, whose primary reason for attending Columbia's program often is to expand their networks, were eager to participate.

Speed networking may sound a little counterintuitive; one would think that building real business contacts takes time and effort; but no one here is really expecting miracles from their six-minute meetings. "Is it helpful—yes; is it incredibly helpful—no," Scott Estill, another 2009 EMBA-Global student, explains before the event. "You get business cards and it's on you to follow up with that conversation."

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Before the bell rings to send them off to their first match, Michael Morris, who teaches leadership at Columbia, explains the basics of effective networking. "If there's one recommendation I can make to you: don't talk to someone like yourself," he says. Morris advocates the speed networking idea because of research he conducted during a more free-form social-networking event years ago. He gave students tracking tags to wear that showed people tended to spend time with those they already knew, even though almost all had set an initial goal of meeting new people. "Familiarity is king," he says. "Unless you have a structure that forces people out of their comfort zone, people don' actually mix at mixers." (See BusinessWeek.com, 6/18/07, "Networking for Interns.")

Today this structure seems to be working surprisingly well, judging by the concentrated head nods of those deep in conversation and the emphatic hand gestures from those who are having a little more fun.

"Actually, six minutes feels very short," Joshi says, revising her earlier assessment as she shuffles through the crowd between her second and third sets. "The last person I just talked to works for Accenture and they're recruiting, so that was a great contact," she adds, before spotting match No. 3. "Hi, are you David?" she says brightly, and they both launch into introductions.

At some level this feels a bit like a sorority rush—with a little more talk about product strategy. But the basic introductions are often the same, with discussions of home states and countries and career paths dominating the brief time allotment. The casual exchanges are notably devoid of strategically ambitious pitches to create new business partners. "I don't want to be calculative about it, I just want to learn something new," Joshi says, seeming to reflect the attitude of the majority in attendance.

"I'm Going to Need a Throat Lozenge"

Still, the purpose of the event seems to be served. Joshi admits that she probably would have never met someone like David Goodman, who works in architecture, when she herself is in product marketing. "I'm going to need a throat lozenge," she says as soon as the bell sounds for the break, but before she can even finish the sentence she is chatting away with another new friend.

Ethan Hanabury, associate dean of Columbia's EMBA program, says events like these are important for developing the soft skills that are crucial to business success. "You have to apply these concepts to really learn them," he says of the event. "And we do hear from people that those they meet in the beginning of the program become lifelong friends."

It's hard to tell how likely it is for a six-minute conversation to turn into a meaningful relationship, but the end results look promising for Joshi. "I'm definitely going to follow up with about five of them; one guy has my dream job, he creates new products and takes them overseas," she gushes. "He's back in August and we're going to meet!"

See slide show, for more pictures and comments from attendees.

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