Only women in the room? I was – until I took these proactive steps.

by Ana Lopez

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

I recently had dinner with two women I’ve known for years. They are both seasoned leaders with decades of experience in their respective fields. I learned so much from these exceptional leaders and friends: the importance of standing up for your values, not being afraid to have difficult conversations respectfully, and having the courage to make big changes.

One of the women tried to quit her job at a reputable company after many successful years. She was at a crossroads and needed advice. We talked about it and by the end of the evening she had a plan.

Our support systems can be a limitless source of strength. Having a safe space to have candid conversations — to share our experiences and learn from each other — can make all the difference.

In my career I have often felt like a fish in water as the only woman in board meetings. It took time, prioritization and investment to build a support network. But today I am surrounded by collaborators, mentors and allies who encourage me to take on the next big thing, challenge my thinking and catalyze new ideas – and I do the same for them.

Here’s what I’ve learned about finding and supporting my community.

Be open to possibilities

Professional relationships can come from anywhere. Take the waitress who served us that evening. She overheard snippets of our conversation and told us she was a freshman communications student at the local university. This young woman had a lot of energy, enthusiasm and drive. I gave her my ticket. I’d love to hire her in a co-op position when she’s ready because I know I can learn from her too.

Look for those bright sparks and unexpected opportunities. Being open to these possibilities can lead to an impact we could never have imagined.

Related: Don’t cling too tightly to your goals. The greatest opportunities are often unexpected.

Listen and learn

Lean on the relationships you’ve already built, whether through extracurricular activities, charity work, your career, family, or friends. These are people you trust and who have already invested in you. Ask them how they overcame challenges, found mentors, and built circles of trust. There are always lessons to be learned.

Be attentive and authentic

In a world of endless possibilities, it is important to define your goals. What do you want to achieve with and through your network? Create objectives that can evolve as you learn and grow.

It’s just as important to be intentional in your approach to relationship building. Think about the company you choose to keep, how you build trust, and your willingness to be open. The most trusted people in my network have helped me through some very rough waters. If I hadn’t let them in, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Develop a diverse network

Look through your circle and see who is missing. Then take steps to build a richer and more inclusive network. Participate in new activities, ask questions and be curious and open to other perspectives. If we only surround ourselves with like-minded people who share the same lived experience, we limit our growth and ability to add value. Think of the impact diverse business teams and multidisciplinary research units are having in addressing some of the biggest challenges we face as a planet. Seeking different points of view is a powerful way to learn, grow and get results, no matter the goal.

For example, Invest Ottawa works with dozens of partners each year to host International Women’s Week, an initiative that has grown into a month of activities. Our shared goal: to empower current and future female leaders from all walks of life. It brings together allies, partners, champions, women, men and non-binary individuals to connect, listen and learn from each other to create opportunities that advance women leaders. Everyone is welcome. We still have a long way to go, but step by step it is bringing about meaningful change in our community. And that impact is the result of the collaboration between an engaged and diverse mix of people.

Related: 8 Ways to Empower the Next Generation of Women Leaders

Aim for warm introductions

Do you see a gap in your own learning? Ask everyone in your circle if they know of anyone who can help address it and if they can give an introduction. Very few people turn down a respectful request for virtual coffee. You may have to work with their packed schedule, but most great leaders say yes. And if they do, make sure you do your research and be clear about what you want to achieve. This creates effective discussion and plants the seeds for a strong relationship.

Map your own path

Once you’ve built a strong network of mentors and leaders, it’s sometimes easy to get guided by their vision and lose sight of your own. How do you want to contribute to the world? what does success mean to you? Take the time to decide if their advice makes sense for you. If not, that’s ok. You can always tuck it away for future consideration or explore how it might help someone else close to you.

Over the years many people have encouraged me to start selling. “You’re so charismatic,” they say. “You leave money on the table!” I have many friends who are brilliant sales leaders; I know this is not the right path for me. I like to pursue public and private investments that stimulate innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. That passion has enabled me to help secure hundreds of millions of dollars for and with many large organizations.

Don’t be afraid to chart your own path to success. When you know what drives you, you can use the advice that is most relevant to you. Today I help run an economic development agency where I can pursue bold ideas to create economic and social impact with a dedicated team and community.

Return

The most powerful relationships are based on mutual respect and values. The best mentors want to learn from you too. They will not shy away from sharing their struggles as you share yours.

Career wins should always be celebrated, but I’m sure my stumbles would be much more valuable to the young woman I met at the restaurant. After talking to me, I hope she knows that pivots offer some of the best lessons life has to offer. And that when she encounters her own challenges, she picks herself up again – and her network will be there to support her.

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