Confessions of a Philadelphia Serial Networker

I go to 20 Philly networking events a month, and I’ve seen how strong our scene is. But is it losing what once made it so great?

philadelphia networking events

Anyone who’s anyone was at the Met for a recent Visit Philadelphia gathering, one of many Philadelphia networking events. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

“You’re dressed as if you’re competing against Liberace,” an acquaintance told me as she picked me up for an event. “These folks will stare.” I was wearing salmon chino pants and a paisley button-up — an outfit I thought was quite social and seasonal for a gay guy going to a mixer.

It was the spring of 2015 — a year after I graduated from Penn — and I wasn’t yet fully integrated into the city. Attending this cocktail social was my attempt at branching out and meeting new people beyond my Ivy League bubble. Having decided that Philly would be my permanent home, I felt it was time to take on the city at large by going where the young professionals go.

The event — called “The Flow,” it was held at TGI Fridays and aimed at black millennials — was a crowded rooftop mix-and-mingle that included emerging lawyers, politicians and entrepreneurs. The acquaintance who let me tag along with her was right — I did get stares, since I was dressed completely inappropriately for the occasion. The other men were mostly wearing blazers and khakis. I had on the loudest outfit in the room.

But it wasn’t just my wardrobe. The people there were doing something that I’d forever loathed: networking. The constant shaking of hands, making small talk you won’t remember minutes later, passing business cards you’ll later toss out, all in the name of advancing yourself professionally — I hated it. I began to ask myself why I was even there. I people-watched during most of the mixer after my acquaintance got tired of awkwardly introducing me as her “plus-one.” I didn’t really get how anybody was truly having fun when all of this felt like a chore to me. Each time I was asked what I did for a living, I felt judged. Apparently, being a freelance journalist isn’t the best conversation-starter in a room full of salaried downtown yuppies. It wasn’t until I began to mention I was a Penn alum that people appeared interested at all. Typical.

When I returned home that night, I felt like a pile of shit. I’d barely made any new contacts, and I’d dressed like a flamboyant gay clown. I began to reflect on whether staying in Philly was the right decision; maybe I should reconsider job opportunities in New York? But the next morning, I got a LinkedIn request from a political consultant I’d met at the mixer who wanted to “follow up” with me about my Penn experience. He invited me to another networking event, one he said was less crowded and more engaging. I wanted to ignore the offer, but I felt conflicted. Was this divine intervention? A second chance? I bit the apple and attended this more chill yet still vibrant networking event at the Pyramid Club. This time around, I wore a navy blue blazer, straight jeans, and a J.Crew gingham button-up.

Within this setting, the power dynamics changed. I was invited, not just a “plus-one” — a notable difference. I felt more comfortable with the people in the room. The conversations didn’t feel as pointless, and I was actually able to enjoy myself. After that experience, the cycle continued: I kept getting “follow-ups” inviting me to attend other events, and eventually the tables turned — I became the one doing the reaching-out.

Five years later, the cycle hasn’t stopped, and I’ve become the serial networker I never imagined I would be. Now, at least four nights a week, you can find me at some event in this city, networking my ass off. One recent night, I was mixing and mingling with foodies at newly opened Rittenhouse bar the Goat. I had to turn down an invitation the following night to network at the new art gallery in the Fashion District because I was too busy co-hosting my own gathering with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. And the night after that, I had back-to-back engagements at the grand opening of Bodega Bar in the Gayborhood and a relaunch of a Latinx journalism networking group in Center City.

As I’ve become a networking pro, Philadelphia’s networking scene has became just that — a genuine and vibrant scene. Over the past few years, events have cropped up for seemingly every group, no matter your profession, experience or age. The networking ecosystem has started to look like Philadelphia itself, alive with transplants and new ideas.

But there’s a catch. Even as these events have grown my social capital and access to people across the city, I’ve begun to reflect on where the networking scene itself is headed — and the trends I’m noticing give me pause. The truth is, as the venues and scope of these gatherings have gotten bigger, the actual networking itself — the number of real connections being made — feels smaller. What once seemed like a galvanizing of new people now just feels like a less-awkward class reunion. All of which has me wondering: Am I simply getting tired of the scene, or has Philadelphia’s networking scene gotten tired?

I hated networking for all the same reasons I would later love it — the people, the socializing, the power dynamics.

When I was growing up, the term always had a negative connotation to me. We liberal arts students at Penn would mock our Wharton peers for hosting such functions on campus. When I heard people speak of networking, it seemed opportunistic or pretentious, and such a transparently transactional ordeal turned me off. Why put yourself in an environment where people solicit you for sport?

But as I got older, I began to realize that my initial cynicism was rooted in my own career insecurities. I didn’t feel comfortable telling strangers what I did for a living because of my non-linear career path. I also had reservations about how I fit in, as a black gay millennial not originally from Philadelphia. Eventually, I decided the only way to actually address these issues was to do what I feared most — network.

The networking scene today in Philly is a jungle — wild, exotic and adventurous. There’s something for everyone, and there’s never a time when you can’t gather with strangers. On any given evening, there are a slew of events across the city. These aren’t parties where people just dance, drink and frolic. Networking is about meeting people of substance and intentionally making connections. At a party, you engage in small talk for the sake of being social. If you’re at a networking event, you’re talking because you have something to pitch, promote, sell and/or inquire about. Parties are intended solely to be social and fun. Networking is about being social and fun … for business.

philadelphia networking events

The author (center) at one of the 20 Philadelphia networking events he attends every month. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Today in Philly, you’ll find traditional business gatherings for boomers and Gen Xers, usually held at members-only places like the Pyramid Club, the Union League, the Acorn Club or the Racquet Club, or hosted by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Then you have livelier versions of such hangouts geared to millennials (with a few cool Gen Xers who might crash). These events typically involve specialty drinks, a DJ and a rooftop (even if there’s a 50 percent chance of rain) and are often held by groups: Young Involved Philadelphia, the Flow, the Urban League and many others.

Outside of these general business-networking mixers, there are more concentrated and interest-focused socials. Black journalists have their own monthly networking gatherings, as do techies, artists, musicians, foodies and politicos. The Science Center throws a meet-up called Venture Cafe that brings out nearly 300 innovators every Thursday night. CannaGather Philly hosts regular networking events centered on the marijuana industry and weed legalization. LegalHackersPA has made Philly a networking hub for lawyers and techies interested in connecting. There are networking mixers for hairstylists, runway fashion enthusiasts, and real estate cigar aficionados. Experienced networkers like me can walk into any major event in the city and see dozens of people we know within the first hour. Networking can be a way of life for those who choose to participate.

“Once you get sucked in, it’s hard to get out,” a colleague told me after we ran into each other — for the fourth time that month — at an event hosted by Cashman & Associates at the Marriott Old City. “You lie to yourself that you’re just going to ‘drop in’ — until you make it home close to midnight.” He was right. I go to an average of 20 networking events each month — even more close to the holidays.

“Once you get sucked in, it’s hard to get out,” a colleague told me. “You lie to yourself that you’re just going to ‘drop in’ — until you make it home close to midnight.”

Once I broke through that social wall of networking, it was as if I couldn’t stop. I made friends with people I probably wouldn’t have met if not for these types of gatherings. I’m not the kind to approach random strangers in a public setting and make friends. But networking events make things easier, because you know those in attendance are intentional about being there — they want to make connections, too.

I can still remember how I felt back in December 2015 when I met longtime gay activist and Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal for the first time at a holiday networking event hosted by the Independence Business Alliance. Segal was someone I had long admired from afar. The event gave me a chance to meet him in person, and I made enough of an impression that he gave me a last-minute invitation to the super-exclusive holiday party he hosts every year, one attended by a who’s-who of Philadelphians. I accepted the invite and went (of course), and it was one of the first times that I, a transplant to the city, felt like I had officially “made it” here.

As I look back, I can recall other memorable experiences that encouraged me to keep flocking to Philly’s networking scene. I met one of my best friends (someone who’s now part of my wedding party) at an LGBTQ Democratic National Convention mixer at the Prime Rib four years ago. I’ve bumped into city titans, like former governor Ed Rendell (at an event hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and Comcast executive David Cohen (at mixers thrown by the African-American Chamber of Commerce). Over the years, I’ve also met people who’ve given me free legal advice, insight on my taxes, and just kind compliments that have made my day.

For me and many others, networking isn’t simply about being seen; it’s about feeling the pulse of Philadelphia. And in a city that’s deeply segregated by race and class, these networking events have, at least until recently, helped level the playing field, democratizing access to power and lowering the barrier between the haves and have-nots. These are the experiences that make me optimistic about what’s next for Philly. Being in a room with people who have something to say is invigorating. Networking gives me a level of instant energy and purpose that’s often hard to find elsewhere.

One of the fascinating things about the growth of Philly’s networking scene is how it mirrors the broader changes that have taken place in our city over the past 20 years. Two decades ago, networking mostly meant companies, law firms and private groups hosting insular gatherings for their own employees. Center City wasn’t the vibrant, youthful place it is today, and the tech scene hadn’t yet taken Philly by storm.

“I remember being a lawyer back in the late ’90s and the networking scene being smaller and very uptight,” says Jennifer Lynn Robinson, CEO of Purposeful Networking. Robinson is one of a handful of Philadelphians who have turned their interest in networking into a hustle, planning, organizing and hosting events. “Lawyers only hung out with lawyers; the same with corporate leaders. It was very shallow, and there wasn’t much of a mix of different people connecting. The events you see today would have never happened back then, because the city wasn’t ready for it.”

“I remember having to search for as many emails of professionals of color as I could find to try to get us to come together,” says Sulaiman Rahman, CEO of DiverseForce and founder of Urban Philly Professional Network. “Back then, there was no social media to help market networking events. Word of mouth and invitations to such gatherings weren’t spreading fast enough to black and brown professionals who wanted to attend.”

Fast-forward to the 2010s, when Philadelphia began to evolve into a “world-class city” and Center City saw a spike in start-ups and younger professionals participating in the new gig economy. Large crowds of people came back to the city, and entrepreneurs began to occupy co-working spaces. The emergence of those co-working spaces is arguably when networking in Philly really took off, as self-employed millennials began to network organically in shared offices. Places such as WeWork, Indy Hall, the Yard and others were hosting networking gatherings that mimicked those in New York City and Silicon Valley.

At the same time, there was a push to make the scene more diverse and democratic. Tayyib Smith, co-founder of Pipeline Philly, one of the first prominent co-working spaces in the city, remembers a networking scene that was pretty monolithic when Pipeline opened in 2014. “The average age was 24, everyone was male and white, and they were all focused on tech,” he says. “Since our inception, we’ve been intentional about making our space inclusive and welcoming to all, regardless of business sector.”

Other people have had the same mission. “I created my organization to help working-class professionals feel included in the city’s growing business community,” networking professional Michelle Snow says of her eponymous company. “Too often, many felt excluded from the scene because of the elitism it can exude. My network is focused on more than just shaking hands and passing out business cards — it’s helping people receive direct services.”

At its best, the networking scene of the past few years really has broken down barriers, connecting people from different backgrounds and expanding people’s horizons and opportunities. But lately, something has begun to shift. The events have gotten more commercial — you now have to know someone who knows someone — and they’re beginning to feel a lot like the college frat parties I was trying to run away from.

The events have gotten a lot more commercial — you have to know someone who knows someone — and they’re beginning to feel a lot like the college frat parties I was trying to run away from.

I first sensed that Philly’s networking scene had taken a turn for the worse at a mixer last summer at Cira Green, organized by a group advocating for black male educators. What I expected would be an opportunity to connect in a substantive way with people my age turned out to be just one big party, with sponsored liquor, self-proclaimed tastemakers, a lively dance floor and endless selfies. It wasn’t a bad event — it was a pretty damn good time, for sure — but it just wasn’t what I had signed up for.

Philly’s networking scene, once accessible and free-flowing, is being hijacked by two different forces. The first are event organizers and consumer brands who see a way to make a buck. Social entrepreneurs who’ve observed the success of these once-people-focused events are now collaborating with liquor companies and other brands to push products in our faces. This was what it felt like when I went to Philly Tech Week’s networking events last spring, with Comcast logos plastered everywhere, local brewers promoting their drafts, and vendor booths all trying to sell something to me.

Today, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the host of a networking event parading an entire camera crew around to film the experience and blast it out on social media for further promotion. One series of events, called Good Vibes Only, has basically turned itself into a nightclub/day-party atmosphere that’s less about making meaningful connections and more about getting hammered. I’ll never forget being elbow-to-elbow in a packed Center City club with people covered in sweat while they drank $5 watered-down whiskey cocktails from the liquor sponsor. Meanwhile, those crowd shots were promoted on the group’s Instagram page as if this was an event that people shouldn’t have wanted to miss. I still have regrets.

The scene has also been co-opted, in my opinion, by mainstream professional organizations, which have finally gotten hip to the trend and are now outpacing the more niche networking groups that, just a couple of years ago, gave the scene its character and cool vibe. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Council has tried to appeal to entrepreneurial millennials by hosting collaborative events with REC Philly, a co-working space for creatives. The African-American Chamber of Commerce now has frequent networking events at venues like Pipeline Philly and WeWork that feature tech, cannabis, and other less-mainstream industries. On the surface, those may sound like a great way for up-and-comers to connect with the business establishment. The problem is, the events are often open only to current chamber members or non-members willing to pay a price — sometimes up to $50 — to attend.

“It’s now become a pay-to-play system,” says Harris Gubin, president of Philadelphia’s Jewish Business Network. “Some groups have decided to make it harder for incoming professionals to access these crucial opportunities to connect.”

“When there’s a key networking event with decision-makers and the cost for lunch is $150 a ticket, that keeps many people out of the room,” says Jennifer Lynn Robinson. “A lot of events have VIP receptions that aren’t feasible for many professionals if they’re not with big companies, firms or organizations.”

To put it simply, rather than uniting Philadelphians the way they once did, too many networking events today are exacerbating how divided we can be.

“There is such a focus on where you’re from in the city and what kind of position you have,” Michelle Snow says. “The larger context of Philly’s massive income gap shows up even in social spaces like networking events, where people should be coming together to address it.”

Robinson puts it even more bluntly: “Sometimes the Philly networking scene is like a high-school cafeteria.”

This year, I’ve promised myself to be more intentional about the networking I’m doing. I’m more cautious not to be lured in by the flashiness of venues, special guests, or other smoke and mirrors. I’m focused on connecting with new people from various backgrounds and at various career levels.

Two years ago, I launched a networking group called Millennial Media Makers of Color that was geared toward connecting young, diverse media professionals across the city. I tried to make these monthly events the ideal space for networking, hosting them in calm, welcoming venues that had snacks, background music (no DJs or loudspeakers) and new faces. There was no cover charge or rolling out of the red carpet for A-list guests — everyone was treated equally and expected to engage with other people without any fuss.

At first, I thought the success of these gatherings would be defined by huge turnouts that would warrant Instagram-worthy crowd shots and noisy chatter. But then I remembered that I wasn’t throwing a music festival; I was hosting a networking event that was meant to bring a specific group of people out to talk with one another. There’s no need for the shiny bells and whistles that have defined the scene recently, and that have made me long for the days when the scene felt less commercial and more genuine.

The truth of the matter is, less should be considered more in Philly’s networking scene. We’ve overspent, overshared, and overestimated how far our networking culture can go in the city. Now it’s time to dial it back in order to save it.

That way, the next young, wide-eyed, salmon-pants-wearing transplant who bombs his first citywide networking event will find refuge in a town that will invite him back. I know what Philly’s networking scene has done for me; here’s to returning to the basics so it can do the same for others.

Published as “Confessions of a Serial Networker” in the March 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.