From Wallflower to Reluctant Networker

As a student you probably know me as a friendly, reasonably social person who loves to chat. As a colleague or an acquaintance, you definitely think of me as the wallflower, who isn’t capable of speaking more than 10 sentences in a party that lasts all evening. I am not an introvert. Not in the strict sense. But I am shy. Maybe even reserved. (I hate that term, even more than I hate introvert!) I avoid talking to people, especially if I don’t know them. 

If I don’t know something, I reach into my existing knowledge and apply logic to figure it out, or do my own research. If I have a question about a process, I prefer reading documents and instruction manuals over asking someone. When I’m introduced to somebody, I am happy to answer questions, but balk at the thought of asking questions in return. Don’t want people thinking that I’m little Miss Nosy Parker, right? At a party I’ll either sit quietly and let the conversation flow around me, or spend the evening talking to the one or two people I know. Networking events send shivers down my back. 😨 Literally. 

They say people change themselves for love. I won’t comment on that. But I did have to change myself to succeed in my chosen careers. 

I realised very early in my teaching career that my true nature would not serve me well in class. If I wanted students to open up and talk, I would have to come across as an open, friendly person.I would have to make the right noises, ask questions, and provide opportunities to make them talk. So I did that. I asked questions, expressed interest, even made outrageous remarks…all with the goal of having a lively, animated class in which my students used the language they were learning.

It’s been six months since I quit teaching full-time to concentrate on Adaptiv. I had slipped almost completely into my former asocial self. The only time I came out of my shell was to interact with our interns…but that was not very far from my former role of a teacher, so it wasn’t too difficult. Interactions with colleagues in this new remote world is on Slack, and chat platforms are definitely my favourite mode of communication, so that’s easy too! 🙌

…and then we came to France to set up Adaptiv.Me as a French Tech startup! As the francophone of the team, I suddenly found myself being the one who talks to everyone, and asks all the questions…from talking to the staff at the SNCF office about our train tickets from Paris to Grenoble, to making inquiry calls about apartments, I’ve had more conversations with strangers in the last 30 days, than I’ve had in the decade since I moved to Bangalore!

While Titash has definitely been enjoying the benefits of traveling with someone fluent in the language, he is discovering that there are limits to those benefits. My natural reluctance to ask questions has led us to some pretty awkward moments. 

A few days ago, we decided to take advantage of the amazing public transport system in Grenoble and took a bus up to the nearby village of Claix. After walking around the lanes, admiring the houses and the gorgeous views for a couple of hours, we popped into the only boulangerie open. Our choices were limited. A few tiny quiches, or one of the two sandwiches on display. One clearly said that it had tuna, and neither of us eats seafood. The other looked like it had ham, so I chose that for both of us. “Deux Suédois s’il vous plaît.” We walked out, found a charming little square, and sat down for our little picnic. One bite, and we realised that the ham was in fact salmon. 🍣 “Did you ask her what the sandwich contained…?” “No, the other one had tuna, so I thought this couldn’t possibly have seafood. Plus it looked like a ham sandwich!” “We don’t normally eat fish. Plus this isn’t even cooked. I think it’s raw fish.” “No, I think it’s smoked.” “Small difference! And with your allergies, we might just have landed in a horrible situation. Why can’t you just ask about the ingredients, before ordering? You are the client, she has to please you, not the other way around.” …and so it went on. Luckily neither of us had any reactions. 🤞

The language barrier has forced me to step up a lot, taking the lead in many conversations, but that’s not the only reason that I’ve had to break free of my unwillingness to talk to people. I’ve had to do it to step more fully into the role of an entrepreneur. I’ve never found it easy to talk about my work. I find it difficult to do a sales pitch , and have always thought that my work will be noticed on its own merit. And it did. In my teaching world. But this is a different world. This is a world, where I have to tell people what I’m doing, the role I’m playing and how it’s important for the startup…lest they think of me as the lackey, or worse, just the interpreter! 🤷🏻‍♀️

You can run, but you can’t hide. 

A few weeks ago, Titash shared a story of how entrepreneurship has made him deal with things he had always avoided. In this case, financial planning. So while he has finally had to deal with the subject he hated as a business student, I am learning to be social…and network. 

And so, I don’t try to wriggle out of invitations to connect and discuss, when other entrepreneurs reach out. And much to my pleasant surprise, it’s not always a waste of time. I’ve had two conversations which have led to collaborations. Most recently, I chatted with Nathnael Gossaye, the co-founder of Botter, a Chatbot platform that enables you to create and sell online courses through a conversational UI. Some of you may remember my foray into chat bots during the last FIFA. The conversation with Nathnael has rekindled that interest, and gotten the creative juices flowing again. Whether I end up doing something with Botter, or not, I definitely have to thank Nathnael for reaching out and setting up a call! 

I have a coffee meeting with another startup founder next week. This is what they call networking, right? At this rate, I might soon end up with the reputation of being the networking co-founder on the team! 😀 

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