Originally written for Project 50fifty – “because a nation that doesn’t harness half its talent can’t lead the 21st century.”
One of the great follies of development economics has historically been the “top-down,” one size fits all approach. Institutions like the IMF and World Bank get flack for programs and policies that require similar adjustment mechanisms across highly disparate cultures (see: the Easterly-Sachs debate). Without trudging through the backwaters of the “bottom-up” camp, the unifying battle cry of theorists and practitioners alike has been local.
McKinsey recently came out with a white paper questioning the extent to which business strategy is “local enough,” and at The Milken Institute, an economic think-tank where I summered back in the day, they’ve been researching and advocating for cluster economics for some time. The rise of targeted, local, or cluster-based economic development is not surprising also in light of trends in geolocation, mobile technology, and urbanization.
So what does this have to do with women? Women’s networks have often tried to adopt an industry-specific, geography-agnostic flair. 85 Broads is a classic example. The finance-heavy organization says its an “an exclusive global women’s network with members who live, work, and study in 82 countries around the world.” On a practical level, the global network has a very local feel, with outreach often taking on the form of events and relationships being formed at the local level. The women’s networks in my life – college, work, industry (media, tech), and even political – are predominantly focused within my local NY geography, even if they have branches to other cities or clusters.
This is all fine for now, but what happens if I decide (like many) that New York City may not be the best place to start a family down the road, or that the Californian in me cannot handle another frosty winter? Or in the shorter term, what about my friend who is moving to Boston and is also considering a career change? Where does she begin? Ironically, life changes that require relocating home base are likely to align with the times when women are transitioning to middle management roles, and thus cross-company networking becomes increasingly important.
In theory, LinkedIn and other online platforms make these transitions easier. I can search within my network to see “who knows who” in my future city, ask for intros, send cold emails based on my interests, etc. And in the tech industry, a move seems less daunting just given how highly networked the whole community is.
For women with non-digital interests who face more rigid hierarchies, the reliance on traditional channels, like recruiters, college networks, or the pleading email to a family friend, calls into question whether women’s org efforts are being directed appropriately. Even worse, it can create elitist, “branded” barriers in which where you went to college or who your parents are friends with can become more important than recent professional accomplishments. The alternative to reaching out to a network is joining a new one (aka B-school)…quite a price tag to pay for nicer weather or a bigger apartment.
As companies and economists determine ways to build successful local strategies, women’s organizations should perhaps consider the opposite. It’s a tough task given the highly personal nature of networking and mentorship, but we now have the tools and technology to enhance global (or at least cross-cluster) ties.