How to build the perfect network, according to a woman who built her career on networking

According to Tiffany Dufu, her life’s work is about advancing women and girls. As the founder and CEO of The Cru, a women’s networking and career coaching group, she is doing just that. 

“That’s pretty much why I’m on the planet,” Dufu said. “Every professional job I’ve had, every dollar I’ve donated, every board I’ve ever sat on, every article or book I’ve ever written has been focused on one thing and that is: how do we harness women and girls’ talent and ingenuity in order to make the world a better place.”

Dufu’s ambition and drive to help women succeed in the workplace has led her to be named to Entrepreneur’s 100 Powerful Women and Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women. She frequently speaks on women’s leadership and is the author of the book, “Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less.” She also serves as a board member for Simmons University, as well as Girls Who Code. 

According to Tiffany Dufu, her life’s work is about advancing women and girls. As the founder and CEO of The Cru, a women’s networking and career coaching group, she is doing just that. 

“That’s pretty much why I’m on the planet,” Dufu said. “Every professional job I’ve had, every dollar I’ve donated, every board I’ve ever sat on, every article or book I’ve ever written has been focused on one thing and that is: how do we harness women and girls’ talent and ingenuity in order to make the world a better place.”

Dufu’s ambition and drive to help women succeed in the workplace has led her to be named to Entrepreneur’s 100 Powerful Women and Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women. She frequently speaks on women’s leadership and is the author of the book, “Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less.” She also serves as a board member for Simmons University, as well as Girls Who Code. 

As an expert on building a diverse network of accountability partners, Dufu has helped thousands of women across the country find their “Cru” to help them achieve their career goals. We sat down with Dufu to gain some insight on how she found her Cru and how you can start building your own diverse network to find yours. Read more below. 

How did you get to where you are now? What led you to found The Cru?

I am the cumulative investment of a lot of people who have poured themselves into me. I find it really fascinating that all of us have goals; we all have human potential that we want to realize within ourselves. Research shows that the most powerful way to achieve your goal is through accountability to other people, and yet, most of us do not have accountability partners or accountability groups for our actual lives.

We have other categories — social categories — we have neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family, but all of those categories have vested interest in our decision-making in one way or another.

I actually think we all need a separate new social category of people who care about us but are actually not invested in our decision-making. This is an objective group of people whose sole purpose is to hold us accountable and inspire us to achieve whatever it is that we want to achieve in our lives.

I have been evangelizing this idea of “The Cru” and I certainly have a cru that has allowed me to get to where I am for the past decade or so. But I realized a pain point when I was talking to a woman who was sharing that she understood the concept of having a group of people who she met with regularly who was effectively her accountability partners, but she didn’t think that I understood the amount of work that went into this. Then she took me through the actual workflow. She said, “Tiffany, first I would need to get access to the cocktail party or the conference or the event. You probably get invited to speak at these things. Then, I would have to awkwardly introduce myself to a bunch of strangers, collect a bunch of business cards, which are probably going to sit in the bottom of my bag or my desk drawer.

You want me to take them out and schedule all of these coffees and teas and lunches — by the way I had to take time off of my job to meet you on a Tuesday at 10 am. Then, I have to curate this group, figure out who I’m compatible with and then coordinate regular gatherings where we put forth our ambitions together and hold one another accountable. I’m exhausted just thinking about everything that has to go into this.”

And that for me was what I call a “Tiffany’s epiphany” where I decided I better stop preaching to everybody about how they need to find a cru and I should just find the cru for them. The pain point that the cru could solve, the real problem, was that we could take work out of the networking to help women achieve their goals.

Why is having a “Cru” important? 

For me, ultimately, I want more women in positions of power and influence. I think the world has a lot of problems and it doesn’t matter so much whether your issue is health care, whether it’s our environment, whether it’s education, or whether it’s our economy.

At the end of the day, there are people sitting around big wooden tables making decisions that impact every single one of us, and until those tables are populated with people who are more diverse — people who are members of the LGBTQ community, people who are of color, people who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who have different abilities, and who are women — I think that the biggest crisis we face is a crisis of leadership and I think that’s become starkly clear. So, I have a bias in that I want more women to realize their ambition and their potential because I want more of us in positions of power and influence.

But, even if you’re not living Tiffany’s life for yourself — you’re actually living your own life for yourself — I think that when we have a lot on our plate, it is so helpful to have a group of people who are both inspiring us and holding us accountable and reminding us to what we committed to ourselves. I know that women, in particular, spend a lot of time giving.

We spend a lot of time focused on holding our teams accountable, our families accountable, our kids accountable, and often our own desires and dreams sometimes get thrown by the wayside. This is not because we don’t care about them, but because there’s this thing called life that gets in the way and that’s especially true right now with the pressure that women are under given [the covid-19 pandemic].

What advice would you give to people who are trying to build a more diverse network?

I have been getting a lot of outreach on social media platforms, particularly on LinkedIn. One of the upsides of this crisis is that, in the virtual world, a lot of the friction is taken out of connecting with people you don’t know. Before, when someone would ask me if they could have coffee or tea or lunch with me, it would be a lot. I’d have to commute to meet the person and it’s just a no, because I don’t have the bandwidth.

Whereas, in the virtual world, it’s a lot easier for me to say, “You know what, I’ll hop on a 20-minute Zoom with you.” It’s so much simpler and I think we really need to take advantage of that right now.

I also think it’s important to reconnect with people in your life, especially people who you haven’t reached out to because you imagine that so much time has gone by that it’s atrocious that they haven’t heard from you. One of the things my mother used to say when I was growing up was, “Tiffany, you’re always so worried about what other people think about you. Don’t you know that other people are always worried about what people are thinking about them? And that means no one has time to be thinking about you.” So, you really should just go for it. 

I think right now is a great time to go back into your Rolodex. Anyone, especially who you’ve worked with within the past or maybe you’ve lost touch with, go ahead and send them a group email. I call them my “village updates” and I’ve been sending them for years, but it is never too late to start sending one. You just express gratitude and give them an update on where you are professional, what you’ve been doing in the midst of this crisis, what your next step is, and then ask them to write back to you with their updates… Go ahead and ask for meetings; and then, as you start to schedule individual meetings, the most important question to ask anyone is, “Who else should I be connecting with or talking to?”

The last thing I’ll say is, it’s really important to have some specificity when it comes to what you need. I always ask during my meetings with individuals, “How can I help you? How can I support you?” and the worst answer to that question is, “I was just wanting to get to know you,” or, “This was just an introductory call.” One, when you have an explicit ask, you then get put on that person’s to-do list which keeps you a bit top of mind. Two, you really differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd of people who aren’t going to ask for anything specific… Third, I think if you want people to invest in you you’ve got to demonstrate that you’re worthy of the investment because you believe that you’re worthy.

I have a theory that people who feel like they need a relationship with you in order for you to help them, deep down inside don’t have a sense of worthiness. They don’t feel entitled to ask you for help or support. They feel like you have to have this relationship in order to get the help and I don’t think that’s true. I think that even without you having a relationship with me, you are worthy of support and I think that if you ask me for that, even in an initial conversation, that shows me that you know that you’re worthy of that. 

How has networking changed in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?

When we launched in 2018, I thought it was incredibly important that even though a big part of The Cru was digital, that the actual gatherings themselves where members meet take place in person. And so we were only matching women by city, because in order to meet in person you have to all be within the same geographic location.

The downside, of course, was that we could only match women in markets where we had a critical mass of applicants, so we had Crus in LA, San Francisco, Seattle, NYC, DC and we had some in Denver. 

When Covid hit in March, we obviously had to move to a virtual model. For the first time, that allowed me to be in gatherings in a way that I couldn’t before, because it’s easy for me to hop in a Zoom. Low and behold, I discovered that I was wrong about insisting on an in-person model.

I learned that The Cru works better virtually for so many reasons. One, it cuts down the friction for a busy woman. There’s no commute, everyone shows up on time, people want to meet more often, and there’s higher engagement. Women can also multitask. They can nurse babies during a gathering — that was a baby that you would have had to find a babysitter or childcare for before. I saw two members cornrowing their daughters hair during a gathering and, if you’re a black woman who’s a mom, that takes hours, so I was like, “Wow, that was a really good use of the time.”

It also allowed for deeper Cru coaching sessions, because the chat function in Zoom became this other tool, so you didn’t have to interrupt a members coaching session to offer a book or a podcast recommendation. Advice and resources could just be put in the chat very easily and then you could just download those into your notes… There were just so many ways in which it just worked better virtually. But I think one of the most powerful ways that really opened up the floodgates for us is that it no longer mattered what zip code you were in.

We have this tagline that “every woman needs a Cru” and yet, it was only the women in major markets that had a Cru. Well, once we realized that the virtual model worked better, we just opened up the floodgates and started matching women by time zone so that they could all schedule their gatherings and not have a bunch of headaches, but it didn’t matter what city they were in.

For someone like me who is very driven and passionate about advancing women, that your zip code was no longer a barrier to whether or not you could have a Cru, meant the world to me personally but also it was certainly a catalyst for our business.