Investing in a Career Upgrade

Kitty Koenig put $100 into a ticket to a charity event and devoted time to a volunteer opportunity that followed. The SalesLadder member said the investment paid off many times over.

It’s hard to part with money when you’re not making any.

Many job seekers face the decision to put up money to support their job searches at the time when they can least afford to part with it. Even if it might lead to you to find a job, expenses for things like a new interview suit, subscriptions to a job board, membership fees to industry groups and travel to job interviews are hard to take. It can be hard to call it anything more than a gamble.

Kitty Koenig decided to call it an investment. When a contact suggested she spend $100 to attend a charity function that might be good for her career, she decided it was yet another investment in the job search. When the couple she met at the charity event asked her to volunteer her time to their organization, she decided to call it an investment. And when they later asked her to travel to Cuba — for free — she decided it was an investment.

Natural networker

Koenig, of New Haven, Conn., has built her career on networking. She has reinvented her personal brand several times thanks to opportunities she found through her professional network.

Her latest incarnation was as the owner of a planning business for international events. The position afforded her access to C-level executives and philanthropic fund raisers, whom she hoped would help her find a position as an executive assistant when the recession depressed her events business.

“I needed something to take the pressure off,” she said. “I wanted an income I could count on until the event planning could come back.”

She was looking for an opportunity that would allow her to take the skills that had made her a successful independent businessperson — event planning, travel services, fluent in several languages — and use them in another sector. Koenig had been working with high-level clients and was skeptical of typical job-search channels. With an eclectic mix of skills and experience, she knew she would need to get herself in front of people so they could get to know her and understand her value.

I wasn’t going to send 5,000 resumes to nowhere,” Koenig said. “I needed to meet people, to let them know who I was.”

So the SalesLadder member did what she does best: networking. “It’s the way everything fabulous happens.”

Philanthropy or opportunity?

When Koenig attended a charity event her in Connecticut, she was introduced to someone who took an interest in her background and suggested she meet a contact of theirs in New York, who was connected to the fine -art collectors and traders. It was two degrees of separation, but she reached out to the art collector, who invited her to yet another charity event, this time in New York.

The ticket for the dinner cost $100. It felt a little steep for Koenig, who was still running the event-planning business on a reduced income. But Koenig decided it was worth it to expand her network.

The people who were hosting the event, an exhibit on bookmakers from Cuba, run a foundation that supports Cuban artists. And it was there that she met one-half of the husband-and-wife team who run American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation, a group that facilitates cultural exchanges in the arts between Cuba and the United States.

That meeting, now four degrees of separation from the friend who encouraged her to attend the original charity event, led to a conversation over lunch and then an invitation to come back to New York to talk to the people at the foundation about what their needs were and what Koenig might be able to provide.

Koenig offered to assist, and the organization asked her to prepare an upcoming tour to Cuba. Koenig was a volunteer at this point. The Ludwig Foundation agreed to pay her expenses, but she’d have to volunteer her own time. Koenig decided it was another investment in her network : She would demonstrate her planning skills to the Ludwig organization.

“The foundation didn’t care about my resume, they wanted to see what I could do,” Koenig said. “It was my people-to-people skills, my cultural skills that they needed to see. I was representing them, and it was important that they know it would be the same way they would do it.”

Time and money well spent

Giving away your work isn’t always smart, Koenig said, but in this case, her efforts paid off in a big way. “It didn’t cost me anything except time; and how much time do you spend in a job search? That small amount time was worth it a hundred times over.”

Koenig is now doing work for the Foundation on a month-to-month basis, coordinating trips to Cuba. She has incorporated this work into her event-planning business. “And it’s now part of my client base,” she said. Not bad for a $100 investment.

Taking this tack costs money, to be sure. “When my friend suggested I go to the charity event, I told her, ‘This is money I don’t want to spend.’ She said, ‘Do it, it will come back tenfold.’ She was 100 percent right. You have to invest something to get something back.

“I hadn’t thought of looking at charity events as business opportunities before,” she continued. “But they are terrific business opportunities. People who attend them often have money to spend and have opportunities to offer. It’s taking networking to a higher level.”

Her advice to job seekers looking for new opportunities: ” Network like crazy ” and look outside the box for unique events that might be your next networking win. “Networking events (and job fairs) are full of other people who don’t have jobs,” she said. “I would rather talk to people who are employed and might have something I can help them with.”