- Try emailing professionals with questions about their industry.
- Career and industry publications can provide email addresses.
- Write emails carefully and individualize them for each person.
If you’re looking for a creative, effective way to learn about an industry and make helpful professional contacts, consider the successful electronic strategy employed by Exuper Okouya, a third-year student at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
Okouya, a 25-year-old French citizen who’s majoring in biochemistry, arrived in Canada two years ago with his only real goal being to "adapt to the North American way of life." He soon had the urge, however, to talk to people who could help him learn about a field that intrigued him: Management consulting.
But like many college students, Okouya didn’t have much of a network. So he decided to build one the new-fashioned way — with email. He began emailing professionals at various companies, not to ask for a job or an internship, but simply to request advice and information. And it worked — better than even he thought it would.
"I sent out nearly 30 emails over a period of three months and got 14 answers," says Okouya. "Most of the people who responded answered my basic questions and gave me insider advice on where management consulting is going, and what to expect in terms of the industry recruiting new graduates in the next few years.
Perhaps even better, though, a few of the people who replied to Okouya’s emails gave him the names of people in the Montreal area who work in management consulting. Now, he plans to contact those people to set up face-to-face meetings with them.
In a nutshell, Okouya has taken the long-established technique of informational interviewing — talking to people in a field of interest to learn more about that field and how to break into it — and gave a 21st-century twist by talking to people via email.
How did he find people to send emails to, and more importantly, how did he get their specific email addresses? It wasn’t as difficult as you might think. For starters, he wrote to people whose names and email addresses appeared in Fast Company magazine, a business publication that typically includes the email addresses of the professionals and experts interviewed for its articles. He gathered additional names and email addresses from career and industry Web sites.
"The answers to my questions were always very sincere and detailed," Okouya notes. "And given [that] I would always send 10 questions to each person –adapted to that person’s industry and modified to the person’s position or company — I appreciated even more the fact that all of those who replied took the time to answer all the questions."
Not everyone responded to Okouya’s emails, obviously. But a .500 batting average isn’t bad, especially considering Okouya received feedback from junior consultants, analysts and a few high-level decision makers in the management consulting field.
You could do the very same thing by employing Okouya’s email informational interviewing strategy to a field you’re curious about. All it takes is a little research, a well-written email and some patience. Okouya stresses that the potential payoff is more than enough to cover your initial investment of time and energy.
"Just do it," he says. "It’s definitely worth it, especially if you basically have no contacts in the industry you’re targeting. It helps you find what you’re looking for."