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Alumni master the art of networking

Six women take part in a Young Professionals Speaker series, giving USC Annenberg students a glimpse into the future

Sara Clayton speaks

Sara Clayton talks about crafting your personal brand and expanding your network. (Photo/Benjamin Dunn)

Networking via Twitter and using apps to set coffee meetings have helped a USC alumna “master the art of the hustle” in the tech world.

Sara Clayton ’15 of Microsoft Azure was the youngest Trojan to return for a Young Professionals Speaker series organized by the Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Clayton, who graduated last spring, was relatable to students whose shoes she was in not long ago. She was one of six alumni from companies like Bloomberg and The New York Times who shared their experiences in male-dominated fields such as finance and technology and discussed how their educations at USC helped them to pursue their chosen career paths.

The series was created and hosted by M{2e} co-director and Professor Chris Smith, who also founded and runs the program’s Women’s Leadership Society.

The other speakers who visited USC in January, February and March were broadcast journalist Adrienne Bankert; digital marketing manager Piper LeJeune; Stephanie Fleischman, director of ad innovation at The New York Times; Georgina Stage, fixed income specialist at Bloomberg; and Erika White, director of External Affairs at Texas Pacific Group. All except LeJeune are USC Annenberg alumni, and several were students of Smith or other M{2e} instructors.

“It’s not enough anymore to just have a degree,” Clayton said. “Entrepreneurialism is something a lot of companies are looking for in recent grads. They want self-starters, they want people who have that drive.”

Coffee klatches

During her time at USC and in the first months of her job at Microsoft, Clayton used Twitter to follow journalists and tech insiders whose careers she found interesting and then tweeted at them to initiate a meeting. She also used an app called Weave.In, which matches people with professionals in their fields for coffee dates, a tool Clayton recommended students use to learn more about careers they may want to pursue.

Clayton advised students, however, to avoid using informational meetings to ask for a job: “Ask for money and you get advice,” she said. “Ask for advice and you get money.”

She also recommended that students build their brand by creating a Twitter account, website and LinkedIn with a professional photo, and then use these platforms to demonstrate to recruiters what makes them stand out.

Students taking notes

Students glean tips from alumni during USC Annenberg’s M{2e} networking event. (Photo/Benjamin Dunn)

For Stage, who graduated with a degree in communication, networking enabled her to move from a startup to her position at Bloomberg, despite not having a background in finance. She heard about the opportunity from a fellow USC Annenberg alum and used knowledge she had gained at school and in the M{2e} program to make the most of her first in-person interview with Bloomberg.

“I treated this like a final exam,” Stage said. “The biggest mistake I see is people not doing enough research on the company itself.”

Despite not having experience with finance prior to being hired at Bloomberg, Stage said the interpersonal skills she developed as a communication major at USC were critical to helping her adapt to a new workplace. Having successfully completed two rigorous training programs during her year at the company, Stage said she encourages students not to be afraid to pursue jobs in fields they didn’t study.

“You can learn anything,” Stage said. “At the end of the day, if someone is going to sit you down and teach you something, you can learn. It’s a matter of having that drive and that passion to stick with it.”

Drive, he said

These and other stories of drive and passion are what inspired Smith was to create the Young Professionals Speaker series. Smith would regularly learn of the accomplishments of recent alumni and realized that he had key insights to share with current USC Annenberg students.

“When students reach back to me, if I feel like they’re serious-minded, I’m reaching back to them and I’m here to help them,” Smith said. “The five Annenberg alumna selected were people who had stayed in touch. They’re people I was really serious about helping but also who I felt I could continue to learn from.”

For Smith, mentoring students and fostering talent is something he sees as an integral part of his role as a professor. For example, after being introduced to Clayton through his M{2e} colleague Dana Chinn before her graduation last spring, the two had coffee or lunch several times, and Smith was able to help Clayton land her dream job at Microsoft.

“That’s what top-notch colleges and research universities are all about,” Smith said. “Initially, students learn from professors and then the tables turn and we learn from them as they emerge and develop. We’re happy to say ‘I knew them when’ because that’s how great institutions get greater.”

Stage was another recent graduate and former M{2e} student who kept in touch with Smith. When she was hired at Bloomberg in late 2014, word quickly traveled back to USC Annenberg: Stage told Smith, who notified a “delighted” Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, who in turn shared the news with the USC Annenberg Board of Trustees over the holidays.

“You might not think that your early-stage progress in whatever career path you choose makes a difference to the institution, but it does,” Smith said. “Please never think that your baby steps don’t matter or don’t count, to you or to anyone.


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