Lessons from MBAs on Networking in the Time of COVID

While most of us were suffering the dreary days of lockdown, the HEC Paris MBA’s Retail and Luxury Club was busy virtually touring the world. With COVID upending their plans to spend October’s traditional MBA Trek Week in Milan, the club members had the world come to them.

The result was the club’s Global Trek Week, an online globe-trot full of networking opportunities. Along with panel discussions with executives from iconic European brands including Burberry and L’Oréal, the trek plugged into leading companies on every continent. Speakers joined them from the United States (Estée Lauder), China (Farfetch and the Activation Group) the Middle East (Chalhoub Group) and beyond.

Networking Schedule of the Global trek week by the Retail and Luxury Club

The Retail and Luxury Club’s 2020 Global Trek Week

“In the morning we’d talk to someone from France; in the afternoon we’d be using Zoom with someone from Iran,” explains Camilla Pereira de Souza, MBA ’21, the club’s President and the driving force behind the virtual 20-company meet-and-greet.

Organizing a weeklong career event that spans the world is just one example of how students are adapting their networking to meet the challenges of COVID. As communications have moved online, HEC Paris MBA students have shown their skills at making the most of the virtual world.

Network with alumni who have a common interest

For someone like Camilla, a Brazilian who has a background in finance and entered the HEC Paris MBA after six years in sales and trading, networking can be key in successfully pivoting to the highly competitive world of luxury.

To gain professional experience in the sector, Camilla had decided early on to run for President of the MBA’s Retail and Luxury Club. Seeking advice on how to create a successful campaign, she used the March confinement to reach out virtually to past club presidents. “I don’t know if I realized back then that it was a good way to network,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I’ll use this opportunity to connect because they are at home with plenty of extra time, like me.’ The HEC Alumni community is strong, and everyone was really open. I would ask them, ‘What were the best things you did as president? What would you do differently now’?”

Camilla adds that by learning from their experiences and asking their advice on how to make the club stronger, she was also gaining valuable insights about the industry as well as making connections that could be helpful in advising her about her career.

Come summer, the benefit of virtually reaching out was evident. Not only had Camilla been elected president of the Retail and Luxury Club, she had also forged some great new relationships.

Focus on what’s key to your job search

With everyone from Forbes to ZDnet predicting that the tech job market won’t heat up until 2021, Omar Nahas, the President of the MBA’s Tech Club, kept the club’s online networking focused on the practical.

Event flyer for the Tech Trek week

The Tech Club’s event poster

For its October trek, the club eschewed presentations from companies that weren’t hiring. Instead, members brought in alumni from Google, Microsoft and Linagora. Each met with students personally, in nine-person Zoom breakout rooms. “We wanted students to be able to ask their own questions,” Omar says, explaining that each participant had 2-3 minutes to speak directly with alumni. “We knew alumni would share insider’s tips and tricks about company recruitment, and tell us what skills we should be building right now.”

Leverage the HEC Paris name

One of the most exclusive online rendezvous of the last six months was Luxury Insights with Korn Ferry, hosted by the HEC Paris MBA’s Retail and Luxury Club. The all-day workshop was the brainchild of American student and club board member Megan Scullion, MBA ’21. Inspired by the mock interviews with a consultant organized by the HEC Career Center, Megan explains that she wanted to create a similar event specific to the luxury industry.

“My background is in sales and business development, so I have a lot of experience pitching new ideas to people,” she says. “If you believe in your idea, you can have the confidence to reach out to others. The school’s motto is to ‘Learn to Dare,’ so it’s also an opportunity to embody this.”

Knowing that HEC Paris enjoys unparalleled name recognition in France, Megan reached out to Korn Ferry’s locally based employees focused on luxury and retail. The end result was an unforgettable day of industry trends, career advice and small-group exercises and mock interviews with executives and recruiters from America’s top executive recruiting firm.

“One of the things I learned – this is true for my personal networking as well as for the club – is that people are really willing to do things for students,” Megan says. “If you are thoughtful and have the right approach, showing that you are professional and proposing something that both parties could benefit from, you optimize your chances of getting a response.” Megan says that the club and Korn Ferry had a collaborative approach and brainstormed together to develop the day’s format, creating a “best in class” experience for MBA participants aspiring to be future leaders in luxury.

Make networking fun

Making Zooms fun

Making Zooms fun

During lockdown, MBA students could follow their courses online from anywhere in the world. Despite the physical distance separating the January 2020 intake, Antonia Dornelles says she kept building relationships with her classmates. WhatsApp groups flourished, she says, and online courses were used for socializing as well as learning. “The school had designated ‘energizers’ who were responsible for creating activities during the breaks,” the Brazilian explains. “One game was ‘guess the baby picture’. It was such a fun activity—everyone was laughing and teasing each other about their pictures.”

As the President of the HEC Paris MBA’s Marketing Club, Antonia points out that, despite not being able to have in-person events, guest speakers were quite open to participate in webinars. The club’s most recent presentation was with HEC Alumni Jaime Bobillo, a senior digital manager at LEGO.  However, with so many MBA events happening online throughout the week coupled with the unavoidable Zoom burnout, she says that it could be hard to attract a crowd for a one-person presentation. “I’d really recommend that clubs partner together,” she says. “This can gather a bigger audience, and add relevance to your event. It becomes a win-win for everyone.”

For a complete listing of all the student clubs on campus, click here. Read more about MBA club events, including an evening with social impact investor Charly Kleissner, and a recent an outing to Paris hosted by the Women in Leadership Club.