How to Think in Networks

The Alpha Product

The Alpha Version Showing Your Global Network

By Ryan Allis

At the bottom of this post is a list of the 27 Best Organizations for Entrepreneurs & World Changers. Let me know in the comments if I’ve left any good ones off!

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in my life to date is this: Who you surround yourself with is who you become. The networks you align yourself with and become part of have a tremendous effect on your ability to make a positive impact on the world or to achieve anything you set your mind to.

Andrew Carnegie suggested as his own epitaph:

“Here lies one who knew how to get around him men who were cleverer than himself.”

Networking is not about handing out business cards; it’s about building authentic relationships with people and finding ways in which you can help them. The more you help others the more you’ll get back over time! If you can find ways to help people who are going out and making a difference in the world, you will find that your ability to make a difference in the world is greatly amplified.

Ultimately, if a lot of really amazing people see you as a kind, loving, compassionate, and highly competent person, you’ll be able to achieve anything you set your mind to.

Building a valuable set of authentic relationships truly is a lifetime project. It’s not something that can be done in a few weeks, or even a few years. It takes time, commitment, and dedication. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who for decades would mail personal, hand written thank you cards to everyone she would meet. I place a lot of importance on building my networks. I’ve made a habit of carefully keeping track of all the people in my life, both personal and professional connections. This is why I’m building Connect along with Anima Sarah Lavoy, Zach Melamed, Lilia Tamm, Nick Gonzalez, and Michelle Tabares!

Below are the lessons I’ve learned so far on building relationships with lots of amazing people over a lifetime. I’m 28, so I hope to have a long time to go!

Making Sure Everyone In Your Inner Circle is Positive, Caring & Inspiring

The first key to creating a great network is to put yourself in an environment in which you are surrounded by highly competent, smart, and very positive people every day. The last point is particularly important—there are plenty of smart and competent people out there who simply don’t have positive energy. The problem with these people is that they discourage you and tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams. So surround yourself only with smart, competent, and positive people who will remind you that as long as your motives are good and you’re treating other people fairly and well, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

The second key to creating a great network is to take a good hard look at who is in your current friend circle. The saying that you become the average of your closest friends is often quite true.

Take a few moments to write down the names of your top 20 friends—the people that you spend the most time with. Once you’re done, circle all the names of the people you still want to be on that list in a year (the positive/inspiring/supportive/caring ones!). Hopefully you’ll find that you circle everyone on the list. But often you’ll see that there are people on that list who perhaps shouldn’t be. How many didn’t you circle. It’s really important to be able to identify the people who build you up, who encourage you, and from whom you can learn.

Once you’ve done that, focus your efforts and spend time with those people you circled (and pattern match to find more people like the ones you circled). To avoid falling into mediocrity, you must purposely seek out inspired focused driven caring people.

If you’re purposely investing in relationships with smart, positive, compassionate, and really competent people, a lot more becomes possible for your life. Life is just too short to hang out with people who are negative and bring you down.

You won’t be able to ensure everyone in your circle is positive, inspiring, and supportive overnight. It might even require you to move to a new place or change companies. If you’re still living with your parents or are under 18, it might take until you become an adult to really have full control of who is and who is not in your life. But it’s absolutely worth inculcating this habit of choosing friends carefully. I consider this a long-term investment in your ability to grow, to be mentored, and to take in ideas.

At the end of the day, the people around you are the people who are influencing you. They are putting ideas—good or bad—into your head. They are the people you’re learning from and getting better with. So get amazing people around you each day!

If you don’t spend time in what you consider to be center of amazing people, look for that community where you live or move to a place that has lots of those type of people. And go to conferences/events with groups that have lots of inspiring/caring/amazing people (see list of networks to be in below!).

Regardless of where you are in the world, if you can find a way to focus on being in a place where there are a lot of smart, caring, compassionate, highly competent, positive people, your set of opportunities will of course be much expanded.

The above may seem like slightly obvious advice. But do you find yourself consciously putting yourself in the right environments for personal growth? And have you consciously developed a friend group that stretches you, challenges you, and keeps you accountable to achieving your dreams?

Choosing The Place You Call Home

Growing up I lived on Anna Maria Island and in Bradenton, Florida. The west coast of Florida a absolutely beautiful place, with beaches, manatees, and some great people. Some of my most influential mentors taught there at Manatee High School. When I turned 18, I was excited to move to the Triangle of North Carolina, home to UNC, Duke, and N.C. State. There, over nine years we were able to build iContact into a 300 employee company. I found being in a community that had lots of tech startups was thrilling. In 2002, Through the Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham I was able to plug right in, even as an 18 year-old college freshman into the North Carolina entrepreneurship scene. I loved my time in North Carolina and have nothing but praise for the State and find it’s one of the best places in the world for combining an intellectual climate with technology, nature, and low costs of living, which are especially important for first time entrepreneurs.

Now, I’m finishing up my first year in school at Harvard Business School in Boston and will soon be heading to San Francisco to build Connect. This time around, being in San Francisco is essential as it’s the epicenter of the Internet industry and the social enterprise/conscious capitalism movement and the home of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, and LeapMotion—all companies we are integrating with to build Connect. The area around Soma/Mission/Dolores in particular is a highly vibrant melange of creativity and inspiration. Come hang out in Dolores Park some weekend this summer!

Wednesday Night Dinners of Your Closest Friends

In my early 20s, once per month I would go to a three hour “forum” for 8 entrepreneurs who were part of the Raleigh-Durham chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Once per month we would share with the small group what our biggest personal and professional challenges were in a confidential caring environment. Being part of these EO Forums as I built iContact and encountered entrepreneurial challenges so many of my forum peers had seen before, was so helpful.

Using the “forum” model, every Wednesday night at 8pm at Harvard Business School I’ve pulled together my 6-8 closest friends for a weekly one hour roundtable dinner in the Spangler dining hall. We use the time to share a weekly update and any personal/professional challenges we’re facing. We turn off our mobile phones and make sure everyone is fully present. Five of the group are moving to San Francisco at the end of RC year (May 22nd) and we plan to continue the weekly roundtables this summer.

Intentionally Building Your Educational Network

Your school is one of the most important networks you’ll ever have, whether that’s your high school, college, or grad school. Your college and grad school in particular are critically important networks. That’s why, even though I only spent two years as an undergraduate, I found going to the University of North Carolina to be extremely transformational in terms of the people, networks, and ideas I was exposed to.

If you can, ensure that you prepare yourself (or your kids) well, and get into the best schools possible. Of course, you have to factor in the costs and opportunity costs of attending those schools. But remember: getting into a great educational network, whether it’s now or in the future, can be a worthwhile investment in your future ability to recruit top quality talent as your startup grows.

If you can’t afford to go to the best schools, keep building your network in other ways and still take the courses. There’s a great website called Coursera that enables you to actually enroll for free in some of the top classes from institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Stanford. Another site, Khan Academy, offers hundreds if not thousands of videos on every academic topic you can imagine—from learning a new language to quantum physics. On EDx you can take a number of Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley classes free of charge. These are just three of a wave of great free or affordable resources using video to educate anyone anywhere with access to the cloud. Others include Sophia, Skillshare, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, and Codeacademy.

There are many examples of people who, without going to a top 30 school or even going to school at all, have done amazing things in life. If you can’t go to a full-time school or grad school, think about Executive Ed programs. Once you save up some money and have your investments generating passive cash flow (we’ll talk about how to do this in the chapter on money), you can go to a program at an Ivy League school in the United States or one of the top institutions around the world. Harvard Business School’s Executive Programs start at around $20,000. Another great long term investment is the Singularity University Executive Program in Mountain View, CA. I attended their 4 day program in April 2012 and was blown away by how much I learned about the future of genomics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, health care, and natural user interfaces!

Intentionally Building Your Professional Network

After your school, your next most important network is your professional network. Choose the company you work for very carefully. Or, if you are entrepreneurial, build your own. It always puzzles me that young people spend 16-17 years in school, from kindergarten through grad school, and then spend just a few weeks trying to get a job, when in fact, the job is the foundational element for what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. Don’t just send out resumes using the career services database. Spend time researching companies that are working on solving problems that you’re passionate about.

If you are currently employed and you don’t like your job, find an organization whose mission you care about and do whatever it takes to work there, even if it means showing up in the lobby and simply waiting until someone takes a meeting with you. Very few people have that type of determination and persistence. In my nine years at iContact, no one ever showed up in the lobby insisting on having a meeting with me. But if they had, and they had waited there long enough and were friendly toward the receptionist and my executive assistant, I would definitely have taken that meeting. I would have been impressed by their persistence. Do whatever it takes.

Finally, never take a job unless you’re working directly for someone of high integrity from whom you can learn a lot. Too often, people will take a job because it’s the first one offered to them after blasting out resumes. Don’t do that. Consciously and carefully, over the course of months or maybe years, build your network, find companies pursuing things you are passionate about, and build relationships with individuals of high integrity who are ten or fifteen years ahead of you.

Only go to work for a company if you deeply believe in the change they are trying to make in the world. Too many companies are focused on the short-term maximization of profits, blinded by a concern for short-term shareholder return. In fact, what a company should focus on is long-term value creation, which actually corresponds very well with shareholder return. They should concentrate on creating value not just for the owners of the capital stock but for the entire community: for customers, for employees, and for shareholders.

The 27 Best Networks for Entrepreneurs & World Changers

If you’re a passionate entrepreneur or world changer of any kind, here are some organizations and communities you may wish to get involved with. Let me know in the comments below if I’ve left any good ones off!

  • Ashoka Fellows – A network of thousands of the best non-profit social entrepreneurs around the world. Hopefully Ashoka will consider for-profit social entrepreneurs as well in the future as much of the sustainable social change in the world happens in the for-profit sector.
  • Aspen Institute has a fellows program in Washington D.C. as well as in Aspen, Colorado where young political leaders or individuals wanting to make a difference in the world can often participate in a series of intellectual events.
  • B Corp Community – A community of hundreds of entrepreneurs and companies that have elected to become vetted, verified socially and environmentally responsible companies. Leading venture-backed companies like Warby Parker and Etsy are now B Corps.
  • Empact 100 is a listing of the top 100 companies run by individuals under 30, which is updated annually. It’s run by my friends Michael Simmons, Sheena Lindahl, and Sarah Green. Each year, when they come out with their list, they host a conference for entrepreneurs in D.C., which I’d definitely recommend attending if you can.
  • Entrepreneurs’ Organization is a global association for people who run their own businesses with at least a million dollars in sales. It was funded in the mid-eighties by a group of 21 young entrepreneurs who realized the importance of being able to connect with peers who would understand both the personal and professional challenges they were facing. If you’re an entrepreneur who has a company with more than a million in sales or you intend to get there in the future, check out EO. They host some really worthwhile conferences around the world each year.
  • Fortune Brainstorm is Fortune Magazine’s annual innovation conference.
  • General Assembly – A network of shared office space for awesome people in New York City and San Francisco. They put on really good training classes on all things tech.
  • INC 5000 – Inc. Magazine throws an annual conference in Washington D.C. for the leaders of companies that make the annual INC 500 and INC 5000 lists.
  • Kairos Society is an organization that brings together future leaders. They seek out high school and college students who want to change the world through entrepreneurship and innovation, and create forums for them to come together.
  • Nexus Global Youth Summit is a similar organization for young people “working to increase and improve philanthropy and impact investing by bridging communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship.” They hold annual conferences in the US, Europe, and Australia, which bring together some of the most competent, passionate, and smart individuals I’ve met.
  • Renaissance Weekend was founded in the 1981 by Phil Lader, an ambassador under Clinton, and his wife Linda. Amazingly, their daughter Mary Catherine is in my section at HBS. Their goal is to bring together future political leaders for weekend non-partisan gatherings where they would be exposed to diverse and cutting-edge ideas and perspectives. Now they have expanded to include business leaders, social change-makers, and many others, and there is a network of thousands of individuals aged 15 to 75 who have participated in their invitation-only gatherings. I’ve been attending from time-to-time since 2009.
  • Sandbox is a network of innovators and technologists, generally under the age of 30. They have “hubs” all over Europe, and on the East and West Coasts of the US. Some of the most impressive, motivated young people I’ve met are part of the Sandbox network.
  • Singularity University in Mountain View, California, focuses on using exponential technologies to improve the world and address some of the greatest challenges that our species faces in the decades and centuries to come. I attended their four-day executive education program in April 2012, which was where I came up with the idea for Connect. They also have a graduate studies program for ten weeks each summer in Mountain View. If you’re passionate about using technology, science, and innovation to make a difference, check them out. They’re often the ones talking about synthetic biology, time machines, artificial wombs, and other interesting topics.
  • Skoll World Forum was founded by Jeff Skoll, who was the president of eBay with Pierre Omidyar back in the late nineties before Meg Whitman took over. Jeff took his funds and created the Skoll World Forum and the Skoll Scholars Program at Oxford University in Oxford, England. They have an annual conference in Oxford which bring together hundreds of the leading social entrepreneurs—passionate, competent people from the business, philanthropic, NGO, and foundation sectors who want to make a difference in the world. If you fit those criteria, definitely check it out.
  • Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) has an annual conference in San Francisco every October. They bring together amazing people who are passionate about using finance, capital, and business skills to efficiently run NGOs that make a difference in the world.
  • Social Venture Network is a group of social entrepreneurs and impact investors who want to create and support mission-driven companies that make a tangible, measurable difference in the world.
  • StartingBloc supports young entrepreneurs who want to do well and do good. They convene annual gatherings of 20-30 year olds in Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston for a series of four-day institutes where they use a case study methodology to apply their knowledge and brains to some real business problems, particularly in the realm of sustainability.
  • Summit Series is an organization of entrepreneurs, mostly in the tech and social spaces, who have achieved something of significance—either built a company to more than a million dollars in sales or built an impressive and successful social venture. They’re now based at their headquarters in Eden, Utah near Park City. Check them out.
  • TechStars is one of the best well-known incubators of technology ventures, based out of Boulder, Colorado.
  • TED is an organization you have probably heard about. They put on the TEDx events, which are now in hundreds of cities around the world, as well as TED Global and their main TED conference in Monterey or Long Beach, California. TED brings together some of the best thinkers in technology, entertainment, and design to talk about the ideas that shape humanity and will shape the future of the world.
  • The Hub – The Hub is a global network of incubators and shared office space for entrepreneurs working to make a difference.
  • Unreasonable Institute is based in Boulder, Colorado. They are now going into their fourth year and they’ve brought together some of the leading social innovators from dozens of countries around the world for a multi-month program each summer. They create a forum for these innovators to come together with mentors and angel investors and refine their pitches and plans, and ultimately turn them into fundable companies that they can go back to their home countries and build.
  • World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Program is a program that brings together individuals under 40 who want to make a difference in the world and have achieved some notoriety in business or politics. They attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and form a community who support and empower each other. You can’t apply–you can only get nominated.
  • White House Fellows is a highly competitive program in D.C. where successful candidates get the chance to work in the White House at a senior level, assisting some of the leading public servants of our time. It’s an amazing learning opportunity and definitely a program to look into if you’re interested in politics or public service.
  • Y Combinator is probably the top incubator program for technology companies in California and around the world.
  • Young Entrepreneur Council was founded by Scott Gerber to bring together hundreds of the best entrepreneurs under forty, running companies with at least a million dollars in annual revenue.
  • Young Presidents’ Organization is the organization you graduate into after being part of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (which used to be called Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization). YPO is for individuals under 45 who run companies with $10 million or more in revenue or more than 50 employees (the criteria change somewhat based on your industry). YPO is for both entrepreneurs who have started their own companies and for presidents or chairpersons of companies who have taken over after the original founder or entrepreneur has left and moved on.


“Short this life is, just one I’ve got, finite in tenure, whether I like it or not. Dead is embracing fear, replacing dreams with “I cannot.” Alive is taking a new step, having a shot. I will do the impossible, I will change the world, I will give hope to a despairing nation, I’ll give bread to a starving girl. I’ll break all the records, I’ll do what’s never been done, I’ll give and know love, I’ll be a billionaire of fun.

You can whip me with your words and bash me with your lies. You can chain me to the ground with your rules, you can stab me with your eyes. I’ll forgive any personal harm, I’ll ignore all acts of mean, but I will not forgive obstruction of my purpose and dream. For I am a superman, I am a king, I will not just lie down, I will get up and take to wing. I will rise up as sure as the sun, as sure as the springbok I will run, as sure as the eagle I will fly, ‘cos I choose to live until I die.

What will you do with today, this hour, this minute? Will you fill with dull and fear or will you live it? I will not tolerate any foe no matter weapon or munition, especially if that foe is within me in the form of fear or lack of ambition. Short this life is, just one I’ve got. Finite in tenure whether I like it or not. As sure as the eagle I will fly, ‘cos I choose, I choose to live until I die.”