Make a Stranger Believe in You

I recently received an e-mail sent to my business address that began with the salutation “Dear Ms. Anne,” — the kind of greeting that suggested that the rest of the note would offer me riches from some recently deceased Estonian cousin I didn’t know I had. It continued, “I know you have no idea who I am, however, I will try to keep this as short and to the point as possible” — words destined to cause a further sinking feeling about what was to come. But in the seconds I skimmed the note, a few words jumped out at me and I was intrigued. In three short paragraphs, Zanele Mutepfa, a junior at Portland State University in Oregon, told me that she was an immigrant Zimbabwean-born orphan and youth advocate who aspired to be a television talk show host. With a bravado that might have been off-putting, she said, “I assure you, my dynamic life story will one day hit headlines…but most importantly change lives, it just needs to be shared with the perfect person.” She was coming to New York City — might I have time to meet with her?

I had moved from the hinterlands to New York myself, 35 years ago, with virtually no professional contacts, so when she closed her note by saying, “Some may think one of the strangest things to do is believe in a stranger, but if not one stranger believed in us, once upon a time, where would we all be today?… someone did it for you.”

Yes. Yes they did. So I Googled Zanele, found a link indicating she was who she said she was, and agreed to meet. And as I discovered, so did several other media professionals whom Zanele had e-mailed cold. In this challenging job market, I think it’s worthwhile to explore why these busy professionals took the time to respond and help Zanele. I contacted a few of them to find out, and have come away with some ideas that might help other people looking for work — and not just those entering the workforce for the first time.

Have clear professional goals

Before she e-mailed anyone, Zanele sat down and wrote an outline for herself, articulating her several goals: to become a talk show host, establish a women’s empowerment organization, become an author — and maybe become a plus-size fashion model as well. While these are crazily ambitious and at first glance unrealistically expansive goals for a college student, two unifying themes — to work in the media and be a catalyst for helping other women — helped her target her search.

Cast a wide but focused net

Zanele’s focus on media professions (she wasn’t exploring legal or financial positions, for instance) allowed her to channel her search towards those operations (Oprah Winfrey Network, Oxygen Network, Essence, Ebony, YWCA) whose missions seemed to align with her dreams. “It was important for me to truly believe in what they do,” she told me, “in order for my letter to have truth.” Like any modern day sleuth, she used every tool to find the right contacts, web-searching terms such as “corporate women authors,” “women in magazines,” scouring sites like LinkedIn, company websites, Twitter, and executive profiles. Since most companies have standard e-mail formats, she sent multiple emails in every conceivable format until she didn’t get a “mail delivery error.” Within her relatively narrowcast objective, she contacted as many people as possible — eventually writing to 2,000 people. Thirty responded to those e-mails and six agreed to meet with her in person. With that kind of a response rate, the benefits of going wide are obvious.

Be authentic — tell a personal story

Dina Gusovsky, a broadcast journalist and columnist, was one of the media professionals who responded. While most people would think that being as brief and to the point in their cover note as possible would be the most professional and likely to succeed approach, Dina’s response indicates that the opposite may true. She told me that she agreed to meet with Zanele “because I think at one point we were all Zaneles. Sometimes I feel like I still am. For creative people…the journey never ends. Whatever success I have had so far is directly correlated to all the people who gave me a chance. Not just those who decided to put me on television, but those who listened, those who gave me advice, and those who mentored me.” But as an emigre from the Soviet Union, for Dina it was Zanele’s immigrant background that resonated most. Her meeting with Zanele was “probably less pay-it-forward and more pay-it-backward. I think all those people who had helped me and continue to help would be proud that I was in some way continuing this wonderful trend.”

Offer a variety of connection points

Janice Huff, the chief meteorologist for WNBC TV in New York, responds to lots of inquiries from young people interested in becoming meteorologists, but rarely takes the extra step to meet with them. However, Zanele had susssed out that Janice was a fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, and personalized her note referencing that shared connection. For Janice, “that’s what made me decide I’d love to meet her and help her.” Zanele took the time to find shared interests for about 20% of her targets and mentioned them in her notes. So before you reach out it pays to research, and determine where your connection points might lie.

Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability

Ellianna Placas, a fashion consultant and another immigrant (from Australia), and the former Fashion Director for Essence Magazine, was impressed by Zanele’s ability to “show honesty and vulnerability and risk, putting her faith in human nature first — a brave and open beginning. ‘Believe in a stranger’ was so romantic, yet realistically appealing to me. Maybe I am imbuing it with more than Zanele intended, but it held universal appeal. We should all be helping each other. Zanele came to me for advice, she left as a new friend.”

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