How The Thing, a free network for women and non-binary people, are breaking down the barriers of networking
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” For everyone working in the creative industries, you have probably heard this phrase a million times as networking has become an increasingly integral part of being ‘successful’ – whatever that even means. However, networking can be elitist, exclusionary, and anxiety-inducing if we don’t start to break down the barriers that surround it.
This is why The Thing was born. Elise Bell, Danielle Thom, and Imogen West-knights came together at the end of 2019 to create a free network for women and non-binary people in the precarious creative industries. As they say, this means “no membership fees, no waiting list, no branded tote bags, no bullshit.” Join us in an open, honest conversation about the cost of networking, from how to survive when attending events alone to how we can actually start to make networking more inclusive.
The creative industries are, as you state, precarious. Alongside bonding over this underlying uncertainty, why did you decide to start The Thing?
Danielle Thom: I'd been thinking about the problems of exclusionary networking in the arts for a while, and the financial and social costs of participation in these. I'm lucky enough to be in a reasonably secure position, career-wise, and I get access to things via my job, but it wasn't always like that. I'm from a working-class background; I didn't enter my field pre-armed with contacts and cash and insider knowledge. Anyway, I posted an off-the-cuff tweet a few months ago, about starting up a free/accessible network for women in the arts, and Elise replied pretty much immediately, so I gather she'd been thinking along similar lines. We messaged back and forth for a while, mapping things out; then we met up, along with Imogen (at the pub, obvs) to plan things out in more detail.
Imogen West-Knights: Like many people, I'd been getting annoyed about the way that certain networking and co-working spaces brand themselves as feminist enterprises, whilst at the same time wildly pricing out the women who need that kind of resource the most. It's something Elise and I had grumbled about to each other just as friends, and when she and Danielle began tweeting about it and getting the ball rolling on starting up The Thing, I was very eager to help out.
Elise Bell: I'm very much of the opinion that if there's something you want to change, use your platform to make that happen. I'm 24 and in the early stages of my career and I found it wildly frustrating that women's networking was being targeted towards the wealthy and comfortable. The reality is that within the creative industries, the people that need solidarity the most are the underpaid, the overworked, and those working in precarious environments. The emergence of certain expensive membership groups spurred us into action.
“The reality is that within the creative industries, the people that need solidarity the most are the underpaid, the overworked, and those working in precarious environments.” – Elise Bell
We’ve all been to those events where you turn up alone, do one lap of the room, and then leave. Do you have any advice for turning up to networking events (such as The Very First Thing!) by yourself?
Danielle: I'd advise going into events with realistic expectations – like, you might chat to one or two people briefly, and if it's something like an exhibition private view you'll come away having seen the show. Don't turn up expecting the evening to end in a coordinated musical number about your own greatness (but if that does happen, DM me plz). Remember that plenty of other people will be in a similar situation, not knowing anyone, and making nervous small talk... it just *looks* like they know people there. Sometimes it pays to strike up a conversation with someone else who's clearly solo. I guarantee they'll be hanging out near the nibbles, because breadsticks are the cure for loneliness.
Imogen: Oh God, I get so anxious before going to networking events where I don't know anybody, or only know a couple of people. I arrived at one over Christmas where I couldn't tell which of the groups of people in the pub was in fact the group of people I was there to meet, and sat in the toilets for fifteen minutes thinking about climbing out the window. Don't do that, is my first tip. I very much second Danielle's advice re: targeting the food and people on their own, but we're also going to be doing as much as we can at the first event to make things easy for people flying solo to feel at ease and included.
Elise: Everyone has a nightmare story of the time they went to an event, knew no one there, looked at their phone for 15 minutes with a glass of wine, and then left. It's a rite of passage that everyone goes through and if anything imparts the life advice that almost all private views suck. But there is hope! I've made close friends from bumping into people at events and recognising them from twitter or instagram and so would always say, if you're going somewhere alone, see if any friends or mutuals are going in advance and grab a drink prior. However we're keen for The Thing to be the absolute opposite of shitty, cold networking events of the past and we'll be sure to try our very best to create a space that feels accessible and inviting. If all else fails compliment someone on their top and bitch about the canapes.
“Remember that plenty of other people will be in a similar situation, not knowing anyone, and making nervous small talk... it just *looks* like they know people there.” – Danielle Thom
Let’s talk numbers – networking can physically cost money (even transport to venues and back adds up). How can we start to break down these financial barriers when the world revolves around cash?
Danielle: This is something we're reckoning with. There are a number of high-profile women-only clubs and networks, which purport to be all about empowerment, but if it costs an annual four-figure sum just to *be* a member, you ain't empowering shit, you're just perpetuating exclusion along a different axis. The Thing is free to join, and we're committed to keeping it that way, so that's one small action we've been able to take. We are thinking about ways in which we could cover the costs of future events, because we believe in paying people (like panelists) for their time, and ideally we'd like to support our members experiencing financial hardship, even if it's just the cost of a couple of drinks, so that they can attend.
Imogen: And this is very much something we'd want members to have their say on. Should it be pay what you can? Pay a tiny fee per event? Should we seek larger donations from organisations/individuals who want to support this kind of venture? A combination of these options? But however we end up funding future events, it's got to be properly accessible to everybody – however little they're earning – or we've fucked up.
Elise: Of course, we're still learning how to work all of this out, but it's extremely empowering for us anyway to know that there is a demand for this kind of a space. From the reactions of people thus far, it's reaffirmed our belief that we can create spaces that don't pander to a girlboss aesthetic or the marketisation of its morals. We are offering a free service first and foremost and we're keen to find the best and most fair way to make that sustainable.
“However we end up funding future events, it's got to be properly accessible to everybody – however little they're earning – or we've fucked up.” – Imogen West-Knight
Another barrier is accessibility, and with so many creative organisations being London-based, how can we actually start to make networking more accessible and inclusive?
Danielle: Major problem, and I think we'd gladly admit that we are part of the problem, even as we're trying to be aware of it and address it. Fact is, the three of us are based in London anyway, so that's where we're starting this network. However, we're hoping to build a sustainable infrastructure which could theoretically be used to set up events elsewhere, and we've already had a few members in other cities reach out to us, offering to coordinate an event. The London-centric nature of the UK's creative economy is connected to a number of factors, and not something we can solve by ourselves, but we're committed to leveraging this network in order to improve the situation.
Imogen: Exactly. None of us have any desire for the three of us to form body that has some kind of "voice" or authority in its own right. This is the starting point, and from here we want to build something that is collaborative: run, expanded, and maintained by its members. And events outside of London are a crucial part of that.
Elise: I firmly believe that London centrism is one of the greatest problems facing the creative industries – that is something we can all agree on. The cultural neglect of certain areas of the UK, from depriving access to the arts to inadequate funding in rural regions, has a knock on effect on all of us. How do we create a truly accessible creative industry if it is built only for people that live and work in London? Like Danielle and Imo have said, empowering members that live outside of London to hold their own events and shape the future of The Thing is going to be a top priority for us this year and we're all really committed to making that happen. It's a small thing but at this point every little literally does help.
“The London-centric nature of the UK's creative economy is connected to a number of factors, and not something we can solve by ourselves, but we're committed to leveraging this network in order to improve the situation.” – Danielle Thom
So, what can we expect from your first networking event and from The Thing in the future?
Danielle: First event is a simple get-to-know-you drinks thing, and we're hoping that members come along with the intention of meeting and making new friends. Anyone coming alone is more than welcome to drop us a line so we can make sure they know a friendly face beforehand! Future events are still TBC, but we're planning to hold them every quarter, and are working on a really exciting panel discussion for April.
Imogen: Expect casual: just some drinks in a bar for people to hang out and meet new people. Nothing stuffy, no mid-century furniture, no girl boss-themed cocktails.
Elise: I'm also working on a playlist of anthems so good that it will hopefully change everyone's lives.