How I spoke at Harvard, Upenn, and Cornell despite having 0 credibility

Roughly 3 years ago I was invited to speak at Harvard Business School, Cornell, Upenn Wharton School of Business and Rutgers university despite having 0 experience, 0 credibility, and knowing 0 people there.

How did I do it?

It was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.

To back up and give you some context, let’s go back to 4 years ago when I was trying to get my company BrainGain off the ground.

In a nutshell my business was as follows – Find top talent from top US universities and convince them to work with startups in India and SE Asia that needed their expertise.

In my first six months I was able to find around 15 companies interested in hiring foreigners for their businesses. Now it was time to go find candidates who wanted to work in India.

My strategy to find candidates? Contact all of the top US universities and speak to their career services departments.

At first it was never my goal to speak at any of these places. In fact, it was never my idea to do this at all until THEY asked ME.

My strategy was to get access to their Listserv so I could send blast emails to students in hopes that this would drive traffic to the website, which would then get people to send me their resume.

I quickly got access to the listserv but my email blasts didn’t deliver any meaningful results. Every experiment I ran was a dud. Complete flop. I think my first 3 email blasts got around 5 replies.

I had to try something new.

I discovered that most universities have a job board, so I began asking career services departments if I could post my job descriptions there. They complied. 💪

Then one day someone from the Career Services Department at Harvard Business School asked me if I would be interested in speaking to student groups directly.

I’d have to be an idiot to turn down an opportunity like that, so he began connecting me to various student groups and started pitching ME to THEM.

Within a week I had three student groups collaborating together to put me in front of an audience. Within a month I had the speaking opportunity arranged and I had 0 responsibility to promote or do any marketing. They did it all for me.

An important point I believe was crucial to this working – I knew that if I went in directly pitching my business there would be no way I could get in front of an audience. I knew I had to weave the business into an interesting topic.

When I spoke to the student groups, I focused on my knowledge about working internationally and startup ecosystems in SE Asia rather than my business. They opted for me to give a speech on ”India – The world’s fastest growing startup ecosystem”. Given that I was a white dude talking on the topic after having lived in India for 2 years, it seemed like a good option.

(You can find the exact slides I used in this presentation here if interested)

Back to the story, once I saw that this worked with HBS, one of the best universities in the world, I was convinced I could make it happen at other universities I was already in contact with.

The gears started churning and I went back to work. I began re-initiating conversations with every university I had previously connected with.

By the time I went home for Thanksgiving in November I had lined up additional speaking opportunities at Cornell, Rutgers School of Social work, and Wharton School of Business.

I was PUMPED.

Emphasizing flexibility – I did a completely different speech at each university.

At Cornell I gave a general presentation into working abroad and how to do it. You can find the slides I used here.

At Rutgers I was fortunate to connect directly with a professor who loved my work and wanted to put me in front of students. He agreed to give me an information session where I could pitch BrainGain directly and talk about our available jobs. The slides I used for this one are here.

At each university I had an audience of around +/- 30 students. Cornell was the biggest hands down with around 50 or so. I received a positive response and was able to collect resumes from about ⅓ of the total attendees, and many reached out to me months later once they were interested in working abroad.

Did I end up converting anyone specifically from these pitches? I’ll admit, no I did not.

Did I get paid for any of these opportunities? No, I did not.

But to be honest….who cares!?!? If you get an opportunity to be able to say that you spoke at any of these universities you jump at it – and then it stays on your resume for the rest of your life! 

The next year I was invited back to all of the universities to speak AGAIN. Of course I did.

These talks also paved the way to an opportunity for a TEDx talk down the line (please don’t judge me for my awful hair during this strange point in my life! 😛 ).

Not all was bright though – I made a few very big mistakes in hindsight.

The first? I didn’t go in with email signup sheets.  

In retrospect I believe my speeches would have been much more effective if I used these opportunities to land email addresses of people. Grabbing emails before the talk began, right when they walked in.

For anyone reading this who wants to try and replicate this technique, put those lines above in bold so you don’t forget. It makes a HUGE difference.

The second big mistake? I went alone and didn’t record a video for all of them. OUCH. I can’t believe I messed this one up.  

A video of a speech can turn into a valuable piece of marketing material and credibility. Don’t miss out on this opportunity.

So what can we learn from all of this? How can you apply this into your own life?

It’s a lot easier than you think to get in front of an audience of the top students in the world. If you have a product or idea and some minimal success or an interesting story, chances are you can convince someone to let you speak there.

Go after student groups – Student groups have the authority to do whatever they want. They have huge email lists, can get you in front of 100’s of students, and are more or less in your age range so they are much easier to talk with and relate to.

Flexibility in your pitch – Don’t come in with a rigid idea of what you want to talk about. Ask questions to discover what would be most interesting to them. Cater your pitch to the student group/person you’re speaking with.

Email lists!!!! – Collect emails collect emails collect emails. People aren’t going to buy immediately, so it’s important that you grab their contact information.

Take a video – Make sure you get videos and pictures so that you can use this for future marketing efforts.

Belief in yourself is everything – People only know who you are up until the point that they know otherwise. IF you can inspire a person over the phone, you can inspire an audience. Use this to get yourself into places again for the future 😉

Now go out there and line up some speaking opportunities for yourself!!!!


Also published on Medium.

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