By Jessica Bock St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Standing across from a potential match, the girls asked as many questions as they could before the bell rang and it was time to move to the next table.
A spinoff from the idea of speed dating, this was speed linking or networking, the type of rapid-paced event meant to connect business professionals.
But the event earlier this month wasn't for executives or corporate types. Rather, it was organized so that eighth-graders at a city Catholic school for girls from low-income backgrounds could pair with successful career women willing to offer advice.
The seven African-American women volunteering as mentors work in medicine, business and law. They included a pediatrician, a bank vice president and a federal judge.
The girls at Marian Middle School came ready with networking practice.
Etiquette coach Naretha Hopson taught them how to make first impressions count, from eye contact to the best placement of a name tag (on the right, the same side as a handshake).
"You never know when an opportunity is going to be very important," Hopson told the girls before they met with potential mentors. "And it's what you do after that really matters."
Some schools are embracing the idea of learning to network at a young age. The Parkway School District's business incubator class recently held a similar speed networking event for high schoolers. Developing relationships with professionals can open opportunities for internships or other valuable experiences to add to scholarship applications and eventually, résumés.
But it's not just about knowing the right people. Even those who graduate from top schools with good grades can struggle at finding a job if they don't know how to network, experts say.
When it was time to begin, Mariah Favell sprang from her seat and eagerly walked over to one of the tables.
"Hi, I'm Mariah," she said, reaching out to give Michelle Tucker, a senior vice president at Bank of America, a strong shake.
"Wow, I can see you didn't just hear those tips, they stuck," Tucker told her before explaining her position and what her day-to-day work involves.
There were also gentle corrections, such as when one student reached her hand across the table over another to shake hands.
After several minutes, Hopson rang a small gold hand bell, and it was time to move to the next table.
The mission at Marian, 4130 Wyoming Street, is to break the cycle of poverty by fostering students' spiritual, academic, social, moral, emotional and physical development to prepare them to complete college prep high schools. The mentor event was part of the mission to educate girls for life, said President Mary Elizabeth Grimes.
The event was coordinated through the Archway chapter of the Links Inc., one of the nation's oldest and largest African-American volunteer organizations.
"It definitely gave me a mindset where I can do these types of things," said Daryn Jackson.
Most of Marian's students are girls of color.
We hope to be an ongoing resource for these students and a mirror image of what their futures can hold," said Noelle Collins, a federal judge in St. Louis. "Don't let anyone discourage you," Collins told the girls.
Mariah Favell said she is interested in a law career. She liked the chance to talk with several different women, but wished that she had more time. "I'll definitely be following up," she said.
They left the event with goody bags. One of the items inside was a package of thank-you notes, waiting to be opened and sent.