Influencers Aren't Born, They're Built — Here's How
People & Culture

Influencers Aren't Born, They're Built — Here's How

Serial entrepreneur and networking maven Angie Chang deconstructs the art of influence in three steps.

Early on, Angie Chang discovered that asking questions was actually the best way to influence others. One of her most important questions was posed to college classmate and now AppSumo CEO Noah Kagan. Kagan was running entrepreneurship conferences and events in Palo Alto at the time and had contracted Chang to build the website and design marketing collateral. After reviewing the speakers page, she asked, “Noah, why are there no women on any of these panels?”

This inquiry set off a chain reaction that led Chang to co-found Women 2.0, one of the largest global communities for women working in technology. Since then, she founded Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners (attracting hundreds of attendees per event) and currently breaks new ground as VP of Strategic Partnerships for Hackbright Academy, the engineering school for women. How did this English major and self-taught webmaster become one of Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology with close to 10,000 followers and even more fans?

In this exclusive interview, Chang reflects on her journey to become one of Silicon Valley’s most persuasive and powerful voices. She shares the early decisions that built her influence brick-by-brick, techniques to use a strong personal brand to fuel a cause or a company, and her go-to tactics for rallying individuals around something bigger than themselves.

First, Convince Yourself

Before becoming a leader of any organization, Chang made a conscious choice to become an influencer. There wasn’t one revelatory moment, but rather a sustained commitment to approaching everyday interactions with people in a persuasive way. Here are four tenets that she adopted early and practiced vigilantly to amplify her voice.

Construct your confidence — everyone else is figuring it out, too.

Networking at tech meetups in the Bay Area means a lot of exchanged business cards. “Nearly every guy I met handed me a card that read ‘CEO of ‘Company X’ and I was impressed. I listened to what they had to say,” says Chang. “Then I’d go through my stack of business cards, put their companies’ URLs in my web browser and realize that many were not only the CEO, but also the first and only employee of whatever company it was.”

Chang was careful not to dismiss the lesson. While she realized it took very little to print a business card with a CEO title, the important thing is to adopt the confidence of a CEO or founder. “That confidence leads to the credibility and belief that you can do something greater,” says Chang. “Early on, I was determined to project — and feel — that confidence like anyone else.” She also actively sought out women who embodied the same attitude.

One of those women was Sandy Jen, co-founder and CTO of instant messaging company Meebo, which was acquired by Google in 2012. Jen has said that one of the reasons she started Meebo was because one of her male friends launched a startup. Immediately, she knew she was clearly capable of the same thing, too. Really grounding yourself in what you already know — that your peers and friends are just like you — is one of the best ways to break down misbeliefs that you lack what it takes to start something or do something aspirational.

One thing that helped Chang is drawing confidence differently. “I see commonalities first. As humans, we notice differences easily, but we connect through similarities,” says Chang. “Maybe it’s through practice, but I don’t find that I’m all that different than the next person, to be honest. If you see yourself in someone else, it’s like you’re connecting with the person you’ve known the longest. You can suddenly see how you might do what others have done, but that you never thought you were capable of before.”

Deconstruct your networking events.

From the beginning, networking events have been a key platform for Chang to build her personal brand. Yet she’ll be the first to admit that making an impact or a good impression at meetups can be intimidating. She attended a hack night recently which showcased the startup’s modular microcontrollers that allow for physical devices to connect to the web, and felt the same discomfort she used to when she first started networking.

“I was on my own, nervous and slightly intimidated. It was a roomful of people silently hacking away,” recalls Chang. “My first instinct was to run out the door, but I told myself to give it just one hour.” Chang picked up a Tessel and alighted next to a woman sitting alone on the couch. The stranger turned out to be co-founder Jia Huang, who then helped Chang get her device blinking. Chang then used the Tesstel to take and tweet a photo of her and her new friend. “It was a real win, especially since I nearly left the meetup right after I got there.”

Even the most skilled conversationalist or seasoned professional can struggle in new networking environments. Here are Chang’s tips for newbies and veterans alike:

  • Count conversations if it’s hard to start them. For more nervous or introverted meetup attendees, go into a networking situation with a quantitative goal. It might be staying an hour or meeting three people. Don’t let yourself leave before you hit that number.
  • Pair your arrival time with your purpose. A well-timed entrance doesn’t always mean arriving before the free pizza runs out or walking in fashionably late. Chang suggests segmenting networking events differently. “Go early if you want to talk to the organizer without interruption or if you want quiet time to have more in-depth conversations,” she says. “Go toward the end if you seek quick chats, want exposure among a large number of people, or prefer to choose when to be noticed. Things really started for me when I was new to meetups, practiced being curious and asked questions.”
  • Channel your inner peacock. Connection and influence can come faster if others initiate the conversation. “Wear something catchy — either a funny t-shirt, a startup hoodie or Lego earrings,” says Chang, who happened to be wearing a dress patterned with lemurs during this interview. She says it spurred two spontaneous conversations for her in just one day. Conversation starters project your identity and give people a hook to come talk to you when they may not otherwise.
  • When in doubt, approach groups of two. If you have to take the daunting step of joining a conversation of strangers, always pick a duo. “It’s the right size to allow for easy conversation and contribution from each member of the gathering,” says Chang. “Then just stand there and smile at them. Simply say hello. Or ask about their company if they are wearing a name tag. It’s surprising how asking questions about other people actually makes you immediately interesting to them.”

Always default to yes. Seriously.

A key part to being an influencer is being truly accessible to others. This doesn’t mean straying from your objective, but it does mean listening and showing authentic initial interest. “I usually say ‘yes’ to most requests and invitations,” says Chang. “Some people screen and are very hesitant unless there’s a clear, direct impact. But, given the variety of ways my network has grown, I err on the side of being connected and letting myself be pleasantly surprised.”

Politely cut the conversation short if it’s not relevant to your mission, but take most meetings. “I am always interested in hearing what people have to say, and how I can be helpful. It’s the way to concretely practice what I believe, and that becomes part of my brand and reputation,” says Chang. The breadth of people she has met has helped her recruit hundreds of volunteers for Women 2.0, Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, and Hackbright Academy — and has fielded impressive speakers at her events.

Even if you’ve decided to become an influencer, it’s hard to know which channels will be most effective for you to meet the right people. So don’t guess. Just go with it. “I remember that one of my greatest supporters, Khosla Ventures Operating Partner Irene Au was randomly email introduced by someone I met for coffee,” says Chang. “He said, ‘You should meet this wonderful woman.’ I wanted to meet one of the few women executives at Google [where Au was working], so next week I did.”

It’s easy to see how always saying “yes” is unsustainable (especially as your career and social calendar gain momentum), and one should always be wary of burnout. Here are a few of Chang’s tactics to keep your accessibility and your sanity:

  • Keep mornings for yourself. “I don’t take meetings in the mornings if I can avoid it. That’s my time for emails and prioritizing the day’s work. It’s when I need and use the most brain power. I’m caffeinated and can get a lot done.”
  • Take meetings in the middle of the week in the late afternoon. “I segment my week to take most of my meetings midweek. It’s not always perfect, but it allows me to give as much of my undivided attention to people as I can.” Being able to focus on the person in front of you is critical to the cause of becoming an influencer. The only way to be heard by a great number of people is to make them feel like you truly hear and represent them. In-person interactions like this are precious opportunities to send this message.
  • Take Friday for exploratory meetings. “I prefer to take agenda-free meetings on Friday (like meeting with a young person just starting their career, or a friend of a friend interested in a specific field). I have the full week behind me and it gives me a lift to talk to new people and explore possibilities. I set these 20-minute coffee meetings a block from the office.” When you set time expectations upfront, you’re less likely to offend someone by cutting things short, and you can make it clear that you’re taking time out of a busy schedule to invest in them.
Influence is not magic. It’s a habit. By continuing to meet and take coffees with people, I’m mapping out the plan. Meetings are more than simple conversations — they’re the secret and serendipitous way forward.

Banish blind introductions.

Influence not only extends to those you meet, but also the people you connect to one another. Once you’ve built a strong network, your reputation is as much in your control as it is in others’ hands. “If a person wants an introduction to someone I know, I always ask for the purpose of the connection,” say Chang. “I won’t do a blind connection — it has to be useful to both people. Otherwise, I lose credibility and so does the other person.” It’s a delicate thing — much more so than most people think. And impressions created by missteps in this area stick.

A dual-sided introduction is paramount for maintaining credibility and influence within your network. It requires sharing backgrounds and getting buy-in from both sides separately, but it’s time well spent. This properly sets expectations and increases the likelihood of not only a better match, but also a positive association for the connector.

Affix Your Personal Brand to Something Greater

Building a personal network is the foundation of influence, but it has its limits unless it’s tied to a greater cause and community. People want to know and follow others who stand for something, espouse a particular philosophy or make them feel like part of a movement. Throughout her career, Chang has found a way to use her personal brand to unite and promote female founders, executives and technologists. Here’s how she did it:

Write to become ubiquitous.

Chang’s personal brand blended with her cause to support women in technology when she started publishing stories about female entrepreneurs and executives on Women 2.0’s website. For several years, she wrote three short articles a day and published a email summary weekly. “Writing helped me translate all the incredible stories I was hearing about the women I met,” says Chang.

“Each article I wrote started with a byline that read ‘By Angie Chang.’ Since I published so frequently, my name appeared in the subject line of our weekly newsletter that went out to over 10,000 women,” she says. After a few months, people started to approach her and say, “Your name’s really famous. I hear and see it everywhere. You’re always in my inbox.” Because they kept seeing her name, she was the one they wrote to or asked when they wanted to get involved with the organization. She became synonymous with the ideas it was advancing about women in leadership, entrepreneurship and technology.

If you speak openly and often, you don’t need to speak loudly.

Showcasing influential women and being an adept curator of their stories has helped Chang not only build her personal influence but also a far-reaching community. Her body of work defines her — it’s more than a calling card, it’s her professional identity. “If you want to advance a cause, produce a body of work that expresses and embodies what drives you. It will help you recognize and reach others who belong to your tribe and are a part of the story,” says Chang.

To begin to formulate your body work and increase its audience, ask yourself three questions:

  • Can you articulate what it is you’re doing or interested in doing in a few paragraphs?
  • What have you done or who have you assembled to demonstrate your interest?
  • What are some of the lessons you’ve learned and how have you made them habits?

If you can’t answer these questions, then perhaps the issue is not time, but resonance. “If you don’t have a body of work to show who you are and what you believe in, how do you expect to be an ambassador of it or influencer for it? If you have the desire, show that you’re an active agent. Make, tweet or write something to get started,” says Chang.

Don’t be discouraged if your body of work evolves or changes slight direction — keep at it. “I’m still refining my language,” says Chang. “I've explained concepts over and over again to people, and done a lot of iterative writing and tweeting on topics. It not only helps other people understand so they can champion the cause, but it’s also another way for me to check-in with the mission and how it resonates with the community and me today.”

Pick a very ambitious yet niche mission.

For Chang, to influence effectively means to choose — and to do so with precision. Since 2006, she’s been singularly focused on high-growth, high-tech entrepreneurship for women. “I attribute much of my success to identifying very early on who I wanted to connect to, surround myself with and bring together,” says Chang. “I honed in on a very specific category.”

It’s important that influencers don’t equate a restricted scope with a narrow impact. In fact, Chang has found the opposite is true. By expressing and broadcasting her focus on women in high-growth entrepreneurship and technology, and equality in leadership in particular, she’s been more thorough, effective and impactful. “When writing to raise the profile of successful female founders, I was also reaching out to angel investors who helped them fund their companies. It was a natural progression given my focus and frequency of my writing.”

Chang delivers deeply on this specific mission through Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, which has allowed her to connect a large number of women at once to companies and tech leaders who can inspire and influence them. “The dinners mean sharing a meal, but also success stories, job opportunities, mentorship tips and tricks. The events continue to grow because we find new and creative ways to deliver against a clearly defined mission serving women technologists and entrepreneurs.”

Additionally, the mission must not only be niche, but also ambitious. You need a North Star that energizes you in all the conversations you and have and all the logistical grunt work you may have to do to get there. “I’m not against starting small businesses, but I’m going to spend my time applauding high-growth businesses started by women,” says Chang. “Being uncompromising in ambition has been very good for building the brands of the organizations I’ve helped grow.” In the two years Chang has worked at Hackbright Academy, she has increased the network to over 150 partner companies, including the biggest companies such as Facebook, SurveyMonkey, Eventbrite and Uber, to recruit female software engineers.

Commit for the long haul.

Enduring influence and credibility takes time to build. Chang has over a decade of work experience writing and broadcasting over social media on women in technology, and has been recognized with accolades and media coverage. “Sure, a long track record on your resume or LinkedIn brings an authority, goodwill and trust that you’re an ambassador for a cause,” say Chang. “But I believe I’ve always been able to get meetings because I’ve shown duration with and sole dedication to this cause. In short, it’s not just the ‘Volunteer Experience and Causes’ portion of LinkedIn that shows my commitment, but my entire ‘Experience’ section. It’s hard to question my intent.”

It’s tempting to broadly apply Chang’s advice and operate believing that everything will take time. By definition, movements need to advance, but here are three areas where she recommends that progress needs consistent investment and where you should take the long view:

  • Partnerships. “Persuading partners to join you can take awhile. Sometimes the stars are aligned, but most times it takes a bucket of emails to get to the right person,” says Chang. “Hackbright Academy has a solid partnership with SurveyMonkey, especially with the engineering department led by CTO Selina Tobaccowala. She has hired Hackbright graduates steadily each quarter. AdRoll, New Relic and Lanetix have strong male champions of women leading their engineering departments and have also been strong employers of our students.” This is one area where your personal brand can make a big difference. If people believe they’re entering into a relationship with an individual who’s shown passion and dedication, they’re much more likely to enter into a professional partnership with a company led by that person.
  • Evangelism. “When marrying one’s personal brand with a company or cause, it’s important to be intentional with each decision for as long as possible. Mission creep can happen on a personal or company-level, and when you represent both, a misstep with one will impact the other, especially if you’re trying to do too much at once,” says Chang. “A lot of people try to recruit me for events management or evangelist roles. I have no interest in that because I know what I want to accomplish in a very specific way. It’s important to remind others of your stance with your behavior and decisions over time.”
  • Recruiting other influencers. “It takes time to find more women who want to influence an industry or community versus lead a company. It’s a lot of work that has be sustained for a long period, and it’s each individual’s personal decision in the end. I’m happy to mentor people, but it’s not my place to tell a woman that she needs to be more ambitious with her life (though I’m guilty of doing it). So, it takes time to find fellow influencers and build enough trust that they start sharing things for you.”

You're Only As Good As Your Ability to Rally People

As a serial entrepreneur, Chang has been able to engage tens of thousands of women through Women 2.0 and Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners. And she’s still astounded by how the title of “founder” has helped her assemble a movement. “Being a founder has been inadvertently useful. When I started Women 2.0, it was more like a goal of just meeting and connecting with people,” says Chang. “The fact that I’m a founder has opened doors. It carries weight and a lot of social capital, especially given the huge demand for female role models in leadership positions.”

As a result, she's been able to help rising female leaders in tech cut their teeth as founders, join high-growth companies or get exposure in the media. Chang's asked about the leading women in science or technology, and she shares many names. She’s known for this. That said, for those who aren’t founders, there are still ways to rally people and amass a following. Here are three tactics from Chang:

Just ask.

It seems obvious and simple, but many people hesitate to make a direct ask of support. Soon after Chang started Women 2.0, its first conference drew an audience of 100 women and a few men. She created the website, logo and a simple flyer to distribute. “Then, we asked our friends, tapped our network and called in favors,” says Chang. “We asked people to attend and to be on panels. Most people said yes.”

If your requests hit the bullseye, be prepared to deliver more. After the initial Women 2.0 event, attendees asked how to sign up on a mailing list or when they could come to the next event. To keep up with the demand, Chang started to invite people to her house to host a monthly meetup of female founders.

After 100 women tried to cram into her apartment, she moved the meetup to a larger meeting space in San Francisco. “Part of it was being responsive, and giving them a space to connect with each other. A big moment was having the group articulate that they were going to build this together. Group ownership is a big part of community building.”

Don’t be afraid to establish “making asks” as a rule — until it becomes part of the culture. “For Girl Geek Dinners, we always create a rideshare Google document for attendees to carpool to events,” says Chang. “This makes it easy for attendees to reach out to others, network and make real connections.”

Get people to take it personally — then they’ll support publicly.

In January 2008, Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners held its first event for over 400 women at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. The organization has hosted over 90 dinners to date, attended by over 15,000 women in the Silicon Valley. Dinners are now held every other week and completely booked for the next year and a half. Chang and her team used all the well-known engagement techniques: word of mouth, free admission, Facebook groups and e-mail signup lists. These tools were all valuable and lowered most barriers to participation.

But the team focused most intently on delivering the networking, content and connections that would make a lasting impression on the female technologists and founders in the room. For example, sponsors are encouraged to make their women executives, engineers and technologists the speakers at the event. Encore sponsors are encouraged to share how many female attendees they’ve hired from previous dinners. One sponsoring company hired 9 women after hosting two events.

“We made their professional growth personal to the point that they took it personally with their companies,” says Chang. “The Girl Geek Dinner attendees recruit for us with their own companies, asking them to become sponsors. The random string of coffees that led me to [former Director of UX at Google] Irene Au and Google’s sponsorship of a previous event in London got us our first sponsor stateside. Facebook soon followed.” The passion for the cause — and then the virality of the concept — produced 400 new registrations over a weekend.

“There no substitute for — or reminder like — posting photos that share how fun the events look, the faces of the women networking and even cultural aspects of the organization,” says Chang. “By encouraging others to share their personal experiences of our professional events on social media with the right hashtag, we’ve been able to spread like wildfire.”

Forget motivational posters. At Hackbright, people love sharing pictures of the bathroom mirror, because that's where people leave encouraging Post-its for each other.

Social media has extended Hackbright Academy’s reach and influence beyond its operational footprint. “People from other cities, states, and even countries where we don’t operate, come up to us and say, ‘I know Hackbright has an unofficial Balloonicorn mascot. And it’s awesome.’ Social media has allowed the members of our network to easily spread the word in a way that feels authentic to them,” says Chang.

Keep it coming full-circle.

For Chang, influencing others involves creating habits to make small adjustments that produce a larger impact. Many of these routines are cyclical and have a pay-it-forward attribute. Here are three tactics that has served her organizations and her well:

Boost and boast. While Chang’s no longer working with Women 2.0 full time, she tweets daily about women in technology and business. She prefers to retweet, and in some cases, boosts the same links by using a new line of text or adding a photo. “There’s a lot of great content out there that just needs a hook, so I’ll write a new line or add a screenshot to help it get noticed. Once, Arianna Huffington retweeted an article I wrote, with a much better subject line,” says Chang. “Everyone needs an editor and a cheerleader. I’ve noticed that most women aren’t inclined to boast about themselves, so I like to help surface their great ideas and accomplishments as much as possible.”

Rephrase and repeat. When Chang and her team are recruiting attendees for an event, drafting and delivering variations of the same invite email has improved their sign-up rates. “I understand that there's a funnel to pass through. That usually means emailing people five times to get them to commit to something that you know they want to do but they're just too busy to actually do it,” she says. “Repetition with email marketing actually works. But change the email subject line, create new threads instead just heaping onto the old ones. Unless you receive an RSVP No, stay persistent. I haven’t found that it burns bridges or sheds subscribers.”

Elevate your alumni. Hackbright Academy outfits its alumni with information and attire to keep them active as ambassadors. “With their diverse backgrounds and networks, we ask them to help spread the word about our awesome Hackbright engineering fellows by simply being themselves! We give each graduate a bright red Hackbright hoodie to wear as they start their new jobs at great companies. It’s earned media and unpaid marketing for us.” The red hoodie is just a symbol — and reminder — of the enormous amount of pride they have for Hackbright. “Our students are the best marketing that we can have,” says Chang.

I don’t think of myself as an influencer, but as someone who has decided and declared. That’s attractive to people. They attach strings to you and hold on for the ride.

By definition, influence involves other people’s buy-in to change — and that begins with persuading yourself. Adopt a “founder’s confidence,” approach your networking with precision and “say yes” by default. These are the small decisions and habits that help build your personal brand. Applying your influence to advance a cause or company requires more diligent, sustained work. The key here is to pick a very ambitious, niche mission to champion and build a body of work by writing prolifically and publicly about it. To assemble a following, don’t be shy to ask and remind people to join you or help share your ideas. If they take it personally, they’ll promote it publicly.

The best influencers — like the best teachers — know they’ve done their job when they’re no longer needed. Chang sees her role in promoting and elevating women in technology similarly.

“Frankly, I’d like to see most women’s organizations not have to exist anymore — eventually. For my work, that means reaching gender parity at all levels, from entrepreneurs in small businesses to venture-backed companies to the investors at venture capital firms,” says Chang. “Let’s get the same global 50/50 gender-split at each tier and throughout each function within technology companies. It’s a big job to hit a simple metric, but that’s what I’m about and that's where I’m headed.”