Audrey Henderson is a Chicago-based writer specializing in sustainability, affordable housing, popular culture, business and more. Here, she shares how a risky one-time splurge earned her a profitable opportunity—and one priceless meet-and-greet.
It was 2004—right after then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama had created a sensation at the 44t National Democratic Convention in Boston. The invitation I received from Illinois Citizen Action breathlessly announced the coup that the organization had snagged the Democratic Party’s brightest rising star as the keynote speaker for its annual dinner. I knew I wanted to be there.
The only problem: the per-ticket price of $100 was far out of my price range. Even the reduced per-ticket price of $50 was more than I could realistically afford. As a graduate of a highly-ranked private institution of higher education, I regularly receive invitations high-priced events—most of which are routinely relegated to the trash. The truth is that, despite my first-class education, I had simply never commanded the sort of earnings that would allow me to drop Benjamins on a single occasion.
My first instinct was to discard this invite just as I had done with so many others. Yet, I hesitated. This dinner represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the man who could (and did) become the first black president of the United States. But how could I possibly justify spending two weeks’ grocery money on a single meal?
My answer came in the form of accomplishing two purposes with a single expenditure. A former supervisor had since become a friend. Over the years, she had provided me with numerous glowing recommendations for job applications and freelance proposals, more than one of which had panned out into paying work. I decided to purchase tickets for the two of us, and thank my friend by inviting her to come along as my guest.
Fast-forward to the night of the dinner. Never having been the type to network or self-promote, I resigned myself to enjoying a delicious meal and listening to an inspiring speech, nothing more. My friend had other ideas.
Familiar with my complaints about being unable to make connections at networking events, my friend introduced a novel suggestion. We would each introduce ourselves to the very next person who crossed our paths. No high-pressure glad handing, just a simple hello and a handshake. Even I could handle that.
The woman who approached me was African American, like me, but somewhat older. She smiled and extended her hand, and I extended my hand in response. This was working out to be much easier than I had feared.
As it turns out, she and I shared an alma mater, and she was beginning an assignment that would very likely have a need for someone with my skill set. “Why don’t you give me a call next week? I think we can help each other out,” she said, offering me her card.
To make a long story short, it turns out that my skills were indeed well suited to her project, which involved analyzing demographic data and evaluating the progress of an ongoing major local governmental project. Although my work for the project only required part-time hours, the per-hour rate was more than sufficient to cover the price of those events tickets. In fact, I worked with the project for the next three years, earning the price of that dinner many thousands of times over. The weeks of pinching pennies to make room in my budget for the tickets had definitely been worthwhile.
I still can’t casually drop hundreds of dollars on dinner events, but my qualifications were definitely enhanced by the three years I spent working with that project. It remains one of the bright spots on my résumé. I can also boast that, although he almost certainly has forgotten, I once had a face-to-face conversation with the President of the United States.