How to build a network of like-minded people

Back when I’d first moved to Bonn, I was pretty sure I was going to become a photographer. So I bought a DSLR, made my family pose for hundreds of photographs, and spent hours playing around on LightRoom, trying in vain to become a pro with the Adobe Suite.

It was during this photo-frenzy that I met Katrina. She wanted to get rid of her telephoto lens, and I was under the impression that the more lenses I had, the better of a photographer I would be.

We met one evening just after a 6pm drizzle, and, standing in the cobblestoned city centre, discovered we had lots more in common that a love of beautiful images and the gadgets that make them. Months later, when I changed jobs and moved to an office that was five minutes from Katrina’s building, we met for lunch. She was in a rush that day, but still found time to share lots of smiles AND paid for my meal. I figured we’d see each other soon, and I’d repay the favour, but a couple of years went by and we never met up. I started working from home, Katrina had a baby, we lost touch.

Two weeks ago, she called me.

“Malaika, I’m really struggling. I can’t stand my job, everyone just talks about money, money, money, I’m ready to quit and do something new, but everyone is telling me I’m crazy.”

Katrina, you’re not crazy, I told her. “It’s completely reasonable to want to do something you’re truly passionate about, and it’s part of what makes life really good. So why shouldn’t you have that?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, sounding morose. She sounded pretty down, and when I asked her what was getting to her, here’s what she said:

“But everyone around me talks only about money, benefits, security, etc. I can’t find like-minded people who are not all about that, and therefore -I actually don’t think that I have any appropriate connections. Not just to find a good job, but rather people who are on the same page as me, who will not stare at me with a blank face while I explain why I have decided to quit a job that provides me with a lot of money, benefits and security. Honestly, I am tired of explaining it already. And of that face telling me – YOU MUST BE CRAZY!”

“Katrina,” I wanted to tell her, “There are hundreds of people in the world who don’t talk ONLY about money, benefits, security. You’ve just got to go out there and meet them!”

“I am sure you have a lot of acquaintances who are like-minded,” she said. “I would love to become a part of a community that maybe shares ideas, or works on joint projects to make a difference in people’s lives, environmental issues, social projects, etc. How do I meet them?”

Here’s what I told her about where to get started:

‘Expats in…[your city] Facebook groups.

Because so many NGO workers are expats, and vice versa, you’ll always find opportunities to discuss social issues among others who have come to your city from another country. Worried about living in too-small a town? Even the tiniest villages have expats, or Peace Corps Volunteers, or recent graduates teaching English. Some of my closest friends in Madagascar were French agronomists working in the tiny town of Ambatondrazaka, where I lived, and though we were just five foreigners, when they offered to host dinner parties, I invited the local Peace Corps Volunteers, and suddenly we were a group of ten people passionately discussing climate change and the sustainability of rice farming. Expat groups tend to be inclusive, friendly, and treasure troves of connections when you are job-hunting.


Although my least-favourite way to meet people (since most of their events seem to revolve around alchohol and attract many with poor social skills, Internations exists in nearly every capital city, hosts well-attended events, and exists for the express purpose of bringing locals and expats together. Many people tell me that the crowd Internations attracts varies enormously by city. You can try attending at least one event, and give yourself the goal of talking for at least 15 minutes with at least one person. The last time I did that, I met a Rwandan refugee who spoke perfect Spanish, an Australian surfer and his Dutch-Chinese-Singaporean girlfriend, and an American economist, all of whom have since become close friends.

Intern groups.

Back when I first moved to Paris, I was considering doing a consultancy at the OECD, a job I’d long salivated over. A friend invited me to an after-work event organised for the “young” people who come from all of the OECD’s member countries to intern there, or those who work at the OECD and don’t already have a Paris-based friend circle. The first time I went, to a dark bar in the 15th arrondissement, I spotted a girl wearing a bright red dress that fit her perfectly, and began a conversation about clothes from Zara. Besides being wise and beautiful and super-smart, she was gentle, and had kind eyes. I liked her so much, I got her number and we met the next week to have Saturday brunch. Despite her crazy schedule and the fact that we lived on opposite sides of Paris, a friendship blossomed, and though we’d met at a networking event, we never talked about work. But when she did talk about education policy, her brown eyes alit with true passion for the topic, I could relate, and she listened without judgment to my career and personal worries. Paris has the OECD and UNESCO, but you can find people of all ages passionate about policy and global issues wherever there is a major UN agency. Bonn has its group, Geneva has the massive UNING community, New York has its UN interns. Many of them also hang out at Internations 🙂


Besides being a way to host people, CouchSurfing attracts every brand of crunchy granola former hippies, many of whom are passionate about environmental conservation, and will happily join you for an Al Gore book club or show you how to start composting. Simply using the ‘Events’ feature to create an event around a topic of your interest, or look for the group nearest your geographic area and write a post inviting people who are equally passionate about sustainable fashion or refugee relocation to get in touch.

Student events.

Many of us first got introduced to human rights and social justice work at university. And universities that offer international development degrees often host events to foster networking, increase awareness, and sometimes even raise funds for a particular issue. International development degrees are not specific to global capitals; BYU in Utah has a thriving programme, as does Dhaka, Perth, and Santiago. Look for the major universities in your town or city, and pencil the events on their website – many of which are free and open to the public – into your calendar.


Do you have any suggestions for Katrina on how to meet like-minded people? Where have you met your best friends?


Working abroad: Geneva


Home to the United Nations and countless other NGOs, Geneva has long been a centre for international development and cooperation, set amidst snow-capped mountains and azure blue lakes that match the outdoorsy Swiss culture. But what’s it actually like, living and working in the city alternately called Genève and Genf? Here, we speak to four people who lived thereon their experiences working in the city often considered the NGO capital of the world.

On a multicultural, international environment:

“Geneva is a great city to meet new people, to grow your professional network and to learn about the U.N. system since most agencies have a representation there. In that sense, Geneva is one of the best places to work, since it offers you many opportunities that a city like Quito, where social and professional lives mostly revolve around the same people and topics, cannot offer.” – Thomas Debrouwer, former intern at the International Labour Organisation

“Geneva is more international and is easier to meet people of the same mind both culturally and professionally. Bonn is a pleasant and clean place, but one tends to suffer from professional and cultural isolation.” – Asfaha Beyene, Senior Advisor, Green Climate Fund

“I have colleagues from all over the world and who have traveled everywhere. This makes the work culture very varied and very diverse. It is also an opportunity to learn a lot about the functioning of different governments and international organizations. Having colleagues who have worked in several different places over the years, you hear the most amazing stories and get the best career advice.” Caroline Vernaillen, Communication Analyst, Stop TB Partnership, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)


On working at headquarters:

“Before coming here, I worked in Morocco, which has a very oral culture: if you want to get something done, you have to talk to people. Arriving in Geneva it took some time to get used to the European email culture again. Colleagues who sit in the next room will email you with a simple question instead of coming over to ask. It’s a different mentality.”  – Caroline

“As an African, I had a hard time to adjust to a more formal and planned life. You are not expected to show up in someone’s office and be attended without prior arrangement. It is not easy to bump into a colleague and suggest ‘how about lunch’? People tended to have planned their day, and are less willing to adjust. In Africa we go with the flow…” Asfaha

“I was shocked when I found out that offices in my building were completely empty at 5 p.m., and that most people there seemed to be more interested in their career progression than by the content of their jobs. The ILO headquarters is a perfect example of a Kafka-esque bureaucracy, where 4 000 people perform their daily tasks with loose coordination, and often without purpose. I remember talking to a girl about her work while queuing at the cafeteria; she told me she was working on the exact same topics as me, but I had never heard of her before!” – Thomas


On a transitory environment:

“The city is a microcosm where local and the international communities live side-by-side, mostly ignoring each other.  The downside of living in Geneva is that it can quickly appear as an artificial place where expats stay for a couple of years before moving to a place where they can live a real life and develop professionally.” – Thomas

Not just for international development:

Geneva has plenty to offer, ranging from the artistic (media, communications and advertising agencies) to the financial sector, real estate and all the international organizations with their headquarters here.  – Clarisse Encontre, Project Coordinator, The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID).

“You can meet tons of interesting people every night in one of the numerous events organized for foreigners – from skiing trips to fondue dinners – and it is easy to live without speaking a single word of French, since expats are always around the corner. – Thomas


On living in a beautiful city:

“The views of the lake, the mountains, and the fact that it’s not very polluted all make Geneva very beautiful, particularly in summer.” – Clarisse

“Geneva is a picturesque city and the climate is wonderful during the summer; chilling around the lake during sunny months is an absolute highlight of the city.” – Thomas

On what you should know before coming:

“Geneva can be a lonely city. A lot of people who arrive here find it hard to meet people. The nightlife, and life in general, is quite expensive and so people who have established groups of friends prefer to have drinks at home. Especially in winter, the city can feel quite dull. But in summer there are a lot of free, outside activities: there are festivals, you can go swimming in the lake. Everything really comes to life.” – Caroline

Geneva is an extremely expensive city and it would be preferable to have a salary at the level of local living standards to avoid being frustrated by the numerous opportunities that one cannot afford. Winters are dark and last for half the year, as though the city is in hibernation, completely boring if you cannot afford weekly trips to the nearby ski resorts.”” – Thomas

“Read as much as you can about Geneva before your arrival. Unlike other major international cities, Geneva does not necessarily open its arms to receive you, you must explore it to enjoy it to the full.” – Asfaha


Do you currently work in Geneva or are you thinking about it? What was your experience like ?


Top photo by Mohamed Zohny, bottom photo by Anaïs Velay, and the rest by my dear friend Regina Saavedra, with kind permission.