Aimee Muirnin Dunne on Building Meaningful Connections

In St. Louis, once you hear about someone for the first time, you start to notice them everywhere in the community. I first met Aimee Muirnin Dunne at a Community Service Public Relations Council luncheon, where she was presenting on how to tell an organization’s story. From there, I’ve seen her on the Nine Network talking about her work as the Senior Director of the Prosper Institute and caught up with her at a St. Louis Venture Café Gathering. If you haven’t gathered it yet, Aimee is a connected person, and her work at Prosper Institute and passion for female mentorship are just a few of the ways she supports women leaders.

I enjoyed coffee with Aimee (a favorite pastime of hers) and learned about her perspective on finding community, the St. Louis startup scene, and accepting that perfection is not always possible.

How long have you lived in St. Louis? What’s your favorite thing about it?
I moved to St. Louis seven years ago, and am originally from Chicago. Most of my professional career was spent in Denver and Seattle. My background is in corporate marketing, and after I received my MBA from the University of Washington I decided to move to St. Louis for a career change. In retrospect, quitting my job and moving cross-country in August 2008 was one of the worst times to do that because of the economy. But I’m glad I did! After networking for about a year, I found that I was drawn to economic development and entrepreneurship, and began working in that space.

I’ve discovered that the people of St. Louis are fantastic, the neighborhoods are amazing and there’s so much to get engaged with here. St. Louis is a place where it’s easy to identify challenges, and you can roll your sleeves up and really be a part of change. I initially was skeptical of St. Louis because I heard it was hard to break into, professionally and personally, but I’ve found it to have an incredibly welcoming community.

Through your work you help people learn how to tell their stories so that they can connect to resources they need to grow. How does making connections influence career advancement?
As you think about where you want to go with your career, finding mentors and building relationships with people who can help you get there is really important. In the beginning, you may want to get connected, learn things and build your personal capital. Personal capital is the part of me that I put into building a relationship with someone – there is a trust and back and forth that happens there. It’s the thing that brings a relationship together. A lot of times, you need to build reciprocity in order to build a network, and personal capital plays a large role in that.

Do men and women network differently? How does this impact achieving professional success?
Absolutely! Women do tend to be more relational – they have smaller networks but with more depth. We’re much more likely to ask about someone’s personal life and struggles, because we’re comfortable going to those depths. This develops really deep connections, as you can imagine. Men tend to have larger networks, make quicker connections, and can lack the reciprocity that women naturally build into their relationships. Think about it – if you have a smaller network, it is often by definition less diverse, so you’re lacking perspectives and connections that might be helpful to you. I think there are times when women, especially in a corporate environment, have to consider adjusting how they connect in order to advance. This is not to say stop being yourself – there is something special about how women connect – but we should work on adding more to our networks, including more men. We tend to stay where we’re comfortable, but tenacity will get you far! Because of this I think women tend to be more protective of their personal capital, because it takes more work for them to build it.If you're confident you know your stuff, speak up.

You’re well known in the St. Louis startup community. What’s helped you make a name for yourself?
Two things come immediately to mind. One is being collaborative. Being willing to learn from other people and other organizations showed that I valued relationships and wanted to be a part of things.

The other is bringing expertise to the table. I learned this early as a 23-year-old in the telecommunications industry. In that role, I realized that if I’m going to say something, I had better know what I’m talking about. I say the same thing to entrepreneurs – you have to make yourself the expert in something. Bringing expertise and having a collaborative spirit are two qualities that go far in St. Louis’ entrepreneurial community.

What has been your most challenging obstacle to overcome?
At the time I didn’t realize it, but it was probably quitting my job and moving to St. Louis without a job or community. I didn’t know anybody so I started pounding the pavement and talking to anyone who would get coffee with me. It probably led to my coffee addiction, but it also allowed me to really get to know St. Louis and realize that it was a community I wanted to be engaged in.

What is your favorite part about your work?
I love when I am able to take someone who is really nervous about networking, about talking about who they are, and help them to become comfortable and confident. People are usually afraid of networking because they feel it has to be slimy or they think they have to have a perfect story before they jump in.  I believe that if you approach meeting new people authentically, you’re not going to have that ick factor. If I can get someone past those two things, it really frees them up to make connections and find their purpose.

If you could go back in time and give yourself a pep talk at the beginning of your career, what would you say?
Don’t be hesitant to make your voice heard. If you’re confident that you know your stuff, speak up. You don’t have to earn your voice.

Aimee also helps people learn how to tell their story through Navigating Networks and is a current contributor to Move Up, Give Back.

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.