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How to Build Social Capital

The key to personal and professional success is relationships.

Key points

  • Social capital is typically defined as exclusive access, but everyone can build it.
  • Social capital is key to career growth and a long and happy life.
  • Start building your capital with the people you already know.
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash
Three women laugh together, standing outside in the sunlight.
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

If you have spent time in an organization (or in graduate study of sociology or economics), you have likely encountered the term “social capital.” In an academic setting, it is largely defined as either the shared trust, norms, and networks that allow for effective organizational (social) action or the benefits accrued to in-group membership. The first tends towards inclusivity (the larger the group, the better), while the latter is towards exclusivity (membership has its privileges) (Alpino & Mehlum, 2021).

Perhaps due to the second of these two perspectives, when it comes to organizational success and individual career development, we tend to think of social capital as something only the fortunate few have. Social capital, in this setting, is all about connections or who you know who can be helpful to you. And, as we all know, some people have more readily available connections than others based on family, social class, generational wealth, educational background, race, and numerous other factors.

But that doesn’t mean that if you lack some of those privileges, you lack the ability to develop social capital for yourself. You absolutely can, and you should. Because at the end of the day, to get ahead in our careers, to do work successfully, and to be happy and fulfilled in life, we all need strong, diverse support networks. And that is work you can start today.

What Is Capital?

Broadly speaking, capital is anything that has value and can be expended for gain. Financial capital is the financial assets that an individual or organization has available to spend. Intellectual capital includes things like educational degrees, patents, other forms of intellectual property, and personal or organizational knowledge. Human capital is the people resources that belong to an organization. Political capital is the ability to wield influence due to experience, title, or connections. And social capital is made up of individual and group relationships, connections, and networks.

We all need social capital. If you are career searching, then you know that the key to your success lies not in how many resumes you send out (though that does matter, too) but in the strength of your network. To grow your career, you need people who will serve as sponsors, mentors, and champions along the way. Relationships matter because it’s how work gets done. No matter your field, industry, or role, you will never be successful in a vacuum.

And there is research that demonstrates that the key to a successful and happy life is our relationships. The most famous of these studies is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has found that “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes” (Mineo, 2017).

As hard as this work is for those of us who are adult professionals in the world, it can be even more challenging for students who don’t yet have the tools to build relationships effectively. As a recent report by the Education Strategy Group (2024) notes, we need to find ways to embed social network development into all levels of educational systems to set students up now for future success.

How Do You Build It?

The term “social capital” lends itself to transactional interactions, but to build it, you need to think more long-term. Instead of “networking,” think “network-building” or, better yet, relationship-building. Ultimately, people with social capital have strong relationships. And that happens one person and one conversation at a time.

Start with the people you know. Sure, tools like LinkedIn are great for broad outreach. But make this easy for yourself to start. Even if you feel like you don’t come from a privileged network, you do know people. Family, friends, classmates, and coworkers are each rich sources of potential knowledge and further connections. These should be easy to ask and have conversations. Start there. Get curious about the people around you, their life stories, and their knowledge. And, since they already know you, this is a great place to start asking for some feedback on your goals, strengths, and possible next steps.

Ask for recommendations. Everybody knows somebody. Even that person in your family or friend group who you think is working in a role or field that is of no interest to you knows other people. This is why you should never turn your nose up at the offer for a conversation or an introduction: you never know where it will lead. Ask people for recommendations of other people to talk to, then follow up on those recommendations. That’s how you start to build those second and third-degree connections.

Reach out to "cold" asks. When you’ve exhausted the community of people you know, it’s time to start doing the harder work of reaching out to total strangers. This could look like a completely left-field ask via LinkedIn, but you’re always better off if you can make some kind of connection to give the person a reason to talk to you. Recently, a faculty member at another university sent me a request to participate in a mentoring conference. Unfortunately, it did not work for my schedule, so I politely declined. They followed up and asked if we could connect to talk about our shared interests and programs. I had the time and always found these conversations beneficial, so I said yes. What resulted was a two-plus hour lunch, a new relationship, and the potential to be helpful to each other in the future. All because of a cold ask over email. It never hurts to ask.

Reach out again. Lastly, remember that it’s on you to cultivate and maintain your network. Just like your bank account won’t grow with one deposit, nor will your social capital. You have to keep reaching out and keep looking for ways to connect and support the people in your network. This is where the real transformational work begins.

A number of years ago, while doing my graduate work at the University of Georgia, a bartender friend showed me a $20 bill that had been placed in his tip jar the previous evening. It had writing on it, which he recognized from when he had been paid with that bill months before and eventually had put it into a fellow bartender’s tip jar down the street. That, he told me, was one of the secrets to that town. The people supported one another, and the money circulated. What you put out into the world will eventually come back to you.

One of the goals of building capital of any kind is the ability to spend it. And that holds true for social capital, too. It’s not just about what you can get from other people. It’s also about what you can give to other people. Don’t hoard your connections and your knowledge. Expand your network by identifying opportunities to connect with people and watch your social bank account grow.


Alpino, M., & Mehlum, H. (2021). Two notions of social capital. The Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 47(4), 255–282.

Education Strategy Group. (2024). Cultivating connections: The current state of social capital in college and career pathways.…

Mineo, L. (April 11, 2017). Harvard study, almost 80 years old, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer and be happier. The Harvard Gazette.…

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