OC INTERVIEW: OPEN CHEST Interview With Social Media Guru, Shama Hyder

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Open Chest Power Series
Shama Hyder

First Published In ANOKHI Magazine, Issue 50
First Published In ANOKHI Magazine, Issue 50

In my many years as an entrepreneur, I have been blessed to have had the invaluable opportunity of meeting countless visionary minds who have changed the game in their respective professions. I call these stalwarts “forecasters of change,” who, against all odds, have advocated for, and made monumental strides in, pushing the round peg into the square hole of life.

Since they have served as mentors for me in varying capacities and have helped me enormously along my quest for achieving my own personal calling, I have decided, as part of my yearning to give back to you for your years of supporting what I do, to offer you a gift of sorts, where you will receive first-hand insights into the private lives of some of these sensational personalities as they chat with me in a new no-holds-barred interview succession called the Open Chest Power Series.

 Here, you will meet some of today’s greatest entrepreneurial minds who open chest like never before, revealing caveats of wisdom from their respective and compelling journeys. I am enthused with the hope that these inspirational real-life stories will help elevate your personal lives as they have mine.

 My second in this series is a conversation with a young woman whose pioneering rise in social media marketing I admire greatly because she has been on the forefront of changing the way we look at social media’s impact on all aspects of how we live today. Shama Hyder is her name and her freshman book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing (2010), shook the industry by quickly becoming a New York best seller and the benchmark textbook on the subject taught across academic institutions everywhere.

She is a visionary strategist for the digital age, a web and TV personality, a best-selling author, and the award-winning CEO of The Marketing Zen Group — a global online marketing and digital PR company. She has aptly been dubbed the “Zen Master of Marketing” by Entrepreneur Magazine and the “Millennial Master of the Universe” by FastCompany.com. Under her leadership, The Marketing Zen Group has grown to include a team of 30 and serve clients ranging from publicly-held Fortune 500 companies to privately-held small businesses and non-profit organizations across the globe.

As an acclaimed international keynote speaker, Shama has been invited to share the stage with the world’s top leaders like President Obama and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. As a result of her success, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Technology Titan Emerging Company CEO Award, and has been named one of the “Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25” by Businessweek in 2009, one of the “Top 30 Under 30” Entrepreneurs in America in 2014 by Inc. Magazine, and has made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of movers and shakers for 2015. She has been honoured at both the White House and The United Nations as one of the top 100 young entrepreneurs in the the U.S..

Shama’s sophomore book, Momentum, just released this month, giving me the opportunity to chat with her about her outstanding journey so far.

Read on . . .


Courtesy Cooper Neill - www.CooperNeill.com
Courtesy Cooper Neill – www.CooperNeill.com

You were born in Goa, India and moved to Texas, U.S.A. which you still call home. Can you share one poignant memory about the first nine years of your life in India and tell me why it will always remain a cherished moment in your scrapbook of life?

I had a very idyllic childhood in India. I was surrounded by a loving family and found myself to be a curious and enthusiastic child. Almost all my favourite memories of growing up in Bangalore involve the monsoon. I’ve always loved a good rainstorm. After school, while the other kids would quietly wait under the shade for their parents to pick them up, I was the kid literally dancing in the rain. My uniform would be soaked to the bone, and I would be having the time of my life.

What brought your family to America?  

Oh, so many reasons! Mainly, it was a political safe haven. My grandfather was in politics and my father wanted to venture into the same, but the political climate was volatile at the best of times. My mother didn’t want her two young daughters to be subjected to the whims of that landscape.

Was this a welcome move for you personally, drawing from a place of childhood adventure, or a traumatic one because you were going to be leaving everything you knew behind?

I think it was bittersweet. I didn’t think I fully grasped what the move truly meant. For many years, my parents held to the notion that this was to be a temporary move and we’d eventually move back. This caused me to feel quite unsettled for many years. Eventually, I realized this was truly home, and I couldn’t imagine ever going back. I’ve come to really appreciate having a multicultural childhood.

How did the move effect your outlook on your identity from a cultural perspective having spent the presumed “caterpillar” years in India and the “butterfly” years in the States?

I think it was perfect for what I needed as a person. The Indian education system stresses discipline, rote memorization and following the rules. The American education system emphasizes creativity, independence and team work. In that sense, I feel I got the best of both worlds. I often felt like a more well-rounded individual than some of my peers.

Did your perspective on being a girl change for you internally in terms of what you were taught by life in India versus what you were taught by life in America bearing in mind, of course, that a large part of our perspective as humans lends from the journey of life itself and how we may perceive something at age five versus age 15 has a huge impact on self-image by default of what’s important at one stage of life versus another?

Growing up, I didn’t really pick up on the difference. My parents raised both my sister and I in a fairly gender-neutral way. We were welcome to follow our passions and encouraged to play with both dolls and Legos, and we never heard the phrase “if only you were a boy.” My Father wanted daughters! As an adult, I do ponder on the cultural differences of what it means to be a “successful woman” in the different cultures. I think the Indian culture still values “Sita-dom” — a woman who is patient, perseveres and perhaps even martyrs herself for the greater cause. The American culture idolizes independence and courage — the “Joan of Arc-ness” in a woman.

What were the teenage, coming-of-age years like for you — a breeze or a tornado?

Certainly a tornado. I think, like most teenagers, those were years of self-discovery, easy mortification and a lot of angst-filled creative writing. [Laughs] I think the good news was that I always channelled my teenage angst into positive pursuits. Even then I had a strong sense of what it meant to be productive.

If you could change one thing you did growing up, what would it be and why change it?

This is a tough question because you never know how changing that one thing could have changed my trajectory — and I wouldn’t want that! If I had to choose, I wish I knew more about nutrition and how it impacts your body. It would have made the teen years easier.

I can usually figure people out quite quickly, but I’m on the fence about whether you’re a daddy’s girl or mummy’s girl. But I’m gonna hazard a guess — daddy’s girl?

[Laughs]. Yes, to both! My father is my soulmate, so in that sense, I’ll always be a daddy’s girl. But my mom and I are very close as adults — so I’d say also a mummy’s girl. I am just spoiled, aren’t I?

One word to describe who you were at:

5: Talkative

10: Apprehensive

15: Eager

20: Student

25: Ambitious

30: Open

Today: Grateful

Being that you’re a Taurus, which the Google god says defines you as having a loving nature as well as being staunchly determined (two terms that are deemed mutually exclusive), how does your personality manifest these two terms in who you believe you are today?   

I think those things go hand in hand actually. I think the best way to put it would be, as cliché as it is, I work hard and I play hard. I do enjoy the finer things in life and I like treating my family and friends to a certain quality of life. That being said, I am also determined to make a difference and follow God’s path for me.


Courtesy Cooper Neill - www.CooperNeill.com
Courtesy Cooper Neill – www.CooperNeill.com

Let’s talk Marketing Zen! I’ve read that the company and namesake book all started because you couldn’t get a job after you graduated from college. Is it true that you got 18 rejection letters?

Not letters, but yes, many, many rejections. Some very verbal. [Laughs] What I wanted to do really didn’t quite exist.

What made you decide to go the entrepreneur route rather than just continuing to pound the pavement until you got a job?

It became clear that the industry for the job I wanted didn’t exist, but I knew the demand was there. I could see that this was just the beginning of things to come.

I’m curious, what types of jobs did you apply for?

Mostly in the consulting sector. I thought that it would be a good vehicle to help companies.

You founded The Marketing Zen Group in 2009. The word “zen” has been your brand’s identifying niche in your respective industry. What was the strategy behind building a “zen-based” one-stop marketing/PR brand with a focus on social?

The strategy was truly based on making marketing less of a struggle. And, it can truly be that way if you understand the landscape and the tools, and the why behind audience use of new media. In that way, my approach has been very zen indeed!

What is the difference between what your company does and offers versus others in your vertical, considering you clearly hit the bull’s eye from ground zero with a staggering 400 per cent growth in year one alone, followed by a slew of certifying awards?

A combination of factors. Right time, right place. We met an existing demand. Investing in what matters — great people; and ignoring what doesn’t — a shiny corner office. Focusing on the essentials and delivering a great service for our clients is what I think has helped us keep growing. I am always looking for ways where we can deliver more value to our clients and ways in which to keep the company relevant and competitive.

Courtesy Cooper Neill - www.CooperNeill.com
Courtesy Cooper Neill – www.CooperNeill.com

You released your first book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing, approximately a year after starting your company, in 2010. Why write the book so early on in your company’s life when you were still a freshman so to speak? What did you see as the void in the marketplace that prompted this decision so early on?

The book, just like the company, was born from demand. There wasn’t a single resource I could guide or point people to that would answer the questions they were asking of me. I finally decided that I would just create that resource. I had the knowledge and was quickly gaining in-the-trenches experience, so I put all of that together in the book.

Pre-release, did you have any reservations about how the book would be received?

Not really. I knew the demand existed and I knew the information I’d poured so much into would be of value to people. I am a believer that the people who need and want your information will find it.

It’s historical how the book took on a life of its own almost from the moment it was released, slaying its competition with a slew of awards, becoming an Amazon best seller, garnering global media recognition, being praised by the pundits, and even being used as the social media benchmark for teaching in educational institutions. In a word, whoa! What did you think, feel and do when you realized the book’s upward trajectory was taking off like a rocket?

That definitely caught me by surprise. I knew the book was good, not because I wrote it, but because it was conceived from a place of wanting to help others understand and utilize social media for business. It was an answer to questions already being asked. I felt immensely grateful that it was so well received and that it continues to be in such demand. It goes into its 4th edition this fall.

Momentum wise (pun intended), was this organic growth, zen growth or a bit of both?  

It’s been a combination. We never did a best seller campaign or things like that which some authors do to push the book. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that approach, but I decided to take a zen approach, promoting the book where it felt good (interviews with bloggers, etc.) and encouraging people to share. In the end, that’s how the book really took off — and continues to do well — because people shared it with each other.

From what you’ve seen happen in the industry since your book released and what people and clients have shared with you along the ride, what impact do you feel the book has had since it hit the market over five years ago?

I am grateful that it has held its place as a top selling book in the space. The newer editions, of course, have included newer platforms and addressed the changing landscape, but the essentials of the book have remained true. The idea that social media is part of the bigger picture, how online marketing continues to function, etc. In that way, even the earliest edition was on point.

Now into its looming 4th edition roll out, looking back, would you have done anything differently that may have given you a further leg up, knowing what you know today? If so, why? If no, why?

I don’t think so. The book was so well received and I’ve been immensely grateful for its journey.

Courtesy Cooper Neill - www.CooperNeill.com
Courtesy Shama Hyder


You waited over five years before releasing your sophomore book, Momentum, this year and it’s already rapidly gaining critical acclaim and momentum (sorry I couldn’t resist) [Laughs]. Although that’s like yesterday for us gen Xers, it’s a lifetime for you millennials and three lifetimes for the gen Zers like my son. Why the hiatus in an industry where changes are happening at an alarming rate and the past five years has seen momentous changes in the technology and digital arenas that what was then, is not now?

Excellent question. After the success of Zen, I was approached by many publishers and agents to write the second book, but I waited until I felt I had something novel to say and to meet a new “market demand” if you will. Just as I wrote The Zen of Social Media Marketing as a primer for people, I wrote Momentum to help them have a more strategic grasp of how marketing was evolving and to not feel so overwhelmed with marketing in the digital age. I am just not a fan of writing something which would take up shelf space but have nothing new to add to the conversation. I wanted to wait until I, indeed, did have something of substance to say.

Momentum, similar to TZOSMM, is written in a very simple, easy to follow, textbook style. Clearly you’ve kept with what works, especially since us mere mortals are vastly overwhelmed by the multi-layered intricacies of getting our brands, products, services and voices out there in a world where, from my perspective, there’s already too much to consume, so we are faced with a quantity over quality dynamic #Overwhelmed. I feel that your new book is going to serve as a saviour to this problem, just like your previous one did when it provided practical solutions to the mass pivot that happened over five years ago where the social boom transformed the way we had to do business. Is this your goal with this book?

Absolutely the goal. I want people to feel like they have more of a handle on this new world. I’ve provided a framework which lets them do just that — even as platforms come and go. I also tend to write as I speak, so style-wise, I wrote in a way that I as a reader would appreciate — big picture but also tactical steps in implementation. Even if a reader takes just one action based on the book, and it produces results, the book has more than paid for itself.

For the uninitiated, what are the fundamental differences in focus between this book and the first one? 

The first book is a primer. It is for the uninitiated and those who want a very simple approach to understanding and using social media. This book is more strategic, and a little broader, in that it isn’t so much about how to setup a great LinkedIn profile, but more about why you need to have a customer focused strategy on social media and what that really means. It’s a “big picture” book.

The book in your words, essentially will teach the reader “. . . how to apply the five essential principles you need to grow your organization and brand in the digital age.” How did you hone in on just five when there seems to be copious volumes we keep being bombarded with to learn online?
While there are thousands of tactics, almost all of them can fall under one of these five principles. I’ve taken all the questions I received from clients, from keynote audiences, etc. and distilled them into this book and framework.

What will readers learn that you feel is unique to this book?

Hopefully that there is a method to all the madness! [Laughs] I want them to see that if they understand these five principles and even start applying some of these tactics, they can make their marketing, businesses — and lives — so much more efficient.

Is this book only targeted at entrepreneurs, companies and business owners or is it something you feel everyone should read? If the latter, why?

That’s certainly the primary audience, but it can apply to anyone who is looking to promote something — whether it’s their personal brand to land their dream job or the non-profit for which they volunteer.

Courtesy Shama Hyder
Courtesy Shama Hyder

You’ve keynoted and spoken to engaged audiences around the world about your ideologies. I’ve read a ton of comments by people who absolutely LOVE you as a public speaker. What is the top thing, they have shared with you, they value about what you say or have to share with them about what you know that you feel they should know?

Thank you! I really do love connecting with my audiences. I think what resonates for them is that I try to keep things very practical and tactical. I always think, what would I want as an attendee? I want stuff I can do. How can I use what I am listening to? That’s what I try to do when I speak. I also have a knack for simplifying things which otherwise scare people — like technology. Maybe they think, boy, if she can do this, we can too!


For those people who still have not adopted technology — digital and social — in their professional lives, what do you have to say to them about the future of work-life success?

Old literacy was about reading, writing and arithmetic. The new literary is more nuanced than that. It is about being able to learn, unlearn, re-learn and apply knowledge to different sectors. It requires a certain level of curiosity and agility, and both those things can be learned. Literacy today must be a lifelong endeavor.

If your two books are anything to go by, you seem to have this uncanny foresight into being able to predict a tidal wave of change before it happens and pinpoint resultant challenges and associated solutions in marketing and PR as it pertains to social. What do you see happening in the future as it relates to communication and consumer engagement?

Courtesy Shama Hyder
Courtesy Shama Hyder

I believe the worlds will collide. In other words, today we still think of digital and physical as separate, but in a few years, this will begin to merge. Especially with the rise of augmented and mixed reality. We have some very exciting years ahead of us!

For those generations yet to enter the workforce, any hidden gems you can share that experience has taught you thus far?

Yes! Learn to become a strong learner. This means it is less about which subject you excel at and more about learning to be a learner. How quickly can you pick up a new skill? How observant are you? These factors will be paramount for future generations.

What’s on the radar for you career-wise moving forward?

So many exciting things! Right now, I am thrilled about the new book, Momentum. The company, Marketing Zen, is really growing and we are doing amazing things for clients. I am looking forward to seeing where we go next. And, to add to all of this, I continue to explore television and web TV as I look for greater platforms to share my experiences and lessons.

I read a comment you made on one of your Facebook photo posts which states: “Literally and metaphorically wearing so many different hats.” What are they and how do you balance them?

[Laughs] I do wear a lot of hats. I am CEO of my company, Marketing Zen; author of two books (and more to come, I am sure); on-air host and producer; keynote speaker; brand ambassador . . . the list is long. But, it does all have a common thread — my passion for entrepreneurship, technology and new media. Everything I do revolves around this!

And finally, I saw a post on your social feeds which showed you holding Courtesy Cooper Neill - www.CooperNeill.comup a card which read: “Anything is possible when . . . you just take the first step! Momentum is key!” Your last words of wisdom for the first step phobics?

You don’t have as much to lose as you think. People let their fears stop them from trying something new because they are afraid of messing up, but if you truly dissect it down, you will find that even the “worst” that can happen isn’t as bad as your thinking it could be. Take that first step!