Nora Ali Predicts More People of Color Entering the Business Media Industry
News anchor, CEO, podcast host, entrepreneur, violinist, she does it all! Nora Ali, the co-host of the podcast Business Casual on Morning Brew, provides an insightful look into working on the cusp of business, tech, and media as a Bangladeshi woman from Minnesota.
After getting her undergraduate degree in Statistics and Quantitative Finance from Harvard University, Nora worked at Goldman Sachs kickstarting her career in finance and business as the Asian Equities Financial Analyst advising investors in Asian markets.
That was only just the beginning.
When she moved jobs to Jet.com as a Senior Product Manager, she was attending courses and classes on news anchoring and was networking endlessly. She was jumping between different industries and career paths, and it wasn’t easy.
I got a chance to interview Nora on her journey from climbing the media corporate ladder while gaining some insight on seizing opportunities to build connections. Nora credits this to her lucky encounter where she met a talent acquisition associate who got her on-screen for Cheddar News, a business cable network. She was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange broadcasting live. She was trailblazing at Cheddar, pitching and launching several TV series such as All Hands: Race Toward Inclusion.
But it doesn’t end here...for Ali knew she had to do more. As a child of immigrants, a woman of color working in a white male-dominated field, Nora knew that working a little harder would create a long-lasting impact on future generations of South Asians in media.
How did you climb the media corporate ladder here as a South Asian woman?
I got lucky in many ways, but I think I've put myself in those positions to be able to get lucky. I firmly believe in putting yourself in rooms and opening doors for yourself in order to get far, especially in an industry that is as finicky as entertainment and media. The way I first broke into the media industry was as an anchor for Cheddar which is a business and tech news platform. Also, I had been working [at the time] at Jet which is an e-commerce company that was acquired by Walmart for 3.5 billion USD. I joined Jet when there were approximately 100 employees during the pre-launch period. It was an amazing opportunity to be part of that company to build a startup from scratch.
But, I had this feeling in the back of my head [for probably my whole career] that I wanted to try to break into the entertainment and media industry, but I wasn't quite sure how to do that. So I decided after three years at Jet, that this was the time for me to try it out if I was ever going to do it. Because I was feeling pretty comfortable at Jet and I am very uncomfortable with feeling comfortable. That’s when I knew that I had to try something new!
So I put together an Excel spreadsheet for everyone that I had met tangentially who worked in media, and I Googled talent agents and casting agents and it turned out that one talent agent had gotten back to me. That is how I got a break-in!”
While going through this process, I learned the art of the pitch and pitched myself to the talent agent, and sort of created this opportunity.
Fast forward to 2022...
“Now I am building a production company and thankful that I get to give other people opportunities to work in media and entertainment now.”
Don’t worry she will still be at Morning Brew and working on the podcast for the foreseeable future!
How many South Asian women are there in your media space since you started now? Did you see a change, especially more women of color?
The entertainment landscape is still very much gate kept by white men. So I would be doing pitches for TV shows to production companies, to networks, and it is largely white men. However, I do see more and more women who are in leadership positions, but few women of color.
There's one woman who I've been working with who is a woman of color. She works at another production company, and we sort of latched on to each other because we realize we're in some ways outsiders. We have to work against the grain a little bit. Nonetheless, I predict that right now there is a current wave [or will be a new coming wave] of women leaders in entertainment!
While I have not come across very many South Asian women in the network television world necessarily, there are tons of media brands out there that are led by South Asian women. I think among the sort of Millennial, Gen-Z, “younger generations,” there are leaders who are I think are going to take over in the coming years, in terms of South Asian women.
What are some of the different aspects that make it difficult for women and women of color that you might have faced, your friends might have faced?
People don't walk in with the assumption that you are the one in charge especially if you are a South Asian woman or a woman of color. I've seen this firsthand with my podcast, for example, for Business Casual, I have a co-host. He happens to be a white man, and we have had some guests in the past–that does not happen frequently–but I definitely notice when they'll say his name more frequently than my name or address him more than they'll address me when they're talking to us. In their mind, he is maybe the main host and I'm the sidekick because I'm a brown woman.
I doubt anyone else really notices it during the recordings, but it feels like these little micro-moments where I have felt a little bit invisible in the past across various roles. However, I do feel like I've been lucky enough to work at companies that don't treat me differently because I'm a South Asian woman.
We all know things changed a lot since the pandemic and people are talking a lot more about race and representation. Are you seeing that change in your industry as well? Or do you think that died down in 2020?
I think this is a movement that's going to stick. It's just going to take some time to go about it or it's going to take some time such that people like me and other historically excluded and overlooked people don't have to be the ones leading the charge. So I don't think we're at that place yet where let's say white men are going to come up with and develop a show that is very focused on diversity and inclusion and representation at its core. It doesn't feel like we're at the point where that's their main goal at this point.
While I was working at Cheddar during the Summer of 2020, I launched a show called “All Hands: Race Towards Inclusion” which is a show that celebrates diversity, representation, and inclusion. Alongside this, the show takes a critical eye toward the shortcomings of different businesses when it comes to representation. The company embraced it and we built the show very quickly and got it on air very quickly. But I still feel like there’s this “burden” to be the one to pitch these ideas and to emphasize that when we cast for our show, we have to make sure that diversity is at the forefront.
For example, I pitched a show recently that focuses on Asian-American entrepreneurs, and some feedback I had gotten was- “who's the audience for this? This doesn't feel like it's mainstream enough.”
Not everything is going to be “mainstream” based on what has been mainstream thus far because the mainstream is changing. Also, there's obviously an appetite for content about specific demographics that have been historically overlooked. So while I think there is a lot of renewed focus on this, there's going to be some time before it's automatic, before it becomes a default versus people like me having to make the case for it almost every time.
For our young readers who might want to go into media, what advice do you have for them in terms of how to break into the industry, not only into publications that are led by South Asians but industries that are very still predominantly white?
Any time I've gotten an opportunity in a new industry, and that's happened several times throughout my career, it's because of meeting people and creating networks. I know the word networking is overused and it's a headache, and networking is not always fun, but networking can mean anything! Just say yes more to social events where you might run into someone who can make an intro for you. Or, if you leave a job, stay in touch with the people who were your mentors or your favorite people to work with. You’ll never know where they're going to end up in the future and be able to open doors for you.
I think it’s ineffective to randomly apply to stuff because your prerequisite requirements and/or skill sets will be given way more weight than you as a person and how hard you work, your personality, and your ability to learn on the job.
So my advice is to just meet as many people as you possibly can [and this is coming from an extroverted introvert]! Also, make sure to have a good elevator pitch on you who are, what you’re working on, and what you’re interested in, and just stay in touch with people.
Lastly, how do we deal with our parents who may not know how to describe our jobs?
I have had to actively work not to try to care what my parents think of my job or their ability, to describe my job to their relatives. It's still something I'm working on.
They definitely understand awards and recognition. My face was on a Times Square billboard, for example, when I started hosting the Morning Brew podcast. Then my mom was like, "oh, okay, so what you're doing is legit."
I think our generation of parents is starting to understand that jobs are not very clear anymore, and lots of people have a portfolio of jobs and things that they do to build a brand and to be happy. I understand that it's hard, but just try to actively ignore what your parents might think. Even though we might not get the positive affirmations and words of affirmation that other folks might have gotten growing up, for me specifically being a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, know that all they do really want is your happiness. If your hard-to-explain job makes you happy, then they'll be happy for you.
Last Piece of Advice...
Make sure you don’t burn any bridges because you never really know who’s going to give you opportunities in an unrelated industry. So, just be a good person and be pleasant to work with. I think if I had to pick one trait that has led to my success it would probably be that I’m fun to work with and a good person while also owning up to mistakes.