Nora Ali: The Female Founder Finance Whiz Who Slays in Showbiz!
25 July 2023
Podcast Episode #2: Founding a Production Company in the Streaming World with Nora Ali
Prior to Cheddar, Nora was a Senior Product Manager at Jet.com and started her career on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs. Nora graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in Statistics and Quantitative Finance, where she was also the Concertmaster of the Harvard Pops Orchestra.
Listen to the full episode here!
Rebecca: Hello and welcome to Career Sisterhood, a podcast for top female talent. I'm your host, Rebecca Lepard. On this podcast, you will listen to a raw, unedited conversation between two big sisters of yours that I hope will give you a mental boost and a hint of an answer to your current career dilemma. I am the founder of Upgrading Women. And today I have a fellow woman in the media, Nora Ali. Did I pronounce it right?
Nora: Yeah, that's my name. Yeah, that's easy enough. So easy. You'd be surprised people still get it wrong though. Well, people will like to bring the I in my last name to my first name and call me Nori over email, or they'll think my first name is Ali because I don't know they don't see it as Ali. It's incredible how much my name, my simple name has been messed up.
Rebecca: Yeah, it has been butchered all over. So Nora is the CEO and co-founder of Mason Media and host at Morning Brew. I love that. Although brew over here in Europe is actually closer to a beer. You know, Germans drink beer at nine in the morning.
Nora: Really? Yeah. I don't think I can do that. That sounds unpleasant.
Rebecca: But yeah, Nora previously covered tech, business, and entertainment news at Cheddar, anchoring daily from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. What time in the morning did you wake up?
Nora: Thankfully, my regular show was the midday show. But I would have to fill in on the morning show sometimes. So I guess the earliest I ever woke up was 4 a.m., which is not terrible as far as news anchoring goes because I know a lot of people wake up in the middle of the night. So yeah, and I'm not a morning person. So that was almost tough.
Rebecca: Oh my God. Well, the irony. Did you watch The Morning Show?
Nora: I watched the first season. Yeah, I watched the first season. And I think I stopped and didn't watch the second season because it was a little too close to home. Because I was doing the job and then when I watch TV, I want it to be the complete opposite of what I'm doing. I want to escape. Hence why I'm watching The Last of Us, a zombie show. Because there are no zombies in my life. What is the complete opposite of what you're doing is a zombie apocalypse.
Rebecca: So I'm guessing zombies out there, they're the ones watching the morning show. Because they're like, "Walking Dead? That's my exercise. That's how I get my steps in." So prior to Cheddar, Nora was a senior product manager at Jet, and she started her career on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs.
So you're my second guest ever who's a Goldman Sachs alum. Now here's something I want to go back to because, as a context, last night I was on a panel of women in tech and my fellow panellists work at EY and Deloitte. So these are all big names and they're all singing a similar tune that I also want to talk about in a moment. So I want to know also:
because you graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in statistics and quant, like why? Literally why?
Little Nora, what did you want to be when you grow up, and how did you end up choosing Harvard over NYU, Columbia, and all the Ivy Leagues, basically, and why Stats and Quant major?
Nora: A lot of questions in one. Yeah, so when I was a kid, this is actually like we have the receipts because I said this on a radio show when I was 12 or 13. I grew up performing and competing in violin and piano. So I was on a radio program called From the Top, performed my piano piece, and then was interviewed. The host asked me, "What do you wanna do when you grow up?" And I said, "I want to be a CEO." He was like, "Of what?" I was like, "It doesn't matter. I just wanna, you know, be the boss." And I remember my dad, when I was maybe 10 years old, had shared the word "entrepreneur" with me. And he said, "Nora, I think you're gonna be an entrepreneur when you grow up." And I was like, "What does that mean, dad?" He's like, "You know, someone who just makes stuff and can do everything and kind of does a little bit of everything and wears all the hats." I was like, "Yeah, dad, you're right. I do wanna do that."
So like my dad called it early on, and I turned that into like entrepreneur slash CEO when I was 12 or 13. So I knew that I wanted to be in charge, but I didn't necessarily wanna work for someone else the rest of my life. In what industry? Who knows? So I chose Harvard because I am a child of immigrants, and the name brand carries a lot of weight in our community. Yeah. And it was very much driven by my mom, who did a lot of research, helped figure out how to get merit-based scholarships. So we were applying to a lot of things, taking extra exams. And my older sister went to Harvard, and she liked her experience. So it just made sense for me to apply there. And I applied what's called early action. I think to apply, I don't know if it's changed since I applied, but you can apply to one school early action, I think.
A few, you get admitted or rejected or waitlisted a few months prior to the regular timeframe. So I had just prepared that one application, and I got in. I remember so clearly standing in my kitchen, in my parents' house in Minnesota, opening up, I think my mom's laptop, and checking the email and getting it. And our winter formal dance was that evening. So it was like the perfect day because I got into Harvard and my whole life is high school.
Rebecca: This is like "Never Have I Ever" scene.
Nora: Yeah, yeah, kind of. But it's funny because, like I said, I grew up in Minnesota, and I went to a school, a high school called South St. Paul High School. And people didn't really go to Ivy League schools out of South St. Paul High School. So everyone in my class made a big deal. They knew that I was gonna get my, Nora was gonna get her Harvard results that night. So it was cool for me to be able to share with everyone at the dance. And the next morning, they made an announcement on the loudspeaker. I was like, "Oh my gosh, it's so embarrassing." But I guess in retrospect, they were just probably proud of me. I was like their ambassador. And finally, their school can say, "We have an alumna." Yeah.
But speaking of being a child of an immigrant, what is your root in terms of I'm an immigrant?
I'm not a child of an immigrant. I'm an immigrant myself, fresh off the boat. In 2020, like, oh, what should we do in the pandemic? Let's uproot our family and move to England. But yeah, so what's the story with your parents?
Nora: My parents are from Bangladesh, and they met at the University of Kentucky. They both came to the US on scholarships to do their graduate school at the University of Kentucky, and they're both chemists. They're so smart. So they travelled over together. I guess my mom came shortly after my dad. So Kentucky was their first place, and they did postgraduate school in Colorado.
And then they ended up in Minnesota because their first jobs were at 3M, which stands for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, one of the biggest manufacturing companies in the world. And they've been there since, and my sisters and I have two sisters. We were all born and raised in Minnesota. My mom still works at 3M. She's been there for like 40 years.
Rebecca: Um, which, so you must have got your mask for free then.
Nora: We had really good masks. Well, the thing is I didn't see my mum for a long time during the pandemic, but when I did finally see her, she was like, here's a stack of really good 3M masks.
Rebecca: This is like the new level, not saying a higher level, a different level of hashtag Nepal babies. It's like, I got a better mask than you. So that's your flex, better mask. So a child of two chemists and a younger sister of... What did she major in?
Nora: My little sister majored in psychology and my older sister was an MD, PhD. So she's a paediatric oncologist. She's literally curing cancer for kids. And STEM was always super encouraged growing up. I loved math and science were my subjects. Didn't really care for English and history. Anything where I had to read words was just not my thing. And at my elementary school, my sisters and I would, after we left elementary school, like when we were in high school, we would go back and teach science classes. And by we, I mean my mum brought all the cool stuff from her lab and like put everything together, and we just kind of showed up. I realised more and more a lot of the things that we did were like my mum did the legwork, like, you know, figuring out the research, how to apply to Harvard.
Rebecca: I can so relate to her now. I'm that mum. I'm that Asian mum. I have three children, and already I'm plotting there. Yeah. Their secondary school is going to be this and, and then they go to college, and then, and then even like, so my nine-year-old boy, he's like, I think I'm going to work at Apple, and I'll have a side job at Lego as their design engineer or something like that. So I can absolutely relate to your mum. Isn't this the classic, I wouldn't say stereotypical, but more like a classic immigrant story from Asia, right?
But did you think, so I just assume that you watch, what's it called again? Never Have I Ever. And did you relate a lot with that character?
Nora: With Maitri, the main character. Devi, Devi her character name. Her real name is Maitri.
Rebecca: As in like you have a subconscious level of pressure to perform at the same time you yourself have ambition. Yeah. Because Devi wanted to excel in every single subject, right? Right, yeah, and at the same time, you also want to be popular. You want to be cute. You want to have a boyfriend.
Nora: Yeah. The popular thing is interesting because I think my high school class was kind of unique in that the nerds kind of intermingled with the athletes and the cool kids. Like I was the captain of the maths team and the knowledge bowl team. And there were hockey bros on the maths team. It was just, it was like kind of, it wasn't nerdy to be on a maths team. It was kind of cool because we had fun.
Rebecca: I love that about your generation. I think that is because these days being, not being a nerd, being smart, being intelligent, is not something that should be the butt of the joke anymore.
Nora: No, it was good. And yeah, I've always wanted to be the best. I'm very competitive. And I had a strong work ethic that I learned from my parents, but I was kind of like a shortcut person, like a procrastinator. I spent a lot of my time when I was doing homework, air quotes if you're just listening, doing homework, like while I was doing homework, I was actually just doing AOL instant messenger with my friends and like boys that I had crushes on.
And my mum would come and catch me. It was like a big thing. She called it doodling because she didn't really know what I was doing. She's like, "Nora, are you doodling?" I'm like, "No." But I got straight A's and I was the valedictorian because I knew when I had to cram to study because I needed like I needed to get an A. For myself, yeah, for myself but probably mostly for my mum, to be honest.
Rebecca: To make her proud?
Nora: Yeah, it was almost like it was just the expectation. If she had said to me proactively, "Hey Nora, it's fine if you get an A-, it's fine if you get a B." I'd be like, "Oh, okay." Like, I think that would have given me permission to not have to be number one. Right. I guess I would still strive to be number one, but I wouldn't feel so horrible if I had like I had an A- in gym class for a while. That was my only A-, like- For a lot of the, I don't remember, is it semesters in high school? I don't know. It was an A- for a lot of the time. And I finally, I got the grade up eventually, but like I just felt really uneasy during the time that I had an A- at all.
But my older sister is kind of like the opposite of me when it comes to work and homework. She just, it was just constantly doing homework, constantly working, like getting months ahead in the syllabus. And my mum would have to tell her to like, "Nicole, go to bed. You've been studying, you've been doing homework for too long." Whereas my mum would have to tell me like, "Get off the internet."
Rebecca: Wait, her name was Nicole? How is it that she has a Western sounding name? To be fair, Nora can be actually a white name as well. What's the other sister's name?
Nora: Liza. Like, what is that?
So let me tell you the origin of all of our names.
Nicole, I believe my mum had a colleague or a coworker whose kid's name was Nicole, I think. So she really liked it. Um, Nora, it's like my, my parents had people in their lives who were named like Nicole, and they really liked it. Yeah. Um, and I don't think the intent, like people will assume that my name is Arabic, like Nora or Nura, people, yeah. Nura. And I was just in the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. Yeah. People are like, "Oh, are you like, you know, it's an Arabic name." I'm like, "I'm a Polynesian from Minnesota." So Liza was supposed to be another N name because of Nicole and Nora. And it was supposed to be Natalie, but my mum decided that she didn't like how her accent sounded when she said, Natalie. Like she decided for herself that she couldn't pronounce it correctly.
Rebecca: Because there's a T in it?
Nora: Or something. She says it is just fine. I don't think there's anything wrong with how she says it, but Lisa came from The Sound of Music, the daughter named Liesl. Okay. Yes. So that was the inspiration, but Liesl was kind of like, I don't know a lot. So it's an Austrian name. I guess, yeah. Liesa. And it's because, in Bengali, the Z and the J sound are kind of switched. So if you see a Z, people will pronounce it with the J sound. Yeah. So people call her Lieja. Yeah. They just misspell it L-E-E-J-A. So she's had some trouble a little bit with her name. But don't we all have trouble with our names even if they're easy.
Rebecca: Absolutely. Oh, don't get me started. Just so that for any new listeners, Rebecca Leppard is my stage name and my actual name Rebecca is actually my last name. But I go by Rebecca because in Indonesia where I'm from, the structure of the name is not like the Western where you have first name and surname, which is just like the royal family. We just have names. First name, second name, all unlimited. And that's it. And then you can, and your parents just choose at their liking which will be your, the name that you answer to.
I talk about this a lot because I want people to understand that A, a name for a lot of people, not every single person, a name means a lot in that they would be offended if you misspell it, mispronounce it, or misgender it. Just the other day, I was walking into a Zoom meeting with a person called Shannon. I thought it would be a girl. I didn't know that Shannon could also be a boy. But yeah, I mean, even when you're in the know, the dominant race. He was white. Ashley can be a boy's name too. Yeah. So yeah, just so that we're because we want to be inclusive, be mindful of other people, with other people's names. And yeah, every day I go to the pharmacy, the library or whatever. It's like, okay, what's your name, Rebecca? Last name? Yeah, that is my last name. And I have to tell the whole story, like, can't you just, okay, just shut up and take my name. I just need to return this book. They have to make a big thing.
Are you sure? Yeah. Questioning you and your own name. Yeah. I'm being gaslit. Yeah. So speaking of all of these, you know, navigating the world. I don't wanna sound like we are now in a woke world, etc. But I think what we are now, especially in the workplace, is that we feel more psychologically safe to call out when we are being wronged. I think it's not like we are now being way too sensitive and say, "Hey, that's not how my that that's not how my name is pronounced" because that happens a lot to us immigrants or people from any exotic background, you know, even like, you know, the polish name is also not easy to pronounce, yeah right, um, so whatever colour we are, just and in the era before we would be like, especially when speaking to authority, we would be like, not say anything if they pronounce it wrongly, if we are being misgendered, etc.
And how did you feel working in such, well, A, you were in an Ivy League school, and then of course you got accepted to work in big firms. Were in your lived experience, were you experiencing all of these? I wouldn't call it microaggression just for par, I guess.
Yeah. Uh, did you experience that and how did you navigate it yourself? Did you feel safe to call it out or at least talk about it? So yeah, tell me, tell me.
Nora: It's interesting because the biggest corporation that I worked at, at Goldman. I didn't really experience anything from the race side of things because I was on the Asian equities team. So it's like our team was just this cute little international pocket in a sea of, you know, trading floor bros. Yeah. You know, people, folks from China, from Japan, myself, like it was just this nice hodgepodge. So I was very intentional about pronouncing things right and celebrating each other's culture. So that was really great.
Certainly, there was, maybe women weren't treated the same as men. And I think it was more kind of an age thing at Goldman where now Gen Z and younger generations are kind of standing up for themselves at big banking jobs where you're not gonna necessarily show up first and leave last, just to show your face. You're like, you're not gonna go run around in the rain getting coffee for everyone, which is like...
Rebecca: So it's not the case anymore?
Nora: Yeah. As far as I know, people are kind of like... That was your experience before. My experience was that, yeah, we had to like really, really prove ourselves. Right, you know.
Rebecca: Even though it's not the way to prove yourself, really.
Nora: It's not, but it was kind of an old school way of thinking where it's the number of hours you put in and kind of equated to your value almost. Yeah. And I remember like every Friday, we would myself and the other first year analysts would go get bagels for everyone, which doesn't seem like a big deal. But everyone had a very specific bagel order of like a bagel sandwich with lox and this one has cucumbers and this one has like this kind of cream cheese. And it was very specific, very long lists.
And you just have to go there and spend like, I don't know, half an hour standing there waiting for them and making sure you get everything right. Like no one was mean to us. You see sometimes portrayed in the media or in entertainment and like movies and TV shows, like if you get the order wrong, they throw it in your face and they like, no, you like that never happens. They weren't like that. It was very, they're very nice. And it was usually some VP paid for everyone's bagel sandwiches. So that was nice. I generally had a good experience at Goldman with the people that I worked with specifically. And then when I went to Jet, it was a small startup. It was a very diverse team from the beginning.
So I don't, I didn't experience any kind of microaggressions there necessarily, but I did see certain types of people, the dominant type, white men kind of, they didn't have to perform at the same level that people like myself did. And they would get promoted and kind of, we've heard the phrase failing upward, where you just like, they'd walk into the room and speak confidently and people would be like, wow, you must know what you're talking about. Whereas they're not actually doing any of the work. It's their minions who are doing the work. So yeah, I mean, that whole experience in general was great. Mark Laurie is the founder of Jet and I think did a really good job of hiring just a really diverse set of people. And then working at Cheddar was super interesting because I was anchoring during the renewed conversations about race and inequities during the summer of George Floyd and the pandemic.
So we were kind of, I felt an extra burden, not burden, but weight and pressure to give a voice to being a woman of colour in this world. Because our newsroom frankly was not diverse. Our anchors were. If you just watch Cheddar, you're like, wow.
Rebecca: Oh yeah. So the storefront is diverse. But the rest, basically you're still a minority in terms of anchors.
Nora: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So you have to kind of teach the producers and train them.
What's the right verbiage to use? What's the right language? How do we talk about these things?
Where I'm figuring it out too, I don't have all the answers just because I happen to be a brown.
Rebecca: We can equally Google those, right? Yeah. There was some here. Did they complain that when you're trying to correct them, because, and here's what I found, my experience every time I'm on stage talking about diversity, and especially when talking about women and my company is just so on the nose. I named my company Upgrading Women because I don't want to shy away from the fact that we need to upgrade women to upgrade the entire nation and the entire human race, right? And every time I speak, I can see the men in the audience feel so uncomfortable. No matter what age, by the way, last night I was on a panel and it was very much Gen Zers.
I was the dinosaur in the room. And when I was talking about like, oh, because we're talking about women in tech and how to get more women in tech and there's a good question from the audience saying that, what should I say to my friend? What is a good reason to get into tech? And I said “because the money is good.” And we shouldn't shy away from talking about, you know, women, get your money, get your equity. This is the whole point. Totally. Right? Because the men will walk into the room and demand, “Oi, where's my money?”
Nora: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We feel like we have to kind of prove ourselves more, have XYZ reason. Here's like, I brought the evidence. And I'm realising that more and more because in my current role, I'm building a production company and I'm in these conversations with men who have been in entertainment their whole careers. So it's kind of weird to see a young woman of colour kind of just enter out of nowhere. Like you, you know, you weren't in a, you didn't start as an assistant in entertainment and work your way up like I did. So it's hard to be taken seriously.
And I'm realising like no one, no one actually knows what they're talking about. They think they know the answers. They think they know what kind of show is gonna sell and what buyers are looking for, what audiences are looking for. But like in many ways, I'm more tapped into that in terms of what audiences want, young audiences want, diverse audiences want, then like that, oh, what dude who's not as needy culturally in it, you know, so I don't know. I feel like we just have to know that these dudes are making it up and don't know what they're talking about. And we just need to speak with that level of confidence. Yeah. The extra work that we will automatically do because that's just who we are.
Rebecca: Yes. There was another good question that I would like you to answer.
So how would you, what would you say to the young women or female founders out there having problems with imposter syndrome? Because this is exactly it, right?
Nora: Yeah. Yeah, I have that every day. And something that has kind of helped me, actually, I have a post-it that I wrote for this year. It says, be bold, because I know, when I'm having conversations with that kind of dude who's been in the industry for so long, I'll kind of just like take what I used to kind of like take what they say like, oh, okay, like that's how it's always been done, then you must be right. But no, I stand up for myself, even though I might hesitate and not be quite sure that I'm right. If you say something with confidence, people will take you seriously, people will say, okay, she knows what she's talking about.
So it's almost like I have to trick myself. If I say something with confidence, if I say something kind of loudly and more firmly, still friendly like I can only be friendly. I'm not going to ever be like a mean, stern person. Yeah. Then it's kind of the tone and attitude with which you come to the table. You can convince yourself that like, yeah, you know what? I do know what I'm talking about. So it's almost like, like a mental trick almost. And for a while, I kind of gave myself an alter ego. Like who is my white man self? Like Steve. What would Steve do in this situation?
Rebecca: What Steve Ali would do? Steve Ali.
Nora: No, it's like Steve Johnson. Like Steve Smith. Yeah. What would he do? How would he react in this situation?
Rebecca: And how much will he get paid?
Nora: Yeah. And how much will he get paid? And that is something that I'm still kind of uncomfortable with. In my industry, I have a talent agent, actually a team of talent agents at United Talent Agency. So they're the ones who are kind of negotiating any money stuff for me personally. And it's kind of nice.
Rebecca: It's great. Because you don't have to.
Nora: Exactly. I wish though that I had more experience doing that for myself. Because I think learning how to negotiate for money and salary is just a good way to learn how to stand up for yourself, to ask for what you want, what you need. Which I think I've done for the most part in terms of like other work related things. But the money thing, I've never really had to myself negotiate my salary, even at Goldman, at Jet. I've had kind of minor conversations about it, but that's something that I think I can still learn to do better.
Rebecca: Okay, this would be then a good insight. What was your starting, you don't have to mention the company, what was your starting salary as a fresh graduate? This is young Nora. Fresh out of Harvard with her stat and quant degree and her violin and piano mastery. What did she get? What was her paycheck at the time?
Nora: Yeah. I mean, my first job, I'll name the company because it's like, that's where I went after college at Goldman. It was like the lowest six figures, but still six figures if you include, you know, bonus and everything. And I felt so rich. I was like, oh my gosh, I can like actually pay for my own meals. I have a cool apartment in the West Village in New York. But looking back, my apartment was like garbage. My two roommates and we all worked there.
Rebecca: You have a six-figure salary and you couldn't even have your own, you know, you couldn't even rent your own apartment for yourself, like Carrie Bradshaw.
Nora: Not one person that I knew, unless their parents were rich and bought them an apartment. Not one person I knew lived by themselves. Like everyone had roommates. Like we had our own, we weren't sharing like rooms. We were sharing a housemate, a flatmate. Yeah. So yeah. And like we were still having to budget. I wasn't really saving that much money then. I started saving proactively until I think like…
Rebecca: Because you couldn't save because you, because it was hand to mouth or because you were splurging?
Nora: I wasn't necessarily splurging. I just wasn't thinking about it. Like if we went out to dinner, you want to be comfortable. Yeah, and I was just so excited to have money to spend. Cause I remember in college, I would do these, I would sign up for these studies that Harvard Business School would be doing, like psychology studies, where they needed participants. And I would go walk like 20 minutes in the snow to go to the HBS campus, do a study for like two hours, and then get paid like $15 or $20. And that was like, wow, I can eat sushi for dinner instead of going to the dining hall. And I was just so happy to have any spending money at all.
So then having my own salary, I was like, Whoa, I'm like actually getting a paycheck. You're not splurging, but you treat yourself nicely. Yeah, exactly. And I didn't think about saving and investing until maybe four or five years into working, which is when my boyfriend at the time told me I should open up an account, an investing account. And thank goodness, cause that's like the source of my wealth now is having put money in at that time, where a lot of my peers, even in our thirties, some of my peers haven't even started investing. And it's like, time is the best thing that you can have on your side.
The earlier you start, the more money you're gonna have in the future. Yeah, but my roommates and I lived in a three-story apartment, which sounds cool. We were like, wow, we're really living the dream. The West Village, it's very hip, hip, what am I, an old person? What are you, a millennial? Like a cool neighborhood, it's close to bars and clubs and good restaurants.
But like I was on the ground floor. So there were literally like jail bars on my window. So people couldn't get in, people couldn't break in. Okay. It was attached to a restaurant. So people would smoke outside my window and the secondhand smoke would come in through my AC, my air conditioning vent and I have asthma. So it was really bad. And then my one roommate lived in a literal basement. There was no window for her. So she had to create artificial sunlight down there. And then my upstairs roommate, like she probably had it the best, but there was no bathroom on her floor. So she'd have to walk down like two flights of stairs just to get to the bathroom. There was a mouse at one point that I saw in my room. Like it's New York City. It was New York City. It wasn't good, but I felt- So it's a city of mouse.
Yeah, city of mouse, but I just felt so cool. Like I've made it. I've always wanted to live in New York City. I always envisioned myself in New York as this little Minnesotan gal. I knew I'd end up here. But yeah, it just felt like I was kind of, it's like living the dream and like suffering at the same time. Because none of us really enjoyed our jobs. Because we had to put in so many hours and it was-
Rebecca: So it's not about the job itself, but it's the environment. Yeah, it's like the ability to do it. Because obviously you were still on, I mean, for a few years after that, you were still on the stock exchange and talking about all of these stuff that I don't understand.
Nora: When I was at Cheddar, yeah. No, I think if I'm being honest, the happiest I've been in my career has been while anchoring at Cheddar. Because I liked it was fast-paced. I got to meet a lot of cool people, interview celebrities and CEOs and executives. And I like to perform. So I felt like I could show up and kind of perform every day. Yeah. But I still had that feeling that I wanted to build something myself. And again, like be the boss. I wasn't the boss at Cheddar. It's like you are the person with authority at the moment when you are the anchor. But at the end of the day, I wasn't necessarily creating something that I owned. So yeah, I'm trying to do that.
Rebecca: Yeah. And that is the perfect segue to my last question. It's last, but it's a loaded question in that.
Tell me, for young women out there listening, what is Nora trying to do with Mason Media? What is a production company?
Because, and here's the reason why I ask this is because I know that there are so many professions that are, and tell me if I'm wrong, production is very much male-dominated as well.
Nora: Yes. Right. Entertainment, production.
Rebecca: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's just teaching and nursing that is female-dominated, to be honest with you. So A, how did you, how does one break into that industry and how have you found it so far?
You know, being you and I'm guessing that you also have your crusade that you carry since childhood that you wanna be the boss, you wanna prove, you wanna make your mom proud and all of the big ambition. Yeah, tell me how does one break into it and how has your experience been so far?
Nora: Well, my story of breaking into it is atypical, very atypical. I was very lucky and given a shot by, if you recall, Mark Laurie, my former boss, who founded Jet.com. He actually called me up while I was an anchor at Cheddar. And he said, you know, I have this idea for a business-related show, and I want you to make it and also start a production company around it. I was like, wow. Like he's literally giving me this opportunity, which was, so it was him and another business partner of his that kind of asked me to do this. And I was like, this is an amazing opportunity, but I literally don't know what I'm doing. Like I have no clue what I'm doing. I've never started a company. I've never worked in production.
I've worked in media and I've kind of produced and created TV shows for Cheddar, but it's a very different world creating something for Netflix or ABC or whatever. So I remember saying to them, I was like, Mark, do you realize that I've never built a production company before? He's like, yeah, that's why I want you to do it because you're not gonna have any preconceived notions. I know you're gonna hire the right people who do know what they're doing. So it's a very stressful industry. It seems cool because you get invited to galas and red carpets and you're hobnobbing with celebrities. Like the people's names who come up now when we're developing shows, my agents will say like, oh, we should have this XYZ person host the show. It's like this big celebrity I thought I'd never meet.
And you get really kind of numb to it and immune. Because I used to be like, whoa, so cool. Now I'm like, oh, okay, interesting. And it's just a tough environment because there's so much change in media and entertainment with, you know, staffing changes, layoffs like every industry is experiencing now but also these streamers don't necessarily know how to fit into the portfolio as we were talking about. If you were paying for all of these streaming services, how do they differentiate from each other? I don't think the buyers really know what they're always looking for and tastes are changing. And it's a really kind of archaic industry that needs to be disrupted, hopefully by people like myself who have worked in tech and in startups and kind of can say, we don't always have to do things the way they've been done this whole time.
So I will say I'm the most stressed I've ever been in my whole career. But as my mom would say, you just have to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I have a head of development that I hired last summer. My biggest work regret with this particular job is that I didn't hire sooner. I was just kind of doing it on my own for a while because I was afraid to spend money to, you know, tap into my funding. If she had been with me from the beginning, we'd be in a very different place. Because she grew up, not grew up, but she's been in the TV and entertainment industry for pretty much her whole career. So she knows what she's doing. And as Mark Laurie had predicted, I would know to hire the right people.
And I feel absolutely amazing. So I feel like I answered half your question, but yeah, it's a tough industry, but I want to make it easier.
Rebecca: And you hired another woman? Yep. Was it intentional? Now I have a follow-up question. This is like the worst interviewer who promised last question. So this is, okay, last, last, last, last question, because this is, I think, relevant as a hiring person who has hiring decisions when you're looking for, of course, you're looking for experience, etc.
Did you, as a female leader, then tell me if it's conscious or unconscious, tend to hire fellow females?
Nora: Yeah, it wasn't like I was intentionally discriminating when I'm hiring. Like I look at all candidates, but a lot of our mission at Mason is to elevate historically excluded voices. So whether it's the talent that we work with or the stories that we tell, there has to be some lens of, you know, it's about women or people of colour or other people who don't normally get the spotlight. So to me, it just felt like hiring another woman, we could kind of build that together more organically. Yeah. And she just happened to be the best candidate, which is amazing.
She came but I'm all about being a female-led production company. Female first. Our entertainment attorney, which is one of the most important roles that you can look for in entertainment. I didn't realise this, but it's like everything is about the deals, the legal. She is formidable. She is a force and she's a woman. And actually, yesterday or two days ago, we had a meeting, our legal updates meeting, and my employee and my attorney, it was like the two of them on my screen, and they were just like doing all the things. I was kind of sitting back and listening and learning. It's so funny. Like I'm the boss, but I'm the one who's kind of learning. I was like, as stressed as I am about this job, I did this.
Like I hired her, Amanda, my employee. I vetted a bunch of attorneys and chose and they're amazing. And look at them making things happen. Yeah, making things happen.
Rebecca: And you made that happen. I guess my takeaway from that is that being a leader, being the boss means knowing who to do the best job. Who, which player should be placed in what corner. That is the worst sports analogy. What sport that has corners? I think just boxing.
Nora: Yeah, it's really about choosing the right people who know the things that you don't know, and you don't have to know everything. And I'm the opposite of a micromanager. I hire people that I trust, and I just let you do your thing. And I'm very open to also changing my mind. Like I could have a strong opinion on something. And if you're like, you know, I don't think that's the best way to do it for XYZ reasons, I'm the first one to be like, okay, all right, you're right. I love changing my mind based on new evidence. Yes, exactly.
Rebecca: Bring me the data and tell me that I'm wrong, and we'll do it that way. And it's not even about your way or my way, do it that way, the correct way. Exactly. The updated way. Yeah. Right.
Nora: Yes. I'm not precious about anything that I've created. For example, I developed a podcast. Like my employee is our head of development. She's the one who's creative. She's genius. But I was like, you know, you focus on our TV series. I'm gonna do a little bit of podcast development. So I developed this show, made a document. I was like, sent it to her. I was like, if you have any edits, let me know. I know you're busy with other things, so no worries. A few days later, she sends me a new document. She's like, you can totally trash this or ignore this, but I redid the pitch because I had this idea and I couldn't get it out of my head, and I just had to get it down on paper. She's like, don't worry, your document's still there. I just had to get my idea out.
And I read her pitch, her draft of the creative. It was completely different from what I put together. But my jaw was on the floor because I was like, this is a thousand times better than what I put together. Like who cares about the document that I spent a lot of time putting together? This is now our podcast. This is the show. Thank you so much. Like I know what I don't know. Like she's done this for a whole career. Yeah, I developed things for a series for Cheddar, but that's so different, you know, than developing for the world of podcasts and developing for, like I said, the streamers and broadcast networks. So anyway, long way of saying I'm okay being wrong.
Rebecca: Long way of saying that look at her Nora Ali, she is only in her early 30s and yet she is killing it as they say. I, as an older person with a walking stick, thank you so much for coming in on Career Sisterhood. And yeah, and look out for my email because I will be pitching Netflix shows because I am a TV addict, literally like quiz me, um anything and I'll uh except for zombie stories obviously. Yeah, I was like not enough of an addict because that's what I'm not. No, because probably I'm a zombie and it's too real, um I am a zombie. You look at my eye bag.
Right, that is all for now and in the next chat, you can expect more guests coming from all sorts of female representation, and you could also ask us career questions directly on our Slack channel.
All you need to do is email me yourcareersisters, plural, because I have a whole gamut of team, firstname.lastname@example.org , and we will invite you in on our Slack channel, and then you can ask me anything, including how much I got paid, how I got passed over for a promotion just because I was pregnant, all of that.
And with that, I am wishing you all a fun and fearless career journey. And if you like this episode, please give us a five-star because it will help other sisters find out our podcast, too. Thank you and bye for now.
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