Shabnam Mogharabi is CEO and Executive Producer at SoulPancake, an award-winning media and entertainment company founded by actor Rainn Wilson that explores ‘Life’s Big Questions’. Shabnam joined SoulPancake at its launch in March 2009 as the co-director of content. She is one of the co-authors of the New York Times bestselling book SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions. Prior to joining the company, Shabnam was an award-winning journalist and magazine editor. Shabnam is bright, buoyant and cheerful.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
There were three things I vacillated between doing. Firstly, I wanted to be a judge because I thought I was really good at being logical and making very firm decisions. And I like gavels! Then I also wanted to be a concert pianist because I liked playing the piano and I thought that would be cool. Finally, I was obsessed with Indiana Jones and so I thought an archeologist would be pretty amazing career, mostly because I want to be able to fight evil spirits in caves. When I realized what you actually did as an archeologist I changed my mind!
Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
My mom and my sisters. They're my best friends.
What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
My favorite book of all time is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I first read it when I was 11-years old and I've read it again and again since becoming an adult. I see it as the first hint of feminism in a very anti-feminist culture so I believe it's informed me in a lot of ways.
When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed around 12:30 or 1am and I'm usually up by 7:30am.
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
When I was in college I studied Journalism and Business Administration, with a Minor in Comparative Religion. When I left college I worked as a freelance reporter and eventually became a stringer at People Magazine. I did that for about a year and realized I didn’t like interviewing celebrities on red carpets so I decided to go back to school. My ambition was to move onto the business side of media so I did a Masters Degree in Publishing at North Western. When I was there I had to write a thesis and I wrote about the need for media to make spiritual and philosophical topics cooler. I wasn’t just extremely passionate about it, I knew there was a huge opportunity in that space.
After I graduated I started working again as a freelance journalist for a couple of years before I went on staff at an outdoor design magazine in LA. After some time it was acquired by a company in DC and I ended up moving to DC and switching over to a magazine that was about land development and housing. It was one of the top ten B2B media companies called Hanley Wood. So I was working there and rose up and eventually became the Editor-in-Chief of three of their magazines, running events and a few different websites.
While I was living in DC I heard an interview on NPR with Rainn Wilson (The Office), who was talking about a website he was going to launch called SoulPancake and how he was planning to create a platform for spiritual, religious and philosophical topics. I couldn’t believe it! I literally thought Rainn had stolen my idea and I was super mad!
I couldn't stop thinking about it and wondered how I could be a part of this. Within a couple of weeks I decided to reach out because I still knew a lot of people in LA so I started putting the feelers out and eventually someone put me in touch with Rainn's business partner. We spoke and I expressed my excitement at their venture and a desire to get involved. He wanted to know what I did and I explained my role in creating content, content plans and managing writers and creators. He then got excited because they had this great technology and a great website that was launching in 3 weeks, but no content. I was like "Wait, what?"
So I dived in and basically worked for equity, developing the content plan and writing about 60% of what was on the site when we launched. I pulled in favors from writer friends and freelancers and all this while I was still working 60-70 hours a week at the magazine editor job. I worked nights and weekends, got the website launched and then became the Co-Director of Content for the website. Eventually over time when we started developing video content, I started running operations for the company and then in January 2013, when Rainn's co-founder stepped down as CEO, so that he could go and start another venture, I took the CEO role.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
Putting things in my own way has been the biggest obstacle for me. Sure, we’ve had times when we've lost deals and times when people didn't understand what we did, and times when people doubted the relevancy of our content. All of those are absolutely obstacles but the biggest obstacle for me personally is that I would sometimes tell myself I didn't know how to do something or bucket myself into journalism and writing, and doubt my ability to run a business. It was not conducive to progress.
What motivates you?
There are a lot of people who will tell you that when you grow up in a Persian household you are pressured into becoming a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer. I'm a first-born child of immigrants but was very lucky because my parents didn't dictate what I had to be. The only thing my Mom always said was, “No matter what you do, be of service in some way because that's going to give you more fulfillment that anything else." That drives me more than anything else.
At SoulPancake I feel like what we do and the content we create, is of service to people. I believe it helps them figure out who they are, what they believe and it taps into their ability to have empathy and show compassion. I see that as a service to our audience.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
Don't sweat the small stuff. Coming from a journalism background I will nit pick over every little thing, even things like grammar and spelling, because I'm so focused on the details. Everything has to be a certain tone and a perfect aesthetic. It's time consuming. So what I've learnt is that in the grand scheme of things most decisions, as long as they're soundly made, they just need to be made. There are only a handful of decisions that are life or course altering when it comes to a business and so I think it's knowing what those are, being willing to focus on those and not sweating the smaller stuff because that can slow you down.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I'm most proud of the fact that even though SoulPancake has gone through a few different iterations, we've never strayed from our core mission and we've created a culture with a team that really believes in, and represents, that mission. We always talk about our desire to spread joy and wanting to uplift people. We want to create positive content and I can testify that every single person on our team is positive and uplifting and joyful. Our culture is that way. Even though we're small and still growing we're determined to maintain that core identity and mission. I'm so proud of that.
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Hard work and very little sleep. There's no sugar coating that!
What is your life motto?
Everything is better with tea. It's more a general philosophy on knowing what brings you comfort and strength. For me, it's surprising how much good hot water does for my soul.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I've been very lucky. I've had very good people who I see as mentors and even Rainn is one as well. The best advice that all of them have given me is to trust your gut. The company is a reflection of the four of us who founded it. I have to listen to the part of me that is ‘SoulPancake’ and if I trust what that is telling me then I usually make the right decision.
Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I have so many people.
I think Elon Musk is a genius. He's brilliant and his ability look at things, turn them on their head and figure out a better way, is so inspiring.
I also love Ed Catmull. What I'm blown away by is not just the fact that he's a creative genius but he also appears to have no ego in the way he runs the company. I am so inspired by that. It's everything I want to be. I want to lead people creatively and inspire people but have zero-ego attached to my own ideas.
I always admire people like Tina Fey who broke down barriers and became first lead writer on SNL but also managed to have a family. Super moms of any kind inspire me.
And my own mom. If I end up just like her, that's probably the best thing for me.
What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
Women in general are more emotional. By that I mean we don't think of things as black and white a lot of the time. In business in particular, we try to convince ourselves that that's a bad thing and that we should try to be more assertive. I actually think the fact that women are more emotional, that we have heart and compassion, is really important right now. Across the board we’re seeing all of these articles and research about how empathy is more and more important in the workplace and having compassion for your employees motivates people really well, making them feel valued and recognized. I believe embracing those parts of us that are more feminine is really important.
Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My family. My sisters and my parents.
At SoulPancake we're going through the process of raising our first round of investment. To date, all of our growth has been organic and we’ve never taken any institutional financing. It's very daunting and terrifying but also an extremely exhilarating and exciting process. So that's our next phase. We've figured out our formula, we've established our brand and now we just need to scale our growth.
From a professional perspective, I have a little bit of an entrepreneurial itch going on right now so I’m interested in exploring the possibility of starting my own company. When and what it will be, I have not decided yet.
As told to Caroline Hugall by phone on Thursday 25th June 2015. Shabnam is based in LA.