Stefania Pomponi is the Founder, President, and Chief Evangelist of CLEVER, an award-winning influencer marketing agency. For the last decade, Stefania has been shaping the influencer marketing industry as a blog editor and producer working for Fortune 100 media companies hiring quite literally thousands of bloggers and championing their rights to be paid for their influential work. She is a pioneer in the world of influencer marketing, best exemplified by the viral #Batkid phenomenon spearheaded in 2015.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
This is such a hard one for me. I blame it on my Libra-ness, but I wanted to be everything. I am a constantly curious person, so I wanted to be everything from a vet to a ballerina.
Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
Aside from my family, I'd have to say my boyfriend. We are a good team and work very well together, so I think we would survive together.
What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I read it when I was at college in my senior year and it opened my eyes to the racial and class inequalities in American public schools and why the ‘haves’ will always have and the ‘have-nots’ will always have not, unless some drastic things are addressed.
The book stayed with me for a long time and when I was 29-years old I took a career turn out of marketing, got my teaching credential and went and taught in an inner-city school for 3 years. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done.
When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I try to go to bed at round 11pm and then I'm up by 6:30am every single day, whether it’s to go to the gym or get my kids ready for school.
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I worked in marketing straight out of college, in the tech world but always with creative companies. As mentioned in my late 20s I spent sometime teaching and then I left to be at home with my baby. Whilst I was on maternity leave I really got into blogs and spent more and more time exploring the internet.
This was 2002. I knew people who had online journals to keep up with them on holidays but I never thought of blogs as resources for information, even though that's what they were. So I was at home with my baby trying to find information that speaks to me, my personality and my style. At the time, Baby Center was the only real online resource for Moms. Through that I was introduced to the world of Mom-bloggers who were having the same struggles, frustrations and also joys, as me.
Pretty quickly I started my own blog. I was living in San Francisco and not seeing the urban parenting story being told. My blog gained some notoriety and I was hired to write professionally for various parenting sites.
From there, I edited various parenting sites. I helped with Viacom's launch of Parents Connect and was then hired by Babble.com to edit three parenting-related blogs, one on parenting, one on kid-celebrities and one on kid’s fashion. I hired thousands of bloggers in the process, to write for all of those sites.
The blogging industry was unfolding right in front of me and at the same time I started noticing how brands were reaching out to bloggers. When agencies were reaching out to bloggers, it was really as if they were journalists. It was really unnatural because bloggers aren’t journalists, they are regular humans expressing their own point of view on the world.
At that time too, there was a whole controversy around who should you pay bloggers. A lot of the savvier bloggers started demanding payment for their work, because they knew that they were very influential with their communities.
My best friend, Cat, who is my co-founder, was doing similar work in parallel and one of her clients was Heather Thompson, who founded Yummie Tummie. Cat was doing social media consulting, writing their newsletter and so-forth. Yummie Tummie had just fired their third social media agency, and Heather said to Cat, “If you ever wanted to start an agency, a social media agency for women, I will be your first client.”
Cat called me up and we formed our agency. Heather was true to her word and hired us, and we worked together for years. She's an amazing person. A true women-supporting-women, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is person. She really helped launch our agency, and that was almost 8 years ago.
CLEVER has gone from strength to strength. We’ve had to grow and adapt to the evolving social media landscape and we obviously use influencers in much larger ways than just blogs. We are also continuously challenging the payment structure to ensure influencers get the fairly paid.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
It's interesting to start a business in Silicon Valley as a 40-year old woman. We had so many people ask us questions related to conforming to the “traditional” ways of doing things here. For many people that could have made it more daunting but we just took it in our stride. We’re 40-years old and we’ve seen it all. We’ve been through enough failures in life, we’ve had jobs we’ve hated, we’d had failed marriages, we can recall times in life when we lived on nothing. We were finally at place where we knew what we wanted and weren’t afraid to go for it. We decided not to follow rules, Silicon Valley’s or anyone’s. It was very freeing.
What motivates you?
I am a competitive person with myself and I want to succeed. Success, for me, is not monetarily or financially driven. We run a business of 50 people and I feel a huge responsibility to those people, to ensure they are looked after. I want us to succeed, because I want us all to succeed.
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d appreciated that plans change. Business plans change. Even departmental plans within the company, can change, and that's okay. When I was just starting out, if something was written down or decided at a meeting, I believed that's the way it had to be. Even if I had questions about it, I would not necessarily ask or raise them because it was written down. I wish I’d known to be more flexible.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Raising my kids in a world where they believe that being a woman is a good thing, and associating being a girl with success, power, wisdom, business and achievement. The story I'll tell to illustrate this is that we were called Clever Girls up until about a month ago. Our agency was called Clever Girls because we were started by women, and it was for women influencers.
Over the years we've expanded to include men, dads, athletes and so forth, so we weren't just about girls anymore. Our company is mostly women but we employ a lot of men too and we love men! As part of a big re-branding that we did about a month ago, we dropped "girls" in favor of "clever."
My daughter was horrified that we dropped "girls." She didn't understand it, and she really questioned it. The achievement is that, to her, she is really part of the first generation of girls who believe they can do anything and be anything. Why would I not want "girls" in my company name? At first, I was so sad about it but this just proves that what we are doing is working and is influencing this next generation. That is a huge achievement for me, that my children really believe they can be anything they want to, even if, and because, they are girls.
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
It’s the Steve Jobs philosophy on life. I try to remain curious about everything and have an adventurous spirit. Sometimes you just have to jump in, go with your gut and see what works. I think there's a lot to be said for doing things your way so that you can live with the choices and decisions you're making. For us, that’s been successful.
What is your life motto?
"Stay hungry, stay foolish."
Where do you go for inspiration?
I am unapologetically a pop-culture junkie. It's my way of de-stressing and unwinding. I turn on Bravo and watch Real housewives one after another, and then end it with Andy Cohen being silly.
Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I really admire what Sarah Blakely has done with Spanx. That's a business that she built on her own terms and has remained in firm control of it. It's a product that I use and, frankly, love. I'm happy to support it, because I love what she has to say about, it's okay to retain control, make decisions and build the business.
I also admire the Soul Cycle founders. They had a lot of challenges getting their business off the ground. When they started at their first location in New York they discovered late in the game that couldn't put a sign outside of their historic building location so they really had to make their business about the culture and what people would experience when they stepped through the doors. That really speaks to the importance of culture.
What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
It’s important to be transparent, authentic, and have very high integrity. For us at CLEVER transparency is a driving force in how we do business. We call it radical transparency. We're extremely transparent with everyone in the company, so everyone knows what our goal is for the month and what our financial situation is. There’s no currency in secrecy. It all happens out in the open.
Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
The three of us who founded CLEVER say every single day, "Thank God there are three of us." We all have different strengths that we draw on depending on the situation. Not only are we so close as co-founders, but we're also really close friends. When you run a business you have to love the people that you're working with. I am intentionally saying the word love. You're with them 100 hours a week. Work-wise and life-wise, I don't know what I would do, without my two partners.
What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
Women are often told it’s to our detriment to be emotional in the workplace. But being emotional shows that you care, and it should be seen as a positive and not a negative. At CLEVER we openly encourage all kinds of emotional displays in the context of what's happening at work so that everyone, and especially the women, can see that they're not going to be looked down upon or undervalued because they cared so much about a project.
We value different work styles so we spend a lot of time in the on-boarding process learning about each other's through what we call "Office astrology." We have all our new employees do this battery of tests, from Meyers-Briggs, to Strengthfinders, to straight up astrology. That way we can pair people together and have a better understanding of what environments are going be best for someone.
The other quality I admire is women who lift other women up. I love that the women in our company who are promoted, often say, this other woman would be perfect as a replacement. This woman has these special talents and should be promoted here, or would be a better fit here. As women move up, I think we have to lift each other up, and bring each other along.
We have just completed a re-brand to position ourselves as the industry-defining influencer marketing agency. We are unstoppable on that mission. We won't stop until everybody knows what we do and how well we do it. We are so proud of the work we do on behalf of our clients and our influencer network.
As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Monday 3rd October. Stefania lives and works in San Francisco.