Shereen Kassam has built two careers in parallel - She works as a Marketing Manager at Disney, and has also built up a career as a standup comedian. As a comedian, she routinely performs in the US and internationally, has worked with comedians such as Arsenio Hall and Myq Kaplan, and was named as one of Orlando Business Journal's 40 under 40 in 2021.
Most recently, Shereen gave her own TEDx talk titled "Chicken Wings Made Me Unstoppable". You can check out Shereen's talk here: www.ted.com/talks/shereen_kassa…made_me_unstoppable
Check out the podcast below to listen to the complete discussion!
Detailed discussion transcript:
You're working in Marketing at Disney. You have a full on career as a comedian. You were doing your own podcast also for a while. That's a lot of stuff! Do you feel stretched? :)
People always ask me that. And I always just say, when you're passionate about something, you'll find the time to do it. I will say, though, that since Covid, I have slowed down. I don't know if that's age, or because I realize how much I enjoy being by myself in my house watching TV, which is a really bad habit that I picked up during Covid. But I always tell people like when you find something that you're passionate about, you will find the time to do it.
So in a typical week, how much time are you spending across all of these things?
I put in my 40 hours at work, I don't want to say I do less because in case they listen :) Comedy has actually reduced, because I'm at a level now of doing comedy, I don't have to go out as many days a week. So when I first started to do comedy, and I think when we first spoke, I used to go out every night to perform. Maybe take one day off or two days off in a week. So I was out and about five nights a week doing comedy and then writing in the afternoons and doing all that stuff. Now that I'm more accomplished in the comedy space and I've moved up to feature/headliner, which is the highest position, I don't necessarily have to go out every night to practice. I can always try to just interject the new stuff in my longer sets, because now I have 45 minutes. So I can always just try my new stuff while I'm doing my set. So I save a little time there.
But it's still really incredible.
Did you go through a phase of feeling any guilt when spending time on comedy?For eg: Did you ask questions such as “is my is my job suffering?” “Am I focusing on the wrong thing?” “What if the side hustle doesn't work out?”
No, never. I never felt I wasn't putting in my all at work. But I do have this push and pull at work with my ego per se because on the one hand, we're educated, we're ambitious, we want to make it to the top right. And at work, my ego wants to do well and be promoted. I want to be a VP, I want to be CMO etc. But then I have to step back and say but if you do all that, then will you have time to invest in all these other passion projects that you have? I always tell myself, No, I want time to spend on my passion projects. But then when I see people at work getting promoted, I think “that could have been me”. And that's where I kind of have to really step back a lot of times and ask myself - where do I really want to be in my life?
Thanks for sharing that. And it sounds like this is a conscious trade off that you're making.
Every day. One of the things people ask me all the time is why don't I just quit my full time job and be a full time stand up comedian. And it comes back to this question of, if I had to survive on my creativity, once you take creative activity, and you make it your livelihood, and something you have to pay for and make money from, I feel that I lose some of that passion. I'm not as passionate about something because now I'm stressed now I have to make this work. Because I have to come up with good ideas, because I have to make money. And that's how I've laid it out for myself. Working, nine to five lets me use a part of my brain that I wouldn't get to doing comedy. And it lets me stay sharp. And it lets me work on really interesting projects. And you mentioned, I'm in marketing. So I get to learn all these marketing tactics and different functions that I can then use to push out my creativity. And I enjoy learning on both sides, but also not feeling the stress that I have to take this thing that I love, which is comedy and podcasting and content creation, and make money from it, full time money from it, where then it becomes stressful.
Tell us how you’re managing your time - Are you following any rituals or processes to help you manage your time better over a week between your job and comedy?
I do try to keep a journal with daily goals. I use a journal that has you lay out your day by morning, afternoon and evening. And it's great because it's not by the hour, but it helps me kind of keep in check. Did I write today? Did I journal today? Did I focus on myself? Did I meditate? And I really enjoy it. Because I'm not pressured to get things done within a time slot. But it's just a good reminder to me, did I do all these things? And yes, I definitely keep myself in check by writing everyday, just free writing every day about what I need to get done in the day.
There's also this issue of context switching - does it happen to you that you're at work but you're thinking about comedy or vice versa?
No, I'm very good about setting boundaries. And that's super important as a creative. So when I'm at work, it’s work and once I leave the office, it's my time.
So let's say someone listens to this. And they say I have my own passion project. But I'm kind of struggling to figure out how to manage my time between my day job and my project, what would be your top two or three suggestions for them?
Well, one, understand the job that you're doing. Is it something that you are enjoy doing? And passionate about it? And ask yourself is that what is stressing you out? When I used to work in investment banking, we would get to work at like seven or eight in the morning, and we would be there until midnight - there was no time to be creative. There was no time to have passion, and I didn't like the job. So why am I doing this? So sometimes, it's even thinking about are you in the right job to pursue your passion projects and again, your ego will come into play. Because you're gonna have to say to yourself, do I leave this high profile investment banking job to go work somewhere else? Maybe my hours will be better, and I'll have more time. And really, you got to just think, look deep inside and say, what is important to you? And then how do you shift those things to work for you?
Yeah having that self awareness is so important.
And I'm telling you, your ego is gonna get in the way the whole time. And you've just got to keep reminding yourself why you do what you do.
Tell us a little bit about what your TEDx talk is about.
So my TEDx talk is about claiming your uniqueness. Like we're all unique in some way. But a lot of times through our journey, we start to shift, we start to change and we take on other people's traits, so that we can fit in and my TEDx talk is about this idea of chicken wings. And if you mess up chicken wings, you can always re-sauce them. And you want to keep re-saucing this chicken wing until you enjoy what you're eating. And why don't we do that in our own lives? Why don't we re-sauce ourselves to find our most authentic selves so that we actually enjoy life?
How did you come up with the idea for your talk?
While eating chicken wings? :) No, how did I come up with the idea….. In 2020, I got asked to do a keynote for a women's event and the topic was how do you be unstoppable. And the goal of the keynote was, I was supposed to get the audience excited about 2021.
Before then, I had never really looked at myself as being unstoppable. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized, I became unstoppable when I started living my true life, when I left my investment banking job, when I left my job at Amazon, when I realized what was important to me and what made me happy, and I stopped trying to fit in and fit other people's mould.
And then I really love chicken wings, I love chicken brands. And I just thought how can I make this fun and funny and really drive home a message at the same time?
And can you share some examples from your journey as a comedian, where you applied this re-saucing concept as you have come into your own?
Comedy has opened up so many doors for me and one of the doors that opened up was actually radio. At one point, I was on two radio shows, one of them I was like a part of the show and the other one I was actually the main host, it was my show.
I was doing a comedy show in Florida. And a table in the front got really upset at me because well they were already upset at me because I was brown and I was a woman. They got more upset when I said I was Muslim. They threw this big fit, they went to the manager of the club and they got me banned from the club. They went on social media. They disparaged me. They called me all types of names. The radio show people said, this is not a good look, we're partners with this comedy club we need them. We can't lose this partnership, you need to make an apology. And I refused. I said, No, I'm not apologizing for being Muslim. That's ridiculous.
I walked away from my own radio show. I re-sauced myself, I went and started my own podcast called Creative Breakthrough. I had this awesome opportunity not only to continue to share my voice, which is what I loved about radio, now I got to do it on my own terms, nobody could tell me what I could and could not say. And I got to have these conversations with people talking about things that actually matter to me. And then the really cool thing is like, I knew the numbers from the radio show, I knew how many people were listening and in what states, my podcast was triple the number of listeners and I was reaching countries now around the world, which was incredible. And then last year, I won the international podcasting Award for Best Business Podcast, which I never could have imagined doing in radio as a new person coming into radio.
Looking back at that experience, while I hate that I had to walk away because somebody got upset at me, it allowed me to find my authentic voice and go do something that I was more passionate about.
Thank you so much for sharing that story. And I'm just amazed that stuff like that still happens.
But it also helped you transform and the podcast wouldn't have happened if you weren't put into that situation.
And that's the thing. I think as people we sometimes forget to look at the bright, silver lining when things happen. I could have left the radio show and fallen into depression and spiraled and been really angry and upset and let those people win. Even my co-host, let them win. No, I'm not going to, I have a voice. And this is what I enjoy doing. How do I go and do it in a different way? How do I re-sauce myself and continue to do what I love?
Is this a conscious effort on your part, this kind of positive, empowering self talk?
I look at the world that everything happens for a reason. So I feel when one door shuts on me, it's really understanding why did that door shut? Was it not the right opportunity for me? Is there something better behind a different door? And I've always kind of never tried to look at the negatives behind things, I always look at why did this happen? And what's the positive that's going to come out of it. And I think I've just been trained that way. Because growing up as a brown Muslim woman, especially after 9/11, I always felt that I was always at the bottom. I felt people kept shutting the door on me. And because I never let myself fall into this trap where I wasn't good enough. Because I'm brown and I'm Muslim, I was able to just continue to find doors to open to help me kind of keep moving up the ladder.
How did the TEDx Talk come to be?
It took a very long time. Well, it's funny. So there is this company that keeps bugging me on LinkedIn, I'm sure we all have these companies that try to sell us stuff on LinkedIn. And they wanted to sell me a package to do a TEDx talk. But it was a three year commitment before they thought I would be ready to do a TEDx talk. And it wasn't cheap. It was $12,000 a year.
There are companies out there that will help you pitch your TEDx talk, there are companies out there that will help you get ready for your TEDx talk. There are companies out there that do everything under the sun, and they're expensive!
So you used one of these companies?
No, I don't have $36,000! :)
I wasn't in a rush to do a TEDx talk. It wasn't one of my goals. But they reached out to me. And because they reached out to me, that then got me thinking about doing a TEDx. I wonder how hard it really is to do a TEDx talk? Let me find out. And I was on Facebook, and I saw an advert for “apply today for a TEDx talk”. I printed out the application. I worked on my app and submitted it. And that's really what happened. I just took that first step. And I got the TEDx talk.
You make it sound really easy. So you literally just applied?
I will say that the application to do a TEDx talk is very grueling. I would compare it to a college application, you have to think, you have to go really deep. You have to figure out what is your story? And what is your big idea? And how are you the right person to tell the story? So I definitely went through different iterations of my application, and making sure I had my story right.
Does the application cost money?
No, it's free to submit an application. So you can apply to as many as you want. I know somebody who applied to 143 different TEDx locations before he got one.
Has all the effort been worth it for you?
I'm gonna say yes, because the purpose of me doing the TEDx talk was really, once I got my idea on paper, the goal was to inspire people. And the goal was to share my story with people, to show people that the world doesn't end if something bad happens, we've all gone through traumatic experiences, whatever they may be in our personal lives and our careers, and sometimes there are setbacks, and we look at them as setbacks, and we spiral a little bit, we fall into depression, and we think it's never gonna get better. And the idea behind my TEDx talk was really to show people that it is possible to get back out of that rabbit hole, it is possible to survive and it is possible to re-sauce your life and change whatever happened to you.
And I will say that the TEDx talk was totally worth it. Because after my talk, this woman came up to me she was there live, and she was crying. Because my talk really impacted her and hit her. The stories I told resonated with her and that to me made it all worth it that even if I just made an impact on that one person, it was enough for me.
Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in giving their own TEDx talk one day?
I would say a couple things. One, watch a lot of TEDx talks, and search for TEDx talks in your space, what you're interested in and take notes on what did you learn. Think about them, what did you not like about them? Because all of that becomes really important when you start crafting your story. And really spend time thinking, What is your big idea? That's what TEDx is all about, what is your big idea? And through the whole process, people just kept asking me, What is your big idea? and you have to be able to synthesize it. And it has to be something that nobody's ever spoken about in a way that you want to speak about it.
So don't just think you're going to come up with it overnight. It's going to take some time just really drilling it and digging deep about it. But don't be afraid. Because I think the more you spend thinking about your big idea, the better your talk will be.
Were there any interesting things you tried out to make your talk more powerful?
It was definitely about being authentic and being vulnerable, because now people can relate to you. And it's such a hard thing to do. But it's my story, and I have to embrace those parts of my life that are vulnerable, because it's a part of who I became as a person, it changed my life. So I can't avoid those things. If I had, my talk wouldn't be authentic.
Well, thank you so much for sharing. This was extremely helpful. Once again, we will link your TEDx talk.
And if anybody has questions or anything, I’m happy to help. I’m on all social platforms, my handle is @funnybrowngirl , just send me a DM.