How She Got There: Rebekah Iliff, Chief Strategy Officer at AirPR

Name: Rebekah Iliff

Age: 36

Job Title and Description: Chief Strategy Officer and founding team of AirPR. AirPR is a PR tech software company that provides analytics, insights, and measurement solutions rooted in big data to Fortune 5000 and fast-growing technology companies.

College Name/Major: Loyola University Chicago/B.A. in Philosophy and Antioch University at Los Angeles/M.A. in Organizational Management and Applied Community Psychology

Website: www.airpr.com/

Twitter Handle: @rebekahiliff and @airpr

 

 

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Rebekah Iliff: Essentially, my job straddles between a Chief Operating Officer role and a Chief Marketing Officer role. Here is how I would break it down:

CEO support: I work closely with my CEO (Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer) on ensuring the trains are running on time, the vision of the company is materialzing and that he has support in everything from hiring to fundraising. I’m kind of like his “wing woman.”

Engineering Liaison: I work closely with my Chief Technology Officer (Raj Sathyamurthi) and Chief Architect (Patrick Liang) to ensure that marketing, sales and engineering are aligned. It’s an important aspect of my job because as a rapidly growing and expanding company, we need a tremendous amount of communication between “silos.” Things are moving too quickly to have things fall through the cracks.

HR/Culture: I spend time ensuring that our culture is conducive to hiring the best talent and that we are building a company that aligns with our core values. This is a really important aspect early on in the life cycle of an early-stage organization. Culture can make or break a company. My duties here include everything from onboarding new hires to making sure we have birthday cake for our employees on their special day. I also make an effort to meet with employees regularly to “check in,” see how they are doing, if they are having any struggles or want to voice an opinion they may not feel comfortable talking about with colleagues. It’s a lot of “mama bear” type stuff…which I love. I really enjoy this part of my job, because it has to do with human relationships.

Brand Advocacy: This could be considered marketing and PR, but I spend a tremendous amount of my time producing thought leadership content, speaking and moderating panels. I travel around the world advocating on behalf of not only AirPR, but the entire PR industry in terms of PR measurement and how we can use technology to move the industry forward. I also write columns for Mashable, Inc. and Entrepreneur and contribute content to countless other publications…I’m passionate about educating those who are interested in learning about the “state of affairs” of the PR industry as well as entrepreneurship and startups.

 

What is the best part of your job?

RI: Honestly, I think it’s the fact that I get to do a variety of things where I get to meet interesting people, build relationships and talk about innovation and entrepreneurship. I really feel like AirPR is having a huge impact not only on the PR industry, but also on the entire business world because we are revealing things (using big data) that no one has ever seen before. It’s making their jobs easier and showing the value they (PR and comms professionals) bring to the table.

 

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

RI: My first “job” was as a professional ballerina. I know, weird. And I got there by working my butt off and focusing day in and day out on that one thing for years. That experience taught me an extreme amount of self-discipline and understanding of what it takes to go from nothing to something of the highest level.

I literally “fell into” marketing and PR after I “retired” at 22. I was in school the entire time I had a dance career, so I graduated only a year and a half after I would have had I gone the traditional route.

While I was finishing school, I needed a job (I was broke!), so a friend of mine introduced me to a Chicago entrepreneur (Billy Dec) who ran nightclubs and restaurants. I started working at the door of a couple of his clubs at night, because I was in school during the day and did modeling gigs on the side to pay rent. Before I knew it, I had met thousands of people and was having so much fun watching Dec build his empire and being a part of it all. I was hosting events and producing fashion shows and running around taking care of celebrities. I learned a tremendous amount about people and running and building a business in a very condensed time frame. When he launched a company (Rockit Ranch Productions), along with partners Brad Young and Arturo Gomez, he asked me to join as marketing and PR director at age 24. I said yes and the rest was history!

 

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?

RI: I had no idea how difficult it would be to measure success and prove one’s value to a business. PR pros are tasked to make sense of a variety of data points and disparate pieces of information, not to mention personality types – it’s a hard, hard gig – often with very little glory.  This is exactly why I decided to join AirPR, because we are making sense of all that and providing data to prove just how valuable PR pros are to a business.

 

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?

RI: I co-founded a tech PR firm, talkTECH, in 2007 with my long-time friend Kristen Tischhauser. She was the executor to my vision, and we have a unique partnership and relationship that expands beyond business. We made very conscious decisions about how we were going to run the business, the types of projects and clients would take on and combined it with our personal life goals – to create something that we could be proud of on every level. She has taught me so much about friendship, business relationships and ultimately how life will take you up and it will take you down – but when you have a strong support system, you can take it all in stride.

 

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

RI: Well, I’ve made so many it’s hard to just choose one! A general mistake that can apply to many of the failures is being impatient, [like] wanting to force things to happen, which ultimately just means I was trying to control things that were ultimately out of my control. I’m much, much more patient now…but I still know how to light a fire when need be. The difference now is “the wisdom to know the difference” of what I can and cannot change.

 

What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

RI: I recently had a meeting with Cherie Blair (wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair) in Berlin, Germany to discuss the projects she’s doing with the Cherie Blair Foundation in conjunction with Qualcomm in Malaysia. I was on 38 minutes of sleep in two days, having flown in the day of the meeting on a red eye from New York, so I kept pinching myself thinking, “Is this really happening?”

I’ve hung with celebrities, rockstars, pro athletes and the “tech elite,” but in my book, she is the queen of all of it in terms of her career, what she’s accomplished and what she continues to do with her power and knowledge.

 

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

RI: The first thing is whether or not they are a culture fit with the company. Particularly early on in the life cycle of an organization, someone who doesn’t mesh well can be extremely toxic and can actually derail other team members.

Other important qualities/aspects include level of expertise (i.e. are they the best or really good in their area), willingness to collaborate and be a “team player,” lack of ego and more interested in solving the problem rather than flexing their proverbial muscles and general positivity and easy to work with along with a great sense of humor.

 

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

RI: First, figure out sooner than later what you are really good at combined with what you enjoy doing, then pursue that fully and commit to it.

Second, know that failure and making mistakes is just part of the gig. It’s part of life. If you take huge risks, you will have huge falls, too. And that’s okay. You’ll have ups and downs and people will disappoint you and say brutal things. The most important thing is to surround yourself with a supportive group of friends, family and colleagues who believe in you.

Third, give back always. Don’t wait until you’ve reached “X” status, age or career title. We are on a journey, and there really isn’t a point where you will feel like you’ve arrived. Ever. So just know that the time to be loving and kind and giving and compassionate is now. It is the thing that keeps us going through all the muck.

 

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