You don’t often meet women as poised, yet candid as Melody Khodaverdian. An avid runner, charity-driven soul who works for one of the most recognizable media brands in the world, Melody is a TEDxToronto alumni, chasing dreams in New York City. As Director of Conference Partnerships at Forbes, Melody is the epitome of a #ROGUESTORIES woman:
What do you do as Director of Sponsorships for Forbes Conferences?
I lead partnerships for Forbes Summit Group, which is the Forbes live events product. Working with our amazing team, I bring on partners for 12 of our global conferences – everything from the Forbes Women’s Summit, to the Forbes Under 30 Summit, to the Forbes Healthcare Summit.
You have a history of success in business development / sales, which is a tough business to be in because there are ambitious targets and clear goals. How did you get started in the field, and know this was something you had a knack for?
I always say that people who can sell are born with it. Whether it’s being able to convince your friends to do something you want to do, or raising money for a cause.
“I always say that people that can sell are born.”
I’ve been connected with non profits my entire life. I’m passionate about the pediatric cancer cause, and I got really interested in fundraising and connecting people with causes that deserve love and attention. I always tell people once I care about something – whether it’s a cause, a product, or my favorite sushi restaurant, everyone around me is going to know about it. I don’t want people to miss out on good opportunities or great experiences.
I got started in fundraising and development for a cause called Childhood Cancer Canada. I worked there for about four years, and simultaneously, I attended my first TEDxToronto event in 2011 and fell in love. I left feeling so inspired, and convinced that everyone deserved a chance to feel that way. After that event, I got in touch with the organizers and had to get involved in some way. I wanted to use my skill set to help them bring on new sponsors – so I ended up leading partnerships for them. And true to my type A nature, I was even more inspired with additional ideas and really wanted to help grow it further, so I ended up co-chairing the event in 2014.
It’s funny where life takes you, it was actually at a TED Conference in New York where I sat next to Bruce Upbin former Managing Editor of Tech at Forbes. He started to tell me about what Forbes did in live events and how they were doing things differently, and one thing led to another. The rest is history.
It’s always come down to “do I believe in the product”, and “am I passionate about it”. If those two things aren’t there, I don’t believe I can be successful. I believe part of the reason I’m successful is because I’m passionate about everything I’ve signed up to sell.
It’s inherently something that’s instinctual, it sounds like. A lot of it is strategic – how do you go into something (especially when you’re selling something like yourself), and the confidence to fulfill on that goal?
For me, the answer is simple. I always tell people on my team and my colleagues to never take something to someone to buy, that you wouldn’t buy yourself. You can’t sell everything to everyone. Every time I went to a TEDxToronto client, or a sponsor to donate to Childhood Cancer Canada, or currently, someone to sponsor a Forbes conference, I always do my research. I don’t put everything in front of everyone. I research a company’s strategy, I research what they’re currently doing, how it would fit into their marketing strategy. It’s about being selective. When you’re selective, your contacts and your relationships really perk up when you bring them something. They know I’m not going to bring something to them that’s not a fit. It establishes an immediate level of trust.
“You can’t sell everything to everyone.”
Once I’ve gained their trust, I don’t want to lose it. I’m not going to sell them something for the sake of it. Being thoughtful about what you’re bringing to someone is very important.
How did the process of selling become clear to you? Was it mentors, trial and error?
A lot of it is intuitive, knowing what people might like. Keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate, and apply common sense. That being said, I still have so much more to learn. I think the worst thing for me to do is think that I have it figured out and nothing left to learn. I always check myself because being confident is good, but thinking you have nothing to learn or nowhere to go from here, I would never say that’s where I’m at.
One of my favorite ways to learn to sell is by watching. I’ve learned so much from leadership at Childhood Cancer Canada. I would go into meetings and see how my mentor and former CEO would approach contacts. One of my favorite things I learned from her was that there didn’t always need to be an ask, just a connection was enough. It would be about getting someone ignited about the cause. It’s a very different route than a lot of other partnerships people would take. At every point of my career, I’ve had some really great bosses that have allowed me to watch them in action. Every time I start a new role, I always ask if I can watch someone else pitch and sell in a product. It’s incredibly helpful.
Do you feel like there was ever a point in time where there was something you couldn’t sell in or something that you approached that didn’t go the way you thought it might?
I think there always is. Partners are always looking for an increased ROI. To bring in partners year after year with the same spend, you constantly have to show them that the value continues to be there. How are you going to go above and beyond with essentially the same product? You have to ensure that you’re reinventing the product that offers more opportunities and benefits to a sponsor who signed on for a multi year deal.
I’ve definitely run into situations where you have to get more creative. It’s easy to partner with a brand for a one year deal or a one time opportunity. But having someone experience your product and want to come back, that’s the magic. That’s what’s lasting. For someone to come to an event and come back to say that was exactly what you promised, and sign up again is the hardest part. It’s always a dance to ensure that what you’re talking about delivering always goes above and beyond expectations.
Switching gears from sales to your personal challenges – you’re an avid runner. How do you fit that into your life, and how does that improve the quality of everything else in your life?
If I get a run in each day it completely changes the tone of my day – my reactions to people, my patience in stressful situations. I don’t give myself a choice. If I say I’m going to run, I’m going to do it. I know that because I run, I can do everything else in my life. If I don’t run I’ll be sacrificing all those things.
If you just put your clothes on and are out the door, you’re halfway done. Just focus on how you’re going to feel afterwards.
You’ve completed marathons – how does someone who doesn’t have that routine down start to incorporate that into their lives?
I started running four years ago. I was one of those people who couldn’t run for two minutes. I started by signing up for a 10km race for charity, it’s always nice to align it with something you care about. My cause was a children’s cancer charity called “Camp Ooch”. It becomes bigger than yourself. I trained to run 1km, then 5km, then 10km, then a half marathon. I didn’t run a marathon overnight.
I’d say always build it into smaller steps for those who want to get started. Join a running group – to know that people are waiting for you Saturday morning at 7am really is a nice driver. The group and community aspect of running has pushed me through as well.
“I didn’t run a marathon overnight.”
How does running have parallels to what you do in business?
When you’re running (especially if you’re running fast or for a long time), you can’t focus on anything else other than the matter at hand. You have to focus on your breathing. It pushes all other thoughts out of your mind. I love running outside, and focusing on my surroundings vs. letting other thoughts into your mind. It becomes a sort of meditation.
In today’s world, you’re constantly flooded with requests and proposals, cab rides, and meetings. You’re jumping from one thing to another. If you focus on one thing, you focus on being efficient and delivering it with quality.
Charity is a large part of your professional career and your running. I think a lot of us have a lot of nostalgia about the last time we volunteered. People may find it hard to have opportunities to do it. How do you go about seeking these opportunities?
I really got into volunteering when I lost my dad to cancer in 2003, and I looked for a way to honor his memory. He made my childhood and my sister’s childhood so magical. He loved kids, and I love kids. I found a charity that sent kids with cancer to camp, and did that for seven years. It changed my life. But it was really just about not settling to volunteer for the sake of it. I wanted to look for an opportunity to combine the things that brought me to life.
All volunteer opportunities are great, but sometimes there are more hurdles than others. Volunteering at Camp Ooch required an interview, a creative test, a medical test, and more. It’s all worth it. Don’t settle, as you wouldn’t settle in other aspects of your life. Do things that become a part of who you are and your thread. It’s like water – I can’t not volunteer. You need it.
“Don’t settle, as you wouldn’t settle in other aspects of your life. Do things that become a part of who you are and your thread.”
I feel the need to be involved and to give back. Find your cause. You can get your feet wet with smaller things. A few colleagues and I did something really small at Columbia Presbyterian. We organized a superhero kids day on the oncology floor. It’s taking half a day of our time, and people wouldn’t think an opportunity like that would be available.
Make sure you find the cause that brings you alive, but also look up those one off opportunities, because they’re everywhere.
Sounds like you have your time management down to do so much?
I make sure I check in with myself. I have days where I have five meetings in a row and don’t have lunch. I make sure I have nights off, and really practice self care. I’m a huge extrovert, but I really need nights where I do nothing. I call my grandma, I read a book, I go to bed early.
This whole thing is a marathon, none of this is a sprint.