Roya Soleimani (SFS ’11) is a Communications Manager in Global Communications & Public Affairs at Google.org, where she focuses on People Operations, Diversity, Workplace, Education and Philanthropic initiatives. You can learn more about Roya by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.
Center for Social Impact Communication: Good Afternoon, Roya. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. So, we’ve heard that you’re a Hoya!?
Roya Soleimani: I am! I studied in the School of Foreign Service in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and graduated with my masters. I stayed in DC for a year after graduating – I was there for five years total – and then moved back to my home state of California. I loved my time in DC, and actually moved back to California without having the job fully secured. I took a a bit of a reboot, and I’ve now been back in California for four years.
CSIC: Describe your role to us and how you ended up where you are today?
RS: I am a Communications Manager on the Global Communications and Public Affairs team at Google, and my job is media relations and public relations in its truest sense. When I first started at Google in 2012, I was focused on communications for Google Search, Google Translate and Google Trends. Even though I was working on the product side, I always found ways to go back to my former world: whether it was volunteering my time, working with Google Ideas (now Google Jigsaw), our think/do tank, or finding unique projects. And, as of last fall I’ve been focused on social good and social impact with Google.org.
My job includes everything from pitching proactive stories about product launches or new features, to putting on the flak jacket as a PR person and doing crisis comms when something goes wrong. My background is interesting, I didn’t actually have formal communications training – and in many ways I wish I did – so a lot of it has been learning experientially on the job and going back to what I learned in previous positions.
When I was in college, and later in DC, I would go and listen to incredible speakers and one of the number one things I always heard people say and – now this has become completely tangible for me – is that things often take unpredictable and unexpected turns, but that’s what makes them really exciting!
Since I was a kid I was really involved in community events and community affairs with the Iranian American community: I did a lot of public speaking, I was involved in civic organizations and local politics in my hometown, I even had my own TV show, called News Television. Everything I’ve done since I was young had this external representative role and function to it. I was a trustee on the school board, I ran several organizations, I served as Editor-in-Chief of a magazine, I was Chief of Staff in the Office of the President at Cal. Everything I did had a theme of leading by example and a theme of uncovering narrative and strategy and representing that work, whether it was at the magazine doing fundraising or trying to land stories or do that sort of work.
When I first moved to Washington I interned at C-SPAN for a semester in 2005 through the UCDC program – the University of California’s DC Internship Program – and I absolutely fell in love with DC and wanted to be part of the political energy that was there. So I went back to Berkeley but I kept up my relationships, which is something I always recommend to people. I would see something relevant and find a reason to email my school internship advisor or see a relevant story and send it to the producer that I worked with at C-SPAN. After college I worked at the University of California, running events and conferences and, through that role, started a public service fellowship program. The position was doing a little bit of everything: I was formally an “Event Manager” but I expanded my role to include everything from PR for both UCDC and for our clients, to taping down microphone wires before an event. I was always ready to roll up my sleeves, and that’s been one of the best takeaways of my career.
After two years, I was accepted into Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. During my time at Georgetown I had the opportunity to take Secretary Albright’s class, which was one of the best experiences of my life, and I had the opportunity to intern at her strategy firm. Upon graduating, I remember I had an offer from a consulting firm in the DC area but also the opportunity to go to Voice of America and the Persian News Network. I asked to grab fifteen minutes with Secretary Albright, to run the opportunities by her and she said that public service was a higher calling and I should go for it and, with her recommendation, I did.
I spent a year with Voice of America and in that time I worked with different pockets of the organization, including one team that was focused on a satire show. As a part of that team, we created an online-focused information platform to raise awareness about internet censorship around the world, which we launched at SXSW in Austin, Texas. At the time I had been applying for jobs to leave DC, but I didn’t have the street cred yet. I didn’t have the technology piece, on paper I look like a Middle East analyst, but I knew I could represent a company like Google. I was particularly interested in Google.org and the impact space, but really I knew I had to pitch myself first. That VOA project made my application pop for the recruiter and in 2012 I joined Google after undergoing ten interviews, which was quite the process.
CSIC: That is quite the path!
RS: Yes! Unexpected twists and turns along the way.
CSIC: It sounds like Secretary Madeleine Albright’s class was really impactful for you, were there other ways that Georgetown played into your success today?
RS: Definitely! I went to University of California Berkeley as an undergrad, which is an incredible institution, but it’s a pretty big place and sitting in the lecture hall with 800 students can be daunting. To be able to study with the professors and the students, my colleagues and fellow classmates, at Georgetown in such an intimate setting was remarkable. Imagine sitting around a table with twenty students and Secretary Albright on a weekly basis, with her calling on you by name to ask your opinion on weighty world issues.
I also learned Arabic while I was at Georgetown, through the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, so I had Arabic every day for several hours in a tiny class with some of the most energetic and passionate professors I’ve ever known, many of whom I’m still in touch with. The relationship building that is able to happen in that setting is what really sets Georgetown apart. There’s the history, of course, there’s the relationships you forge while you’re there, but there was something magical to me about sitting in such an intimate setting with such brilliant minds, something that would get lost in a larger setting.
My first year at Georgetown I had the chance to work as a research assistant for one of our professors. Professor Rochelle Davis had a grant from the State Department and we traveled to Syria and Jordan to assess access to information, education, and overall livelihoods for Iraqi refugees. I can’t think of another environment or school where I would’ve had that to be so involved with critical research like that..
CSIC: What an incredible experience! You’ve mentioned this idea of connections and maintaining connections and it sounds like that has been advice that you’ve both received and like to give. What other advice would you give to our students?
The overarching piece of career advice that I’ve learned is to be your own advocate, whether you are in the job market and looking for something new, or you’re in a role and you don’t feel like you can grow, or you want to try to do your own thing or try something new.
You have to be able to see yourself in other people’s eyes and actually work to build that personal brand for yourself.
When I was deciding what my next move would be after VOA, I thought about my network and I realized that if I was thoughtful about it, they could help me, but the only way they would do that is if I asked. I needed to advocate for myself. I first needed to make sure that I’ve built strong relationships and bonds, that I’m not just asking for favors. Secondly, I needed a very specific ask, a clear call to action. I can’t tell you the number of emails I get from people who say, “I would just love to pick your brain… in general.” When someone is busy it’s hard to respond to that. So as you’re advocating for yourself and as you’re reaching out for help, be sure you have that very clear ask.
Be gracious, yet persistent. I always remind people that one person getting back to you may be the most important part of your day, but it’s very likely you’re not the most important part of theirs. Its a good reminder whether it’s a recruiter, hiring manager, internal or external stakeholder that you’re waiting to hear back from. Your work or your future might hinge on that one email to them, but they likely have dozens of other things on their plate.
And I say that as someone who learned this empathy myself as I was waiting in the job process at Google. I thought “Oh my gosh, it’s been a week since I talked to my recruiter, what’s going on!?” Now that I’m on the flip side help interview, I realize that you need time for thoughtful feedback, to connect with the other interviewers, oh, and you have your own full time job.
It’s always giving people a little bit of credit and again being gracious, but persistent.
Finally, start to think of networking as all of your day-to-day interactions. Networking is not some foreign thing that happens separate from who you are. It could be a conversation you’re having with someone you’re sitting next to in class or someone you’re at an activity or event with it. It could be happy hour, it could be someone you meet at the gym… Any of those are networking opportunities. Make sure that you’re authentic and consistent in the way that you manage your relationships. That will pay dividends in your life.
CSIC: That is excellent advice, Roya! So, what career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
RS: That’s a tough one! I just turned 31 on Monday [CSIC: Happy Birthday! 🎉] and you know, whenever you have a birthday you take stock of what you’ve accomplished and still hope to achieve. The milestone of getting to Google was a huge career shift, that was one of the really exciting moments that has happened and there have been so many victories in my time here because I get to work with such passionate, incredible people every day. Here’s an example:
Earlier this year we were seeing news stories about Zika, and we were seeing that the world is curious, confused and concerned about this pandemic that’s happening. With something like Ebola, there were people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance and immediate medical care, but in the case of Zika a lot of people don’t even know they have it because a lot of the time people don’t show symptoms. So Goolge.org committed a million dollars to UNICEF to help them build awareness on the ground in Brazil and beyond. But even bigger than that, it was the crafting of our strategy and the narrative and pushing our team to make sure that we were giving the best of Google to this area. So in addition to the million dollars, it was having our engineers and our US designers, our data analysts sitting with the innovation lab at UNICEF to analyze data and try to build a data platform to anticipate where this disease might be going next. Then we added pieces to Google search for symptoms and WHO and CDC alerts and reactions.
Being able to pull together a global team to quickly respond and then to land the story – we got over 1,800 news articles in the English language cluster alone on this topic and we were able to carve out the narrative in the way that really highlighted the best of Google. Anyone who is working in a position where you’re representing a company and the work that they’re doing, you always want to highlight the best of that company, and to me this is one of our most recent examples. Another recent example is the work we did with the refugee crisis last fall – it is just perpetually amazing and keeps me motivated and excited.
CSIC: Those are both great examples of Google working on big problems with incredible partners; what skills are necessary to work in community partnerships from a corporate communications perspective?
RS: I think the key to success is to engage authentically and genuinely with everyone you meet and work to understand the efforts of that cause. My colleague, Justin Steele, Principal at Google.org, was focusing a giving portfolio on racial justice grants – at first in the Bay Area and now nationally. This is such an important topic for our country, for our region and an area that we have not seen another technology company enter into. I work through Justin to learn more about the partners, which allows me to not just pitch the story as “Google commits this money,” but to step back and examine what this partner is doing and how that ties back to Google’s core mission and values.
When you engage authentically, taking the time to listen and learn about what they’re doing, you can make the connection that on its own it may not have been a natural fit for Google to fund racial justice organizations, criminal justice reform or mass incarceration, for example. When you frame the narrative around the organizations and the work they’re doing, it shifts: it’s an obvious part of Google’s continued commitment to making sure that people have universal access to information and to making sure that some of our biggest social justice issues are being tackled in a disruptive, innovative way.
Another thing I have found really exciting is that a lot of the nonprofits that we work with don’t have their own PR apparatus, as these are lean, scrappy organizations. Most recently we had our Google Impact Challenge | Disabilities – this was a $20 million commitment and we had an open call to organizations around the world who focus on technologically innovative solutions in the field of accessibility. We had two organizations, Perkin’s School for the Blind based out of Boston, and the Center for Discovery that I was able to pitch individually to different reporters, WIRED worked directly with the Center for Discovery and CNN worked with Perkins. Now each of these organizations are getting this cascade effect of more stories and attention because we were able to use the Google relationship as a news hook, but let the organization shine as the practitioners who are going to actually do the work and use the funds to make things happen for their communities and their stakeholders. If you engage authentically those partners become your best third party validator.
A note about the racial justice grants, they started because we were doing an open call every year for Bay Area nonprofits to apply for grants and there was a moment when we realized so many of the organizations that applied were racial justice focused. The team was able to carve out a separate $5 million fund just to focus on that specific area. So again, that’s all authentic. This isn’t just a reaction, but really something that ties back to our DNA.
CSIC: What are your go to sources to learn about communications trends?
RS: My typical reading material is everything from The New York Times Magazine to Harvard Business Review to WIRED. I also pop in to TechCrunch and Refinery 29 – all sorts of different things. My goal is to make storytelling in the social impact space something that is accessible to everyone, versus a particular, focused outlet.
I feel like I’ve done my job well when my mom calls me and says “Did you hear about this thing that Google.org did!?” because our message has made it not only to a consumer audience, but to my mom.
I worked on a WIRED piece for a couple months, Giving the Google Way, that explained how we’ve been working on impact for a very long time, we’re very committed to it at its core. I get really excited when I see a giving story that’s headlining The New York Times or another consumer focused publication.
CSIC: We have to ask… is your organization hiring?
RS: Yes, Google is always hiring and all the jobs can be found at Google.com/jobs. I will say that in the time that I was applying at Google, Google.org seemed like the right fit for me – not necessarily in a communications role, but because of the grant giving and partnerships. I was rejected from several roles at Google before I ever got a phone call. So, that brings me back to my point about being gracious yet persistent: maybe it wasn’t the right timing or the right role, but I did not let that get me down. I was persistent and one afternoon in DC, I hopped on LinkedIn, refreshed the jobs, and lo and behold there was a communications role available on the Google Search team. It wasn’t something I thought I would be doing (not that the consumer products weren’t something I liked – I was a user of them!), but I went for it anyway.
I would suggest that even if it’s not what you absolutely thought you would want to be doing, go for it anyway and hey, four years later you could be working with the team you initially wanted to work with. And you’ll do all sorts of fun stuff in between.
CSIC: Thank you so much, Roya, for taking time out of your day to share your thoughts with us!