Charged Up! podcast: How to hustle your way to success

Episode 70 with journalist, author Silva Harapetian

Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff

Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to learn how to hustle and how to make your dreams work with what you have right now. TV journalist, author, inspirational speaker and marketing consultant Silva Harapetian knows that better than almost anyone. As an immigrant from a war-torn country with no knowledge of English to a television reporter in some of the country’s top markets, Silva has made life work by learning how to make her own rules. She’s also used credit cards to help fund her dreams – from self-publishing a book to traveling the country to speak at conferences. She shares with us her story and her tips for making your dreams happen now, no matter the obstacles in your way.

So, let’s get Charged Up! about learning how to hustle!

Jenny Hoff:  Silva, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s awesome to talk to you.

Silva Harapetian:  Thank you. I’m so pleased and just happy to chat with you.

Hoff:  Absolutely. So I want to start with your story because that’s not only what your business is about, which is people telling their stories in order to build their own brand and to make their impact, but it’s inspirational because it shows just how far determination can go. So even if you don’t come from money, you don’t speak the language of the country that you’ve moved to, you don’t have any connections to lean on but you can make things happen for yourself that would seem very, very difficult and a lot of people would be frustrated to even attempt it. And so I want to go into your back-story about how you came to this country and then how you decided you wanted to be on television and then you wanted to be an author and you wanted to be a consultant. How did you make that happen despite the obstacles in your way?

Harapetian:  Oh, my, I have to give you the Reader’s Digest version of that. So I was born in Iran just before the Iranian Revolution and lived through the Iranian Revolution and the change of the regime and then subsequently the Iran-Iraq War, and we endured about six years of that. And anytime there’s war in a country there’s always of course some difficulty for the civilians to survive and live.

So at that time the environment system had changed; it wasn’t looking good for minority Armenian-Christians living in an extremist country. Freedom was not something that was obviously available and it was really, really terrible to be a woman in a country like that. So my dad decided we were going to escape, and it was a plan that was in the works for years and we secretly slipped out of the country and pretended like we were going on a vacation to Germany and my dad left everything he owned behind as collateral for us to be able to leave as a family, and we carried only what we could. We basically took out the country what we could carry, each of us just one suitcase.

And we ended up in Germany where we waited for two years for our paperwork to actually get in order and we were sponsored by family members in the United States and we ended up in Los Angeles where we had family, and my dad went to work at a gas station, my mom worked as a seamstress at home, and I being the oldest daughter of the family my very first day was as a sophomore in high school without speaking a word of English.

From then on I really had to figure life out and I had to figure the system out, I had to figure out the high school culture, the academics of high school, where it leads, how important it is, what the classes mean, what extracurricular activities mean. So there was a lot of discovery for me because I came from a place that none of that existed.

So really high school was a really tough time for me in trying to figure out my way and also trying to figure out how to fit in being 16 years old in a country where I didn’t speak the language and I just looked foreign and sounded foreign, am foreign. To make a long story short, I got through high school with dictionaries and counseling and tutors and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college right away because I just didn’t have the skills or the language skill to make it.

So I took a full-time job at an insurance company and went to Community College at night and took all of my classes and took my time sort of getting through the college experience and also learning a little bit about being an American, being in the West, and what was important, and how you sort of set up your life to have a successful future.

I eventually transitioned and got accepted to USC, and I was at third year in college at USC, somebody said something about an internship and they were talking about in one of my communication classes about news and how interesting it was and how there was internships available. And me being the curious person I am coming from where I come from where we were always the center of news and war, and I was just curious, I got myself accepted into an internship and ended up in a newsroom in Los Angeles at KCBS.

And that’s where I just got hooked. I got hooked in how everyone was able to be calm and collective and distribute and broadcast information that was important to keeping the public in the community safe in very chaotic environment. And somehow, someway that felt like home to me. And looking back, being a little bit older, I now realize why – because my life has always been hectic and chaotic. I come from that place.

And even though we were in the middle of war and in the middle of revolution and missiles flying and landing on civilians we still lived, life just kind of went on, everybody got up in the morning and went to work and went to school. So that chaotic sense of being in a newsroom and finding calmness in the middle of it was normal and felt like home.

Hoff:  Wow.

Harapetian:  I wanted to be a reporter except, I think you and I met a few years into my career, I struggled because I didn’t speak English very well. My writing wasn’t that great. I sounded foreign, I had a horrible accent – not that you couldn’t understand – but it wasn’t clean enough to be on television. And people told me that, and for me being a survivor from a third world country it’s always been about figuring out how to be resourceful, figuring out how to go around an issue and around a problem and around a challenge and still survive and make it work.

So I figured it out, and instead of going in just a direct line from being an intern to getting a job to being a reporter on television, I took a job as a writer and I got trained to be a reporter. In the meantime I worked on my accent and I got trained by a new speech pathologists and theater experts just to get rid of my accent, and over time I was able to. It took a long time but I was so focused on where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and the purpose of which I really wanted to do it that the process didn’t seem so tedious at the time.

Looking back, thinking that I spent five years sort of honing my skills to be on television sounds like a really long time, but for me coming from a country like that, I felt a responsibility to be when I was in a position to be a conduit to be a voice and a story for people who struggle, for people who were experiencing injustice, and people going through a hard time, I just felt like it was my response.

Hoff:  Absolutely. And this was at a time when it wasn’t as common in TV news to have diversity of faces and a diversity of voices and a real understanding, people wanted to kind of know about the world. And I think we’re slowly growing into that mindset where people are interested in that, but at this time I think it was more they wanted TV people to kind of look and all sound the same.

Harapetian:  Right. You remember every TV person you ever saw had to be specific, you knew they were a news person based on the haircut that they had and the makeup that they had. And I just didn’t fit the mold, I’m not a typical looking American. And I was told such, news executives told me, “You look foreign. Your features are too strong, your hair is too dark, you sound odd, you sound sing-songy, and you’re just going to make people feel uncomfortable on television when they just want to just focus on the content.”

And this was at a time when everybody looked the same, it was 20 years ago, diversity wasn’t really something that existed in the newsroom because you have to sort of fit a specific mold. And I obviously understand that and understood that, but at the same time I thought, “But my skill level and my knowledge of the Middle East having lived through that experience had got to have some value. My perspective in life and how I tell stories have got to have some value.”

So in the process it was a really difficult challenging time for me because I didn’t want to lose my identity, but I also wanted to make it into the business. So it was an interesting balance to sort of refine my speech and refine my storytelling abilities and my skills without losing my identity of who I was and where I came from in the process.

And people asked me to dye my hair, to take the mole off of my face, they asked me to change my last name at one point. But I was like – either I’m going to make it as who I am or I’m not going to make it. And I had a cut-off point.

Hoff:  Absolutely, and that is what you do with your business now. So you have a business where you consult people on how to tell their own stories and not be afraid to use their experience and use their voices to build their brand, to build their business, to whatever they need to do in order to kind of move forward and how their own personal story like yours can actually be the most powerful tool that they have in their toolbox.

And so quickly I want to talk about how did you move then into hustling life, and I want to get into the financials of some of this too and how you used credit cards to help you figure it all out, but how did you then transition from being on TV and that being your main focus to then wanting to do this marketing? And briefly bring in your “Highway to a Husband” experiment that you guys did, which kind of launched you into the marketing world and exposed you to how that works.

Harapetian:  Yes. So what I’ve always known is in context to a situation always makes a difference. So as a reporter, as a journalist you know you go out there and people tell the story, but unless you put it into context people don’t understand the importance and the significance of a story. And that’s been true for my own life, right?

So people understanding the context of who I am and where I come from has opened more doors and created more relationships for me than just seeing the factual statements of my resume. And I saw the power of that when I told stories about anything whether it was crime or legislation or politics. And the way you educate and expose a story and put it in context of people’s lives really gets people to care about what it is you’re talking about.

And really honestly I sort of got forced into this situation because in the height of the banking crisis in 2008, 2009 when we had the auto industry collapse in Detroit I was a reporter in Detroit. And I was the last person to be hired so I was the first person who was laid off. So everybody was experiencing the financial crunch and the financial pain of the economic collapse in this country, and I was one of them. So I was forced out of my job, laid off, and then I couldn’t find another job because nobody was hiring at that time.

So when you think about it the trickle-down effect of economics is that with the car companies stopped buying ads on television, because they did have the money to spend on marketing, and when that dried up then the staffing has to be cut. And that was true across the board across the country.

Hoff:  Right.

Harapetian:  And not being able to find a job I connected with another girlfriend who works here in Miami, and she had been single for a long time and had been working for a very, very long time, had some intense schedule, and she just wanted to take a break, and our lives just happened to be in this position at that time and we talked about, “OK, what do we want to do if we’re not working?” If I can’t find a job for the next six months or eight months what do I want to spend my time doing?

And she said, “I’ve always wanted to travel the country and I feel like if I travel the country and I might meet somebody important and significant in my life because I don’t connect with the people in the city, because the things that I like to do people in the city, the men in the city don’t like to do.”

Hoff:  And so I want to interject really quickly, and I want to make sure you put in there with how you use your hustling skills when you win on this adventure to cross the country on this highway to a husband and how you used your hustling skills to get on TV, to get marketing for it, to get places to stay, and all of that.

Harapetian:  Right, so it was really people are like, “Hey, you planned this out,” and we didn’t really plan it out. That was the beauty and that in itself told me that there was an open market for a new type of business, is that we had this vision and an idea of we wanted to travel the country and we wanted to see the country and she wanted to date people out west and we thought, “OK, how do we take our skills and how do we put it to use? What is it that we know how to do?”

We know how to write, we know how to tell a story, so why don’t we tell the story of us traveling the country, about what we’re about to do? So, we started a blog and at the time – blogs were really big – and we created accounts on social media and we called it “Highway to a Husband” because we were getting on the highway and she was hoping to find her husband.

And we created a story around that, a story around two professional women who have all of their things together but they can’t somehow find a romantic partner to sort of share their life with. So we leave our lives behind to go on this adventure hoping that we meet someone significant. And that was the story around what we were doing, but we realized I was out of a job, remember I got laid off. She decided she wasn’t going to go back to work, so it’s not like we could fly our way through the country, it’s not like we could pay for hotel rooms at the Ritz Carlton across the country. So we decided to really do this grassroots sort of trip where we packed our camping gear and we camped every opportunity we had, so we look for locations along the way.

And then we sat down and we’re like, “OK, let’s look at our network. Who do we know and what city are they in?” And at the time me having been a journalist and her having been a journalist for many years we had made a lot of friends and connections around the country with other journalists who lived in different places. And we just reached out to them and said, “Hey, we’re coming to your city. This is what we’re doing. Can we connect with you or can you tell us what to do to have the local experience of the city?”

And once people heard about the story behind what we were doing everyone was intrigued that we could just leave our lives behind and go for it. And that sort of created the interest for one story, and one story was published and that story led to another story and that story led to within a month or two we were on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda, and that just kind of exploded everything, to like every city we were in we would either stay with friends, we would stay with friends of friends, and as word spread people would connect us to people they knew in cities where we didn’t know anyone. So several times we stayed and connected with people that we had never met before.

Hoff:  What would you say were the two or three biggest hustling skills that you learned through this experience that you think kind of can apply to anybody’s life if they use them?

Harapetian:  Right, so first things first – always ask. Because it’s amazing what happens when you just simply ask. You tell people what it is that they’re doing and ask them open-ended question – what do you think? What are your thoughts? Where do you feel like you can fit in or how do you think you can help or would you want to be involved? These open-ended questions bring about ideas and support and networks that we did not expect that existed out there. That’s the first thing.

And second – don’t ever let money hold you back. Because people are always fascinated, we were on the road for 11 months and they always say, “Oh, my God, how much money did you spend?” Do you know that we spent $18,000 in that whole year, the two of us together? That’s it. And when I say that I mean we were never deprived, we were never hungry, we always had a place to stay and when we got to a place where we didn’t know anyone of course we pay for hotel rooms. And we did all kinds of activities and got to know the city really intimately based on whatever was interesting in that city.

So when you think about people hold themselves back because they think something’s going to cost a lot of money, but you have to ask – what are you willing to give up to gain something else, right? And in exchange to travel 11 months around the country and only spend about 18 grand we did sort of live out of a suitcase, we drove everywhere, we did do all of our work, we did all of our writing, we did all of our blog, we did all of the work but you have to be willing to sort of do the work in order to then reap the benefits of the experience.

Hoff:  Absolutely. And talking about money I want to quickly then transition back to growing up, did you learn anything about credit? How did you educate yourself about credit, about debt, about finances? Or was it really a kind of learn as you go?

Harapetian:  So what’s interesting about that is that I come from a country and a culture where nobody really believes in credit. They believe in credit in a cultural sense where families and family friends who have great amount of trust with each other loan each other money, right? But they never actually used credit like we understand credit here.

But I grew up watching my mother be extremely resourceful and stretch every dollar to the max, right? So I tell this story in one of my keynotes is how my mother at 10 years old at the bazaar in Iran negotiated and haggle with this guy to buy a pair of shoes that she wanted, and how she was willing to walk away from these pair of shoes that she’d wanted for so long because she knew that she did not want to spend any more than what her budget was for those pair of shoes. And in showing that person that she was willing to walk away she got what she wanted.

And I also tell the story of how she took that skill and brought it to America, and she took me shopping at Ann Taylor and she did the same darn thing at Ann Taylor at the Galleria as she did at the bazaar in Iran haggling and negotiating with the salesperson, and got the salesperson to reduce the price of a dress that was $250.

Hoff:  Oh, my goodness.

Harapetian:  And we walked away with that dress. Jenny, she paid $75 for it. So seeing that and watching her, like that goes back to me saying just ask, you never know, right? She’s really taught me this experience and this lesson of you never know what people are willing to do and how people are willing to help you if you just put what’s happening in your life and what you want into context. And I remember her negotiating tactics with the salesperson, it was, “Hey, I’m new to this country. I work very hard. I want my daughter to have a dress. This is from last season. It’s been hanging on the rack forever. It’s the only one.” Like she created this whole, and it was true, but I mean, you wouldn’t find everyone willing to embarrass themselves to share that kind of story. But it worked.

Hoff:  And it worked. It works. And then did you use that when you approached in life? Because I remember you talking about credit cards once and how you would kind of juggle credit cards sometimes, I think you would do balance transfers if you had to or get 0 percent interest cards, and we’ve even done a study at where a lot of people are successful if they just call the credit card company and ask for a lower interest rate. So what kind of skills did you learn when it came to juggling cards and borrowing against yourself in a way to try to make your dreams come true without drowning in debt?

Harapetian:  Yeah, and a lot of experts advise against it. But the question is – if you are able to be disciplined and control where your money goes and how you spend it, and I knew, I did have to juggle credit cards to just live. And the reason for that is because I pursued a career that my parents did not support at the time because they didn’t understand what I was doing. So I was my own and I would literally on my first job be making $7 an hour, so very little money.

And to be able to actually make ends meet ,I do remember throughout the beginning of my career I had to juggle credit cards and balance transfer from this one to the next one, but I would not just look at the issue I had with money at that moment in time, I would take a picture, a sort of snapshot of what was going on. Does it make sense to sort of pay the fee over here to then save on the interest over here? And how much longer can I stretch that 0 percent? And how much more can I pay off while I’m in this 0 percent so that I don’t accrue the interest?

So it takes some creativity and resourcefulness and sort of risk and discipline to be able to say, “OK, I am going to transfer from here to here.” But you can’t just continuously do that, you also have to hustle to pay it off or pay it down while you have the opportunity to have 0 percent. And I did, and it made me really resourceful by juggling my credit cards. And also I did it, I tried everything, and at the time I don’t think I knew that you could call credit card companies and ask for lower interest, but I was in a place where I was desperate and I was like, “I can’t pay this interest, I need to do something about it.” And I remember calling and asking, again going back to just ask, you never know what you’re going to get.

Hoff:  Absolutely, and what about now when you started your business? OK, so you transitioned out of, and we talked about highway to a husband, so then you started your own consulting company and you would develop programs that people can buy through your website and you’ve written a book and you got it published and you’re giving speeches, how has hustling played a role in that?

Because again, I think people think, “Oh, well, she was on TV and she probably got a book publisher and she did all of this stuff. It was the easy street type of thing.” But it’s not as we’re hearing from your story, it’s not the easy street, it’s about constantly staying on your toes, not being scared to take risks, using credit cards to your advantage when you need to as long as you have a long term plan of how you’re going to use that money to make you more money later on. So kind of go into how you then launched your business? Did you use credit cards to fund it? How did you do this?

Harapetian:  I actually launched my business by investing every dollar that I make extra into my business. Well, I’ve had my business for about eight years, I’ve done consulting and teaching and speaking and boot camps and one-on-one coaching and marketing and storytelling, but I’ve had a job along the way. I’ve had a freelance journalism job along the way, and the reason I kept the job is because I knew where I wanted to be business-wise, I knew where I wanted to spend the money, I knew I wanted to spend the money to build a really great website, I wanted to spend the money on creating a funnel, I wanted to spend the money on great photography and great design.

And to do that I had to pay for it, so I had a full-time job and I took every dollar I earned and put it back into the business in building the business and spending money on marketing and getting more clients. And my goal was to sort of get myself enough momentum on the business side so that I could then attract clients and enough work that I could leave my job, run the business on its own, and still make a profit in the process.

So it’s not easy, and we hear business owners and entrepreneurs say it’s not easy but you don’t realize what they mean until you’re in it, right? And business is an iteration of itself, it grows and it constantly changes, and it evolves, and you have to be willing to sort of look at it every couple of months and look at what works and what doesn’t work. You let go of what doesn’t work and you continue to work on what brings in more money, what gives you more attention, what brings in more clients.

And that’s where the resourcefulness and just being on your toes really played the role. And no, I haven’t had anything really handed to me. I had to publish my own book. I had to write my own content. I had to do a lot of in-kind work too. You talked about speaking about opportunity, this last speaking opportunity was not a paid opportunity, I had to pay for everything out-of-pocket, I had to pay for my travel plus pay for my hotel. The only thing I did get was they gave me a booth in the conference.

And I thought, "OK, how do I leverage this opportunity where I have a booth with all these people walking by after speaking on stage? I need to figure out how to at least pay for this conference and also make a little money in the process.” And at that moment in time it’s hard to sell people on one-on-one coaching or hard to sell people on an online course, so I thought, "Why not put a lot of my content and a little bit of my story into something that they can take with them?” A little bit about who I am and a little bit about how they can apply some of these strategies and tactics into their business to also create a strategic marketing plan for their own business 

So I went online and I did research and I found out that you can actually publish your own book, whether it’d be e-book or hard-copy book through Amazon. I wrote the book, I got it edited, I uploaded it in Amazon, I had the cover designed. And this is really where credit card comes into play, right? So I didn’t want to have to pay up front for the material, so I used my credit card to pay for the book, the publishing of the book, and I printed about a hundred copies of the book, money that I’ve spent out of my pocket and sent it to the conference knowing that I would sell those books at the conference and take that money and pay back the credit card.

So it’s all about how you decide to invest the money and whether you think you’re going to be able to actually make it back so that you can still move the momentum in the business along and not lose the opportunity to make money, in which I did. In this particular case I paid for the conference, I made some money in the process, and it gave me great marketing material to leverage other opportunities. So you have to really be smart about how you use those resources and whether they’re actually positioning you in a way that will help you make more money.

Hoff: Absolutely, and so I think people listening to this will say, “OK, well, I don’t know., I don’t know if I have all of those skills, if I can do the marketing, and I can do the content, and I can do all of that.” What do you think is the main thing holding people back from kind of taking their expertise and realizing it into some dream that they have, whether it’s having their own business or starting their own blog or writing a book?

Harapetian:  The fact that they don’t think they can do it. I mean, that’s really what’s holding them back. That’s one of the things that I encounter when I work with people and I teach them how to tell their story, and when I say tell their stories – people, brands, and businesses, and their story is the foundation of their marketing, right? It’s how they communicate with their clients. And most times people say, “Well, I don’t have a story.” Well, you’ve been a journalist, Jenny, you know everybody has a story. It’s just about where the story lies, it’s about where the package is, how to package the story to make it compelling enough to put the business in relation to people’s lives.

So for as long as people think that they don’t have what it takes they’re not going to be able to get out of their own way and do what they need to do. And one thing that I am so appreciative of, and coming from where I come from, is that we didn’t have the luxury of saying, “There is no way.” Survival or living a life where you’re required to be a survivor you always figure it out.

And it’s not just a skill, it’s just really be willing to take a risk. So if you just try one thing, that one thing, the success of that one thing will fuel you and give you confidence that you can do the next thing. And you can’t look at the big picture of what you want to do because that overwhelms everybody including me. You have to look at – what do I want to do right now? What can I do? What are the resources that I have at my fingertips that are going to allow me to do the next thing?

And allow yourself to get to the next step and then ask yourself that same question. And if you do it that way then it’s one step at a time, one mission at a time, one project at a time, one investment at a time. And I can talk about this but this has really been a 20-year process, I’ve been in journalism for 20 years and every step of the way it’s been one step in front of the other. And the business has been exactly the same, for the past 10 years it’s been sort of one step in front of the other.

And I was where most people are which is – I don’t know how to do this. I don’t even know how to start a business. I don’t know how to attract clients, I don’t even know what’s the package to put out there. And I don’t know where my expertise is. And this is the beauty the time and age that we live is the technology and information is at our fingertips. If you’ve ever wanted to figure anything out about how to do things just Google it, there is so much information out there.

And the only reason I know how to do it is because I taught myself, I read, and I took courses online, there’s a lot of free webinars that give you information. And once you look at one and once you study one then it opens the door for the next one. And then you get into the community that do these types of things and they teach you things and then you have a support system.

So if I had to give one advice the people who are listening is that just start. Start to do something, anything, take some type of action and then build on that.

Hoff: Absolutely. You are such an inspirational person, Silva. I wish we could just talk forever because you really show that, people, you can there’s a million excuses you can have as to why something’s not going to work and why you’re not the perfect person to do it and why there’s too many things in your way. But if you just, like you said,FF get out of your own way and just start doing it you’re going to find you have a lot more power than you think you do and a lot more to offer the world and a lot more value and a lot more creativity to figure out how to solve problems that you may have.

And so I really recommend people pick up your book. It’s a fascinating story, you have fantastic tips, you know how to market, you know how to get people to tell their stories and how to ask themselves the kinds of questions. And I wish you just tons of luck on your endeavor. And I always ask this as a final question to my guest – our show is called Charged Up, what gets you charged up about telling your story, and teaching people how to tell theirs?

Harapetian:  The unknown gets me charged up. It’s such a strange answer. And I’ve been thinking about this honestly since I knew I had to answer this question is that the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen next and how awesome it’s going to be really gets me charged up and excited, because I know that life has proven to me that any time I think that there’s something good on the other end it’s always better. So there is an element of belief and faith that you have to have when you are stepping into the unknown, and embracing that really can make the process a lot easier than just being scared of the unknown.

Hoff:  Absolutely. Silva, thank you so much. What a pleasure to talk to you, what a pleasure to hear your story. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Harapetian:  Thank you, Jenny. It’s so good to talk to you.

Hoff:  You too.

See related: Charged Up! podcast: How to successfully network, Charged Up! podcast: Going from bad to excellent credit

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Updated: 03-22-2019