Nilla Ali says the result of her impressive young career has been “a combination of relentless hard work and lucky networking encounters.” She insists many New Yorkers would probably say the same thing about themselves. And while that may be true, most wouldn’t find themselves on Forbes’ 2020 list of “30 Under 30” for exceptional contributions to their chosen field. In Ali’s case, Forbes noted those positive strides in the Marketing and Advertising category.
The Senior Vice President of Commerce at BuzzFeed is empowered by her position and feels “passionate, excited, and motivated” about what she’s doing today.
It wasn’t always that way. She admits she was terrified about the prospect of achieving professional success when she first graduated from UVA. But it’s clear that she was well-prepared for the challenges that came her way, handily applying the skills she learned while pursuing her Economics degree from the College of Arts & Sciences and the Business Fundamentals Certificate she earned from the McIntire Business Institute.
Ali says her role with BuzzFeed gives her “the opportunity to make a big impact on the future of content and commerce.”
Defining the Direction
The Economics major started her career as an Assistant Merchandiser for Ann Taylor, which prompted a move to New York two months after walking the Lawn. With the help of an experienced UVA alum who was swayed by her resume, Ali was given access to some exploratory networking appointments with fashion executives.
“Through those coffee meetings, I was connected with someone who worked at Ann Taylor and reached out a few months later, urging me to apply for a recently posted job. I took a shot and landed the job.”
Staying connected to her ‘Hoo roots, two years into her time at Ann Taylor, Ali attended a UVA networking event in New York where she met the Vice President of Ecommerce at Time Inc. The encounter was a fortuitous one.
“It was early days of media companies seriously investing in the expansion of commerce, and they were looking for a junior hire who had exposure to commerce but wasn’t tied to working in a traditional retail environment. I took a leap of faith and accepted the job, and it’s this role that catapulted my career,” she says.
Ali says that she always imagined she would switch gears to work at a startup or launch her own company. As chance would have it, she and her team discovered a comparable opportunity within the Time Inc. umbrella: an underutilized affiliate business. She saw it as a route to operate a type of startup within the larger organization, and began an initiative to optimize the affiliate channel. The choice served to drive meaningful revenue and define the direction of her business.
As she endeavored to scale up the affiliate operation at Time Inc., she was once again presented with a new opportunity that further altered the course of her career when she met a BuzzFeed employee at a networking event. The company had made a name for itself as “one of the first in media to take a serious bet on commerce and affiliate business,” says Ali.
She interviewed for an Affiliate Lead role in BuzzFeed’s Product Labs division and was offered the job. It paved the way for the senior position that Ali has held since September 2019.
As could be expected, BuzzFeed’s many partners keep the role engaging, requiring her to exercise her critical thinking skills, and often act as an external consultant, while “pushing all teams to think about the consumer journey and to develop strategies that service the audience and that drive measurable real-world action.”
As a leader, she’s called upon to navigate the boons and pitfalls of scaling a fast-growing organization without disrupting the business. It requires prioritizing strategy and making decisions that value BuzzFeed’s long-term plan to cultivate sustainable growth.
“Growing a team and taking on a role as a leader have their challenges,” she says, “but I find it incredibly rewarding, and it’s where I’m learning and growing the most.”
Having always thrived on relationships, she’s energized by the fact that she’s able to develop many—both across her organization and with its partners. Ali notes that within the three years that she’s been at BuzzFeed, her industry is moving towards performance-based partnerships.
The result? She’s earned some serious visibility for pioneering innovative ways to impact the advertising world.
“I strongly believe consumer-centric experiences are the future of media, and I’m excited to be at a nimble, industry-leading company that takes an audience-first approach,” she says. “Our business continues to evolve, and I’m most excited about exploring new ways to expand our commerce initiatives across new verticals and formats. This expansion requires a lot of testing, learning, and agility, but I’m confident we have the right team and foundation to unlock new innovation in this space.”
A Valuable Investment in Commerce
While Ali remains a strong advocate of pursuing an Economics degree, as she credits it with strengthening her analytical abilities, she recalls being compelled to apply to the MBI Business Fundamentals Certificate program for its ability to provide her with transferable skills relevant to her professional pursuits.
“The certificate proved to be a valuable investment of my time. It helped me develop skills relevant to the career path I pursued and enabled me to work with cross-functional teams confidently with a foundational understanding of their business division,” she says.
The McIntire experience provided her additional insight and skills that helped her prepare for the quickly ascending career that has taken her to where she is today.
“I distinctly remember learning about building project roadmaps and developing a dependency matrix, which is a tool that is extremely valuable at this stage in my career,” Ali recalls. “I hadn’t yet been in a role in which multiple stakeholders and inputs impacted the course of a project, and it was helpful to visualize and understand how organizations develop these project roadmaps. That lesson stuck out because I really understood how leveraging that framework could have an impact on building business efficiencies, so it felt like a behind-the-scenes peek into how organizations function.”
Ali suggests to anyone interested in working in her industry to dedicate ample time to immersing themselves in commerce by reading trade press about the newest global innovations and networking with as many people in the space as possible.
“Commerce, content, and performance marketing as a whole is a fast-evolving industry, and companies are looking for talent who inherently understand the space and who can think creatively to pioneer innovation in the industry,” she says. “It’s not something you can learn overnight, but take time to really understand the consumer purchasing journey, what motivates people to shop, the role content plays in that journey, and how marketers currently measure the impact of their acquisition efforts. There is a lot of great content out there, and new hires can make a big impression if they arrive with fresh ideas and a deep knowledge of the industry.”