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Rising Stars: The Business of Writing for Gen Y

By Ken Siegal

Nadira Hira works as a writer for Fortune Magazine, where she has found her voice commenting on the foibles and charms of her contemporaries in Generation Y. Like the young professionals she writes about, she has demanded the best of both worlds "stability and excitement" from her career.

Name: Nadira Hira
School: Stanford University
Major: Journalism
Years Out of College: 5-10
Title: Writer, Reporter?
Company: Fortune Magazine
First Steps

Nadira Hira graduated from Stanford University in 2002. The mood in Palo Alto was grim - Silicon Valley had just crashed, pushing back the start dates of those 2001 graduates lucky enough to still have job offers and leaving Hira's class at a loss. Not that this creative writing student had high-tech plans. She wanted to write poetry and support herself as a bardtender in Palo Alto.

"That's a very Stanford-y thing to think," Hira says now, looking back. But a friend and advisor intervened, passing on a copy of the commencement issue of the school paper containing a column of hers to Roy S. Johnson, a journalist and Stanford alum who had just started the magazine Savoy in New York. Johnson made a casual job offer over breakfast while she was back east attending her sister's high school graduation. While Hira had considered herself a "newspaper person" because of her college experience, Johnson was persuasive. And as Hira puts it, "so many of my friends didn't have jobs that it seemed ridiculous turning down such a great opportunity."

While perhaps dodging ridicule in that respect, Hira found a little friendly skepticism at home. "I was starting on a Tuesday and came back from California Monday night. My mom said 'don't you need a little time to adjust?'"

From Then to Now

Since Savoy was a relatively small startup, Hira's catch-all position as editorial assistant meant doing anything from helping Johnson with office work to writing book reviews and helping report for longer features. She was meeting plenty of celebrities through Johnson, and began writing a column on their doings around the city. She says that in New York, "the sky's the limit in terms of meeting people and becoming part of the publishing industry. Most of these people are really cool and willing to hang out."

About a year into it, Savoy closed down, "I basically was there for the flame up and out" she laughs, "which is the standard startup experience, right?" She realized she'd enjoyed all the journalistic writing that went with her job and decided to free-lance full-time. "I kind of just wanted to put myself in a position where I could still write for magazines, or where I could write for books, and basically get paid and be a mom and have a real life." She wrote for Essence, Smithsonian, and even landed a TV-writing gig which had "a totally different audience - that was wonderful."

While free-lancing, she landed a contract helping to recruit editorial talent at Time. Johnson intervened again, when he heard of an opening at Fortune in the same building and suggested they get in touch with Hira. She was reluctant at first--west coast bartending poet turned New York business writer. But she says Johnson told her "You've got to recalibrate your thinking of what it is to be a business writer." Since then, her youthful, lively writing has helped change the voice of Fortune, particularly the online presence.

Challenges Faced

No single episode stands out to Hira as "most challenging" but she does point to the riskiness of a media career. "I think it's really easy to favor stabliity over the craft. You want to be growing as a creative person at the same time that you're growing as a professional."

Perhaps she's hinting that bartending wasn't the right vehicle for her poetry. What about free-lancing full-time? She says that was "was hugely frightening" because of the instability, not having benefits and living in a sixth-floor walkup. "If I ever fell down those stairs" she laughs, "it would be really bad!" A redeeming feature of that time, was that "everybody in NY at that age, I think I was 23, is struggling, so it's kind of a nice little society you belong to."

Instead she's solved the balancing act by finding people that she respects "that have done both and to use them as resources. Roy Johnson has been that, Ron Stodghill has been that."

My Experience

These days, Hira is writing features for Fortune, including a recent cover story on Generation Y. Her duties also include blogging (, of course, and some of the appeal in her work is in the near-instant response it can generate from readers. And, since Hira has always relied on connecting with people, her daily routine involves "probably one interview a day, if not more."

Her biggest interview actually fell through, though. She was covering an Urban League conference which US President George W. Bush attended. She dutifully submitted questions in advance, hoping for an interview, but the White House press people hemmed and hawwed and finally said he didn't have the time. She thought it was over, until she received an email from the White House purporting to be his responses. She chuckles, "I love the President but I highly doubt he was sitting down writing an email to me."

That may appear to be Hira's most bizarre career experience, but a close contender is her fansite, which launched mysteriously not long after she had a television appearance. She says her Myspace friend count shot up immediately afterwards. The tough life of a Gen Y business reporter!

Next Steps

Hira's next step is vacation, apparently. "I was just saying to one of our editors that I hadn't taken vacation since Christmas. That's a huge problem, very contrary to the philosophy I keep espousing on my blog." Despite her generation's penchant for maximizing vacation time and its willingness to move between companies, Hira is happy to settle down at Fortune for the time being. "It's nice to be invested in a place like this right now."

Both of Hira's parents are in medicine, so she says there is some residual pressure to consider graduate school, but med school is no longer an option. "Probably lots of patients are taking relieved breaths all over the world!"

What about an MFA or journalism school? "Yeah?" she pauses, before issuing a final "no." She has nothing against journalism school, but given her current career situation, "it would just be a little silly for me to go now, when things are going ok."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

Hira "was gonna be a poet." But while journalism wasn't an early goal, and poetry was a vaguer, long-term goal, Hira realized in college that she wanted to write. "When I called home and said not only is my degree going to be in English, but I'm going to be a writer, my mom was like 'Ok, what does that mean?'" Hira didn't have a ready answer at first.

But in fact, she had been preparing to write one way or another by working with the right people and gaining experience at the Stanford student paper - it's that networking instinct at work. When her younger sister accuses Hira of making it look easy to get a job, Hira the elder is quick to point out that had she not written the right column in the right paper her advisor could never have passed it to Roy S. Johnson and landed her the right job. "I had been doing all that to create the opportunity, I just didn't know it yet."

Advice for Others

Networking is key, of course, but meeting someone, getting their business card, and writing "I love you" notes doesn't cut it, according to Hira. "You have to build the right network." She advises carefully "building a mentoring relationship" and "showing them that working with you or helping or rewarding."

Personal relationships formed the bridge to getting Hira's first job offer, they are what made it possible to live as a free-lancer in between steady jobs, and have helped her navigate her current career. As a result, she says it's important to consider not just how much a job pays, but "who your direct report is" and to plan a career around who, not just what, you will be working with.

"I've had these amazing people in my career who've been really wise and being 22 and having the rare good sense to take that advice is probably the thing that has kept me in the game up to now."

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