By Ed Brennen
As “Chief Digital Evangelist” at Salesforce, a global leader in customer relationship management technology, Vala Afshar’s job is to understand the forces behind the digital business revolution – and to share his insights with the world.
Afshar’s tallest soapbox is Twitter, where the UMass Lowell alum has more than 216,000 followers and he receives about 2 million mentions per day. He also has a popular HuffPost blog, a weekly web series and a book, “The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.”
Forbes has named Afshar the top social media influencer of chief marketing officers (CMOs) for two years running. Not bad for someone who couldn’t even speak English when he emigrated to the United States from Iran at age 10. After resettling with his family in the Boston area, Afshar earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the Francis College of Engineering and began his career in 1996 as a software developer.
Afshar returned to campus recently to help the Manning School of Business launch its participation in the Trailhead for Students Program, a Salesforce initiative that lets students (of all majors) learn more about its technology and better prepare for internships, co-ops and jobs after graduation. Afshar spoke with students and faculty about digital business disruption and the role of technology. He also took time to answer a few questions about his own career (as well as one about President Trump’s Twitter use).
Q. How does an electrical engineering grad become chief digital evangelist at a $60 billion company that’s been ranked “Most Innovative” by Forbes for seven straight years?
A. As a student, I learned that I could contribute most to project-based assignments. I enjoyed the beauty of a presentation, building a strong narrative, connecting technology to business outcomes. That’s when I knew there was a little marketing-sales guy in me. But it took me 15 years to pursue that marketing piece. The teachers I have fond memories of are great storytellers. They could explain not just the “what” and the “how,” but the “why.” And when you understand the thing that you’re building, how it can advance society, whether in health care, education, whatever industry you end up serving, that’s important.
But I didn’t go to UMass Lowell thinking I’m going to be a storyteller for one of the fastest growing, most successful companies in the world right now. What I did discover five years ago (as CMO at Enterasys Networks) is that if you take that small step of sharing things that you find interesting on social media, over time people will find you interesting. So now, when I read an article or watch a TED Talk or I’m at a conference and someone is doing something that inspires me, I share that. Social changed my career.
Q. Why is it important for students to be active on social media?
A. This year, for the first time, social surpassed SEO (search engine optimization) as the No. 1 way of finding digital content. There’s 1 million Facebook logins per minute and half a million tweets per minute. If you are a student and don’t have a digital footprint, you are losing big-time. I applied for my job at Salesforce on a direct message on Twitter. I didn’t even have a résumé, and they didn’t care. Digital-native companies – the ones born in the cloud, mobile, social – they don’t follow traditional rules. Students should work hard in class, get good grades and build awesome CVs, but trust me, employers are looking at your digital footprint and your digital exhaust – those unintended consequences of things you leave behind.
Twenty years ago, I won a graduate research award here and I didn’t have the opportunity to share my achievement. Today I think about all those research papers and presentations that might be good to share with others outside the Lowell ecosystem. The reason I have 200,000-plus followers on Twitter is because when I find something interesting, I share. That’s how you increase your likelihood of being employable. And it doesn’t have to be Twitter. I don’t even know if Twitter is cool among UMass Lowell students. Maybe it’s Snapchat or WhatsApp. But my point is, your digital footprint and exhaust will define your career moving forward.
Q. What skills should students be building to succeed in the digital economy?
A. The most important skill in a digital economy is your ability to stay teachable. Your thirst and hunger for staying interested is so important. If you’re not teachable, you will not reach your full potential in your career. You need to be taking a personal inventory proactively. What did I learn this week? This month? Did I share it with anyone? If you’re not learning cool stuff every month, not becoming a better student, you’re falling behind.
The importance of emotional intelligence, of being mindful, is critically important. That’s why I believe liberal arts degrees are the most important in the digital economy. Liberal arts students can teach businesses. When you talk about artificial intelligence and the fact that we’re entering an algorithmic economy, how do you prevent biases from being baked into those algorithms? If we are worried about over-automating and taking the humanity out of business, it’s important to have a rich, diverse background.
If I could build a time machine and go back to school, I’d spend rigorous time fine-tuning my writing skills. I’m a first-generation immigrant who moved to the U.S. (from Iran) when I was 10 years old. I couldn’t speak the language, but I was really good at math, hence the engineering track. But boy, I should have spent more time reading and writing.
Q. What does being named the top CMO influencer mean to you, and does the distinction bring any added pressure when you tweet?
A. I’m humbled and surprised. As a former CMO, I appreciated when people would educate me on what investments I should make in marketing, or what tech would help grow a business and delight customers. So all I’m doing is giving back.
There is pressure, but it’s good pressure. There’s accountability, transparency – all these things that motivate you. There’s a sense of responsibility when you’re named someone who influences businesses and business leaders. It motivates me to curate and create quality content, because it’s a privilege to become a trusted adviser. I get to be in the room with influential CMOs who share content, and suddenly you realize your voice is being scaled based on the quality of connections and networks you’ve made.
If your North Star, your guiding principles, are such that you’re motivated by educating, inspiring and igniting positive action, then finding your name on these lists simply allows you to continue to appreciate your network. It’s a great feeling, and I don’t take it for granted.
Q. As a social media expert, what do you think of President Trump’s use of Twitter?
A. I believe one of the key factors in him being elected was his use of social. It’s the next generation of building a ground base. The way he used it, regardless if you agree or disagree with him politically, there’s no question that it was him. And therefore, if you appreciate authenticity, consistency and staying true to who you are, then I think it was brilliant use of social media.
Regardless of your political affiliations, being able to connect at a level where no one’s questioning that it’s your words, your sentiment, your viewpoints, I think was very instructive. And lesson learned for future politicians or business leaders: It’s your face that’s on the avatar, it’s your bio and it’s your words, so stay true to who you are.