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Alexandra Maia: “Why a thought leader needs to cultivate courage”

Courage: Can you do right by what is wrong? To go against the odds. To speak up when no one else is. To take in all the hardships that might come your way and still stand and keep moving. You need to be all in. There is no half way in. The Peter Ireland story […]


Courage: Can you do right by what is wrong? To go against the odds. To speak up when no one else is. To take in all the hardships that might come your way and still stand and keep moving. You need to be all in. There is no half way in. The Peter Ireland story is a good example, but even just a few weeks ago I did a live stream on LinkedIn of a Masterclass I held in Sao Paulo Brazil, and there was a comment left by a man that said I should have not mentioned Dubai and the Middle East because it made the region look bad and I should have kept it general. This was in the context of my personal story when I quit my job due to work politics, and I mentioned where the job was — it wasn’t even on the topic of work politics. But this is what can happen when you decide to speak up about certain realities and topics that can make people of certain mindsets & cultures uncomfortable. Change, growth and progress can only happen when we speak up about what is happening.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Maia. Alexandra’s experience in the digital world starts from Portugal to the UK, Middle East and the South East Asian Market spanning over a period of 13 years. Her years in communication arts brought her to establish House of Social; the Middle East’s most loved social media know-how platform. House of Social rallies people to have the courage to go after their goals, help launch their business and see them grow by providing Social Media Marketing Education & Consultancy. Founded 3 years ago, 1,000+ HOS Alumni have attended Masterclasses, Bootcamps & Courses. It provides consultancy to many of the SME’s & Start Ups that are shaping the UAE’s growth. The recent launch of the HOS Online Academy has allowed the platform to go beyond the Middle East and reach people from all corners of the world. Alexandra was an early adopter of Social Media, something that gave her a competitive advantage over the years. She’s spent the past 10 years working her way up on a variety of agencies, from media to Ad agencies seeing her work with some of the most renowned brands and be responsible for Social Media Departments. Her creative performing arts background together with her strategy mind has allowed her to develop skills to become a creative strategist, a skill that is still at the core of the work she does with her clients today. When she is not building her business & working with clients you can find her creating content, and her humorous and often edgy topics together with her transparency on documenting her life as a single solo self-founded entrepreneur in Dubai has made her grow a community of doers, thinker and creators.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Sure thing! The only world that made sense to me since my young years was Performing Arts, my grandma was an opera singer, although I went to kinder garden I spent my early childhood years in the theatre around the most amazing creative flamboyant humans that would dress me up and tell me to just own it (later on I realized how much this shaped myself esteem).

Performing Arts become the only world I cared about from 5 until my 21 years of age. Started in Portugal, to London and lastly when I was 20 till 21 did contemporary theatre in NY at AADA (American Academy of Dramatic Arts) making it to NY to act was my absolute biggest dream since I could remember having memory, but never I thought It would happen at the age of 20!

We moved around because my mum wanted a better education for me so at 10 we moved to the UK from Portugal, these were hard years with a lot of bullying, not having any friends at school for at least about 2 to 3 years. Back to my 21 years old in NY, life throws me a curveball and I had to leave NY and my biggest dream behind, I had no more money left to pay for visas etc…

My heart broke, I felt lost for about 3 +years, at the time I had no idea but this phase of my life became instrumental. That is why today I say, if you do one thing in life is go get lost!

During this ‘lost’ time, I ‘tasted’ as much as I could out of life and I tried different career areas from journalism to interior designing and bartending to pay for the bills! None of them worked out! But what was working out was me learning more about life and myself, what I wanted and did not want to do! Which to be honest there is not a master’s degree out there that can teach you that, the only one available is called: life experience!

We need more acceptance for this in our culture, there is so much pressure for young kids to know what they need to be doing, and not enough focus on exploring and experimenting.

When I decided to cross the Sahara Desert for a couple of months that become the milestone that game changed it all, I guess maybe it is true what they say, you sometimes need to zoom out to get the clarity you need. …In one evening, during the trip I just knew what I had to do next! I moved back to London and got myself into the world of the internet, today we would call it Digital Marketing. From here on the next chapter of my life became what would lead me to where I am today. To summarize the next 13 years + that came after I immersed myself in the online world! At that time, the world was not what is today, internet or social media was in its infancy. All I knew was that I was loving this new world that was allowing me communicate and be creative and I wanted to be part of it. It merged two worlds that I love, human’s psychology for me the backbone of acting and communicating through storytelling.

I got myself internships in London agencies in media & digital, but my eye was in the Middle East & Asia growing markets with huge opportunity. I hustled on LinkedIn and landed a job in Dubai, one week later I was on a plane to Dubai.

The next 3 years I worked in a variety of agencies in Dubai, as a Social Media expert. I was growing & evolving with the digital industry which I loved! I still remember 11 years ago opening Facebook pages and Hi5 or Myspace and working out how brands should be on these platforms.

After about 3 years in Dubai I was bored, and Asia was calling! I was offered a job in Singapore at Futurebrand, it was a great experience SEA taught me a lot, but 1 year later I realized my heart was in Dubai. The next 4 years back in Dubai I worked on agencies I had my eye on, like LBI Digitas and the latter TBWA. I moved around from agency to agency because I realized this is how I would get the most experience & growth in the agency world, I wanted to learn from senior people, shadow them and improve my skills. I went from simply creating content, to become a social media strategist, loving the world of insights & analytics, to setting up social media teams across the Middle East & Asia, to heading up departments in agencies. I didn’t build any personal brand during these 10 years, I was head down in the dirt learning and growing my career. Until things took a turn and my job started to go into ways I could no longer tolerate, too many politics, too much abuse, and I was being forced to do things that I could not stand by anymore.

I believed things would change and stuck for one more year and that was the year that broke me. It was also during that time that I realized that I loved passing on all my skills and tools to people so they could grow and flourish, I knew I wanted to do more of that. I also felt the market was changing and companies needed more in-house training for social media.

The concept for House of Social in Dubai lived in my head probably 2 years before it came to life. The idea was clear and steamed from a time where there was a huge lack of Social Media Education, let alone for in-house companies and lastly Social Media consultancy for the up and coming start up’s and SME’s culture that is still on the rise in the UAE. This was around 2014- 2016.

I had it all in my head but the idea of having my own business was all too overwhelming, and there was the idea of I would need a lot of money.

The day came that ultimate broke me at work, there was a very nasty fight, I walked outside and cried and remembered what my mum taught me and that I knew there was so much more to life because my worth was so much more then all of that. Next day I quit, I had no back up plan, I didn’t save (so if you are reading this, save save save!) and I had one mission: To work as a consultant to see if people would still hire me and take me serious now that I’m not part of a known agency. It just so happened that on my last month at work I already had clients. 3 months later, walking home late from working at a Starbucks, I realized: hold on if companies are hiring me and I’m getting work, then I can do this, I can launch my platform House of Social. That was in the summer of 2016 by October I officially launched. This October 2019, House of Social will be 3 years old.

In its young 3 years of being in business, House of Social is a growing business that rallies people to have the courage to go after their goals, help launch their business and see them grow all through Social Media Marketing. In 3 years, HOS has hosted Masterclasses, Bootcamps and Courses & Free Meet ups. Approx. 1,000+ HOS Alumni have attended. It provides consultancy to many of the SME’s & Start Ups that are shaping the UAE’s growth. This Summer it launched the House of Social Online Academy to grow beyond the UAE. Now it has students enrolled from Singapore, to Ecuador, to Malaysia to London and its only been a couple of months. This Summer was also the first time I took HOS to host its own independent event in another country in Sao Paulo Brazil. I feel I’m only getting started, I’m too excited to see what the near future is going to look like. I have so much more that I want to do with HOS.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

This is such a hard question because I don’t think anyone that is truly making a difference out there is calling themselves a thought leader, we are out there doing what it takes, living, breathing fighting to keep our purpose alive, being a voice, fighting odds, to create movements, to speak up to raise up on issues we believe need to be talked about, need to be dealt with. If anything, I would say I’m a practical leader because I’m putting into action anything that I believe in. It’s the only way I know how to function and it’s the only way I see impact happen. To really answer your question, I guess I would say it’s because I speak up about issues that are uncomfortable to talk about in an Arab region, in a region where freedom of speech is somewhat controlled, where there are specific social media rules, where you or I for that matter can risk being fined or all-in-all lose my business license (depends on country). But I choose to talk about it in the best way that I can, to keep finding ways to open up about the topics and at the same time respect where I am so there is progress. I’ve also come to learn and experience that just being unapologetically me has in some way inspired people in this region to see that is alright to not have be part of a certain stereotype, to be a successful independent self-funded female business entrepreneur.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Exactly 2 years ago around in August 2017 I had one of my most special moments in my business journey with House of Social in the UAE. At the time I was one year and a few months into building House of Social and had been invited to go speak at the Dubai Police Headquarters to talk about the latest trends shaping Social Media. It was a very special morning for me; it’s not often that you are invited by such a reputable governmental entity, to meet the men & women that work in the police force. To make things even more special, I got to meet the Commander in Chief of Dubai Police when I finished the presentation and I was utterly surprised and at the time almost speechless. I left feeling truly humbled & grateful, the UAE is not my home country and to have this opportunity meant a lot to me. A day later I posted a candid shot of me meeting the Commander in Chief on my LinkedIn profile. The next day I woke up and checked my social notifications as I always do and what goes to follow next is a story I never thought I would experience. A man by the name of Peter Ireland writes on the post about Dubai Police:

Word to the wise, wearing tight blue jeans and having blue hair is not a smart move in any Islamic country.”

I honestly tell you that at the time I didn’t think much of this at all, I responded with my usual response when I see these bully types of comments; I ask people to actually back up their attacks and share their POV. Little did I know that by doing that is what unraveled — for the whole week to come — a series of bigoted attacks targeted personally towards me, hatred towards Muslim women, the Middle East, my mother and friends that had gotten involved.

Some of the comments made towards me were that I was:

“…an elderly smurf in men’s clothing”. And that “…in Islamic culture women are evil temptresses who make men lose control.”

“You are showing disrespect by the way you are dressing in blue tight jeans and blue hair not even in Los Angeles this would be appropriate.”

“I look forward to reading about your arrest in the tabloids soon!” And to my mum they wrote:

“….May you live to personally experience Sharia law in your lifetime. You deserve it!”

Cartons of smurfs were also shared mocking my blue hair in police uniforms.

To see the full thread of comments you can click here

Now, here’s the interesting part: these two men were from the US and Australia, not the Middle East. I was utterly shocked by the end of the week, that what I was seeing on TV happening in Charlottesville with racism and bigotry would actually also affect me, all the way in Dubai, by sharing a simple post of a talk I did.

I was blown away. I didn’t even know who these people were — they were not in my network. What followed next was probably the most special part of this. After posting a blog about this whole thing to share and speak up about this type of behavior there was an overflow of people that wrote to me and shared similar stories that had happened to them or friends.

I felt angry and sad; not for the things said to me, but for the mindset people have towards women and the Middle East, the bigotry, the white supremacy. A lot of people outside the MENA region forget or simply don’t know that the region has more than 22 independent countries, with different constitutions, different laws and different social perspectives on different matters. One cannot simply brush over the whole region with one brush. In the UAE, women do own businesses, women are entrepreneurs and women are definitely not restricted to a specific dress code. We must speak up, we must raise awareness so that others can too, so that new spaces are created for change and progress. Only this can limit the space for hatred.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s funny now, but not so funny when it happened. It almost cost me a project with Max Factor in Saudi Arabia and ended a business relationship with a good agency. It taught me so much, which is why I say ‘love your mistakes they are degrees in disguises’ but make a good point to never repeat them.

On my first year in business running House of Social at the time, I was doing everything myself. I had just come from agency life and started being a consultant to launch the business. I was also handling payments from clients at the time, something I hated doing. I was coming out of 10+ years in the agency world, mainly in Dubai, so my patience threshold to deal with project managers at agencies was at a really low point. I had just left that world, I know how it went and dealing with the messy and unorganized back and forth of email threads was not something I had the patience for. There was a tone that wasn’t always the most respectful when agencies work with third parties. I really despised that.

There were a lot of messy emails at the time to close in a project cost. I was excited to work with this agency but this time as an outsider consultant. It was a great opportunity to develop a new relationship. The project was also super interesting, Max Factor, insights & strategy work about Saudi women’s beauty regimens. The back and forth and discussion of payment was getting so much on my nerves and I was so busy at the time, that I remember getting really fed up with the tone of some of the emails that I punched away a very angry email on my keyboard saying something along the lines of: “I won’t continue moving forward with you. I’m pulling out of the project” and if my memory serves right, some very angry emojis too.

I sent it to the PM and to the client director of the agency who had essentially picked me for the project. I was so angry and called my mum to vent about it. A few hours later my mum called me up and asked me if I’d read the last email on the thread. The client director had said that the payment problem was going to be personally sorted by him. I couldn’t believe it. I opened that endless messy thread of emails and dug it out and yes it was there. It was in the middle of another thread. I think he had even apologized to me and I had just sent him one of the angriest emails, looking like a complete crazy, unprofessional person.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. Dubai is a small city and the advertising community is also small. I felt terrible and didn’t know what to do. The next morning, I woke up and I just knew what had to be done, what my mum had always taught me. To hold my head up high and take responsibility. I sat down and wrote an apology email. No excuses, I was just real; that I had been out of line and missed the email, that I apologized and that I would understand if we move our separate ways, or if they wanted to shake on this and move passed it, that I was ready to start working. It was like swallowing a big piece of humble pie — It’s hard to do but you know it’s the right thing to do. I also remember vividly feeling like I had matured just a little more.

What I realized after this, in order to allow my business to grow, was that I needed a financial manager. I’m really good at making money but managing it is another story. I brought my mum into the business under the alias name Luke (just for fun!) and she is my CFO.

The project went super well and until this day we are good friends and still laugh about it. His email response took me even more by surprise; he mentioned that he never thought he would receive such a candid humble email and that just for that he wanted to work with me because he saw integrity.

Make those mistakes. They are painful but they teach you humility, and they teach you what you need in order to grow. In my case it also game-changed the internal structure of my business because I came to realize that I didn’t need to deal with everything on my own.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

I actually think it’s time we shift things around. In 2019 Practical leadership needs to become the new thought leadership. Here’s why: For me a ‘thought leader’ not only shares new ways of looking at things and their point of views, but also takes action. It’s what they do that really anchors their thought leadership. Words alone are not enough in 2019 going into 2020. There is still too much talking and not enough doing. Still too much headline reading and no real deep-digging to self-educate, to jump out of the sidelines and get in the game.

Taking action, creating movements, going against the odds, standing up for something when no one else does. We need to become a lot more acquaint with practicality versus just intent and theory.

For me there shouldn’t be much difference between a typical leader and a ‘thought’ leader. Look at the world we are living in; anyone that is in a position of leadership should hold that ‘title’ with huge accountability. Because unfortunately there is still not enough leadership that is taking action and opening up doors for new ways forward. We need leaders that act, that take risks, that go beyond the norm, that stand by doing what is right with no fear and especially no personal agenda.

I don’t see hard lines between a thought leader and a so called ‘influencer’. The bottom line is:

What are they doing that contributes value to society, to culture, to politics, to entertainment to the industry they are a part of? Do they inspire something meaningful for people? Do they create impact? If yes, that’s all we can ask for, because from one spark you can ignite a whole a movement that can create change.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

There can be many benefits, it really all depends on what you are looking for or what you want to get out of it. You have to ask yourself why do you want to do it. For how long do you see yourself in it? Do you have the energy for it? You can make a name for yourself in your industry niche, become the person people want to turn to, learn from, work with or even be associated with.

You can build a whole personal brand and monetize from it. From publishing books, to speaking gigs, to launching merch with brand partnerships. Make money from doing what you love by teaching it, selling it.

You progressively build a name for yourself. You have the leverage. You don’t depend on someone else’s name on the door.

Doing what you love makes you happy and when you are happy you tend to stick to that, do more of it and, through the good and bad you continue pushing because you’re passionate about what you do. Imagine if you decided to make that your business. Chances are if you stick by it for the longest of times, the micro can be bad at times but as long as the macro is good that is the best ROI we should aim for.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Let’s take an example: You have a podcast or a YouTube show in your industry niche and you are creating valuable content. You can invite key people that you want to work with and collaborate with those business areas and they can be on your show. Now, it’s much easier to do business with them. This can also work on other areas, imagine you are a creative you can create content (video pieces, illustrations etc.…) for people you want to work for or simply collaborate with to grow your communities.

You also see how people will want to be associated with you, and actually ask to be a part of what you are doing.

If you create content on Instagram, Tik Tok or YouTube you can collaborate with other content creators to cross-grow your communities.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

You need:

  1. Courage: Can you do right by what is wrong? To go against the odds. To speak up when no one else is. To take in all the hardships that might come your way and still stand and keep moving. You need to be all in. There is no half way in. The Peter Ireland story is a good example, but even just a few weeks ago I did a live stream on LinkedIn of a Masterclass I held in Sao Paulo Brazil, and there was a comment left by a man that said I should have not mentioned Dubai and the Middle East because it made the region look bad and I should have kept it general. This was in the context of my personal story when I quit my job due to work politics, and I mentioned where the job was — it wasn’t even on the topic of work politics. But this is what can happen when you decide to speak up about certain realities and topics that can make people of certain mindsets & cultures uncomfortable. Change, growth and progress can only happen when we speak up about what is happening.
  2. You need to be a communicator: If you are not actively, daily, and consistently creating content of quality value, it will be hard for your message to cut through. You need to get savvy with Social Media Platforms because they are powerful tools to build communities, to have your content seen and discovered and to connect with the people you want to. In almost 3 years my business has grown so quickly and is all attributed to the content I put out on Social Media.
  3. Be self-aware and vocalize your belief system — What do you stand up for? What are your values, your causes, your pillars? The content you will create, the value you will provide will revolve around your belief system. It’s also how you will connect with other fellow people that share a common ground.
  4. Create new ways & make space — You should establish new ways or concepts around what you want to do or talk about. I love making digital marketing fun, making sales funnels ‘exciting’. Facebook pixels turn into unicorns, and just because it’s business doesn’t mean it has to be serious! Making space is a huge one, you need to create a platform, open an Instagram page to build community, create a FB group, hold a meet-up. You need to ‘hold’ space for the people you want to impact and connect with, to listen to what they say, to have one-on-one relationships with. Build your tribe and create a place for growth. I love doing free meet-ups on the side of my paid events, every few months. It gives me the chance to hang-out with my community but to also meet new people.
  5. Give Value — How can you add more value? How can you better serve the niche you are in? How can you help? Can you be the person in your niche providing the most value?

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

I’ve loved Gary Vaynerchuk for years. I’ve followed him and learned so much. If I have to single-out one reason why, it’s because of his transparency on how he has grown his business and personal brand. He has been documenting everything, sharing his learnings for anyone to pick it up and learn through huge huge volumes of quality content across a multitude of platforms and formats all whilst running his businesses. He also takes accountability of the good and bad.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

This goes back to what I shared earlier: Practical Leadership needs to be the new thought leadership In 2019.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be highly self-aware of your own operating system. I call it MSOS — My self-OS. No trying to be like someone else. Everyone is different and runs at different capacities. The key is working out how to operate your settings:

1 — How to run at maximum capacity.

2 — When to pull back and ‘pit stop’.

3 — When to take a full time-out.

4 — When to be in creative mode, or focus mode, or listening mode.

5 — When to know you’ve been slacking off and you didn’t give your 100%.

You need to look at each of these and work them out. For example, I’ve always had a lot of energy and I don’t need a lot of sleep. I know I can push myself to the max from Monday through Friday, from 6 am until 11 pm all week, if not more. I know I need one day on the weekend to just switch off. This works for me, it may be insane for someone else and that is OK. You have to work out your system.

First thing in the morning, I love waking up and look at my phone. It makes me happy. It’s the total opposite to many people that recommend we shouldn’t look at the phones when we first wake up. It gives me a good kick and wakes me up on the right note. So that work’s for me, but maybe for you it does not.

Go by your own rules and see how you can be your best. But remember these key things:

  • Have discipline.
  • Work more hours than the usual person.
  • Create patterns or rituals for yourself.
  • Move, gym, dance, run. Whatever you do, move your body, exercise.
  • Find someone that you learn from, a coach, guru, idol, someone to get inspiration from.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One of my biggest passion and I truly know it’s a purpose of mine is doing what I do but with children that are orphans and refugees.

I want to provide the right kind of education and access to technology to these children so they can become fully empowered with the right kind of skills & mindset to go on and conquer the world, make a life for themselves, stand on their own two feet, maybe have a side hustle or open their own thing or have a job that fulfills them. I want to be able to provide them with love, kindness, strength so they become strong on the inside and in no way broken by what may have happened early in their life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Always hold your head up high no matter what. And never be ashamed of who you are. If you fall it’s ok, but you have get back up. It’s better to have people talk bad about you than not talk at all!” — My Mum.

My mum imprinted these words in my mind from a very young age. Especially the first two. When I was little, my mum managed to fight for my custody and divorce my father who had become aggressive and abusive. She didn’t want to raise me in that environment. My father still had the weekends to spend with me, but over time, he also became verbally abusive to me and on a few occasions physical. He had so much anger towards my mum for managing to get a divorce. When I was out in public with him he would shout at me to kneel down to be at my height and ask aggressively: “Aren’t you ashamed?! You are just like your mother!” and I would reply what I had been taught: “No I’m not!”. I would hold up my head and stare at him. I was maybe five years old at the time. I would get slapped right after. But little did I know that this would stick with me forever. No matter what life throws at you, stand tall, stand firm, look people in the eye. And if you fall, just come back up again and go at it again.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Only one! No! I would have breakfast with Sophia Amoruso, lunch with Gary Vaynerchuk and dinner with Arianna Huffington.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow my Instagram page @house_of_social

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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