Be prolific. Being a thought leader doesn’t happen with one blog post or one guest podcast episode. Your content needs to be everywhere. You need to show up and participate in the conversation with regularity and novel ideas. Don’t merely repeat the same concept. Find new ways to approach topics so that people who are attracted to different aspects of your message will find themselves engaged. Be authentic and original. When you feel the need to mimic someone else’s perspective, don’t. You were given your voice for a reason. Showcase your views often and from a place of power.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aleya Harris. She is the founder and owner of Flourish Marketing, an agency dedicated to helping wedding, catering, and event professionals reach their full potential through fresh, cutting-edge marketing strategies that get and keep a consistent stream of clients. She is a firm believer that business owners should make good money doing what they love and she spreads this message through her role as a thought leader in the industry.
Aleya has made it her personal mission to support catering and event businesses in their growth and help them to reach their definition of success. Her decade-plus long career as a chef and catering company owner, paired with her wealth of expertise in marketing, are matched with a remarkable work ethic, providing her clients with an engaging and interactive experience that inspires them to take action. As a professional speaker, she fosters valuable discussion about actionable marketing strategies and profit-driven storytelling in an effort to inspire her audience to take charge of their businesses’ financial futures.
Her in-depth knowledge about social media marketing, branding, sales conversions, and effective marketing tools have earned her spots and top rankings on stages across the nation, including The Special Event and Catersource. She also serves as the marketing committee chair for NACE National and is a StoryBrand Certified Guide.
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?
I am a former chef and catering company owner who has a passion for helping my fellow business owners get a consistent stream of clients, but it wasn’t always that way. I started my career as a human resources professional in the fashion space and then moved into cosmetics marketing. Once I got laid off from my job in cosmetics, I found myself at an impasse. I didn’t want to go back to what I was doing because it didn’t make my heart sing, but I didn’t know my next move.
One day, my Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. sorority sister was over at my house, and she said, “You should think about going to culinary school.” Mind you, she said this with a mouthful of the food that I had just made her for lunch. I decided to take her up on her advice because I had an inkling that the culinary arts could help me blossom more fully into my life’s purpose.
I enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, and for the next two years, I was definitely in my happy place. I was able to be surrounded by food and was introduced to new ways of cooking and interacting with the world. While I was in culinary school, I started a catering company, and I began working as a private chef. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was while I was in culinary school. A grumpy chef instructor told me that I would need to work for at least ten years, making minimum wage before I could amount to anything in the culinary world. I am not customarily motivated by negative commentary, but I will admit that this sparked me to get serious about my culinary career.
While I was still taking my final classes and earning a 4.0 GPA, I was able to land 20 recurring catering accounts. When I graduated, I became the private chef for icons in music and film. I was able to prove my chef instructor wrong, and I learned the valuable lesson that I am at my best when I confidently embrace my talents and offer them up in service to other people. I began to step into the full expression of who I was and how I could translate the joy that I felt in my heart through my craft for the upliftment of my clients and their guests.
After working as a full-time private chef and catering company owner, I decided that I wanted to transition to a role where I could make a difference in the food community on a larger scale. I combined my 4-year degree from the University of Southern California with my culinary degree and started working on the Google food team as a vendor partner with one of the largest corporate foodservice companies in the world. It was a fantastic experience to dive into food sustainability, behavioral sciences, new tech, and solutions to global nourishment and supply-chain issues.
From there, I rose through the corporate world and became head of marketing for North America for my parent company. Once I got to that point, I realized that I had moved away from the core of what I wanted to do. I was no longer directly connected with the people that transmitted their love and passion to the end-user. I wanted to partner with chefs, event producers, and artisans to reach their audience and spread their talents to their ideal customers. I founded Flourish Marketing to help my fellow wedding, catering, and event industry professionals better support their clients in celebrating the most significant milestones of their lives.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
Proposing that I am an authority on the entire topic of thought leadership seems a bit presumptuous. When you are an authority on something, I feel like that means you put time, energy, and effort in to create innovation within that field and inspire others to change behavior. I wouldn’t say I’m an authority on thought leadership. I would say I am an expert in marketing, storytelling, and personal growth, especially in the wedding, catering, and events space.
Being a thought leader in any area means that you are attempting to transform and evolve the conversation for the overall betterment of everyone in that industry. I develop patterns, frameworks, and structures to communicate new ideas about reaching a target audience better or advancing yourself as a human being or industry professional. My goal is to refine concepts until they are palatable, and artisans within my industry can implement them with less friction. I want to articulate a vision that they can use to uplift their businesses and lives.
Marketing is not just a theoretical concept. Marketing is the tool that you use to reach your personal and financial goals. My focus on the progression of marketing and education within this industry is truly about making sure that my clients can create college funds for their kids, leave a legacy for their families, and develop as confident, capable entrepreneurs. I create content with that concept of lifestyle and mindset evolution in mind.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When working as a vendor partner on the Google food team, the director told me, “If you want to be successful, you have to learn how to manage ambiguity effectively.” I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, but as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that it’s only within the ambiguity that potential exists. If things are set in stone, you don’t have as great of an ability to move forward. In the uncertainty lies unexpected opportunity, profound epiphanies, and game-changing processes. I’ve learned to look at ambiguity as a friend rather than foe as I move through an exciting and nuanced landscape.
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?
When I was auditioning to be the private chef for a producer in the LA area, I remember putting together an audition menu full of tropical ingredients, including lots of coconut and coconut water. I had read their dietary profile and felt confident in my recipes and beverage pairings. The menu was delicious, but I didn’t realize that this particular individual had a significant stake in a coconut water company and was totally over the coconut flavor. Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig. I learned from that point on I needed to do a lot more research on the people whom I was auditioning for and to make sure that I understood how even the smallest detail could impact their tastes and decision-making.
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?
A thought leader is different from a typical leader because they don’t have to dive into team dynamics or day-to-day management. You are leading concepts and ideas that inspire thought and action, not necessarily manifesting a vision for a particular organization. Some of the leadership qualities are shared, especially when it comes to comprehending the weight of the responsibility of driving towards a specific direction. Both types of leaders have to have a clear vision of the destination and know how to get people to understand the path towards the ultimate goal.
An influencer is someone who relies on the power of aspirational identity and personal transformation to inspire movement. An influencer doesn’t necessarily have the responsibility of becoming an expert in a topic or proposing steps to reach their status. An influencer is attempting to transmit a particular way of being that others desire to emulate. A thought leader’s role is to motivate individuals and provide them the tools to make choices that will help them better align with who they are and more clearly define their identities for themselves.
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?
Being a thought leader allows you to become intimately engaged in the knowledge of a particular topic. It will enable you to shape the discussion and the mindset of people participating in a specific industry. Above all, it positions you as a helpful expert so that when you are trying to garner support for your business, it becomes much more manageable. You have the credibility you need to instill trust and build stronger relationships. Plus, being a thought leader allows you to speak from a place of confidence. When you have information that others will find valuable, you can teach and inspire from a leadership position. Since I always endeavor to come from a place of service, being a thought leader is just an extension of how I can help the wedding, catering, and events industry.
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?
The visibility you get from being a thought leader is truly amazing. Wedding planners have heard me on podcasts and then signed up for my education courses. Caterers have read articles I’ve written for industry publications and then signed up to work with me in strategy sessions. I’ve spoken on stages at large conferences and events and not only have audience members signed up to be on my email list, but they have purchased from me and have continued to be part of my squad.
Also, when you become respected by fellow thought leaders, you can participate in mutually beneficial partnerships. For example, I’ve had well-respected wedding planners reach out to include me in educational bundles and speaker series. I have developed referral partnerships with pros who offer complementary services. I’ve been able to be presented to people who wouldn’t have known that I was available to lend a hand with my talents.
There is a concept within the marketing world that people need to be exposed to a business at least seven times before purchasing. By creating content and positioning myself as a thought leader, I am increasing the touchpoints with my target audience. That brand awareness has been tremendous in elevating myself and my company as valuable assets in the industry.
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.
- Be a lifelong learner. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who consider themselves thought leaders and haven’t done the work to earn that position. Before you take on the mantle of educating others and inspiring movement towards a better future, you need to make sure that you know what you’re talking about. Get a certification, read books, discuss the issues with current thought leaders. You need to make sure that you are continually learning, developing, and growing. An innate quality of thought leadership is movement. Once you educate yourself on a specific topic area, if you stay stagnant, you and your information will become trite and irrelevant. To remain in a leadership position, you must continually evolve yourself and your capacity to ingest and disseminate thought-provoking information.
- Niche down to something you are passionate about. If you are going to invest a lot of time and energy in talking about your area of expertise, please make sure it is something that you love. One of my favorite questions Marie Kondo asks when she is providing organization advice is, “Does this spark joy for you?” If it doesn’t, you need to cleanse yourself and turn your focus toward something that does. When you come from a place inside yourself that taps into what truly motivates you, your message will be more powerful, you will find more people gravitate towards you, and you will enjoy speaking and teaching about the topic.
- Hone your platform. People can only focus on one idea at a time. While you are probably well-versed in many things, you need to become known for one thing. If people don’t know how to categorize you, they will become confused and won’t entertain your messages. Pick what you want to be known for, decide on four to five key points that sprout from that central theme, and go out there and create content.
- Be prolific. Being a thought leader doesn’t happen with one blog post or one guest podcast episode. Your content needs to be everywhere. You need to show up and participate in the conversation with regularity and novel ideas. Don’t merely repeat the same concept. Find new ways to approach topics so that people who are attracted to different aspects of your message will find themselves engaged. Be authentic and original. When you feel the need to mimic someone else’s perspective, don’t. You were given your voice for a reason. Showcase your views often and from a place of power.
- Become a relationship connoisseur. Thought leadership is a two-way street. You can’t solely focus on putting your message out into the world; you also need to listen in a way that makes other people feel heard. Study the mechanics of relationship building and figure out systems and processes to ensure that you are effectively growing a strong network around you. As you scale, personalization becomes even more critical. Don’t ever become too busy to respond to a DM or write a personal note. People will be attracted to you because of your ideas, but they will stay as part of your circle because of how you make them feel.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who 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 admire Amy Porterfield. She helps content creators develop courses about their topic of expertise. She has been in the business for over a decade and has shaped how many people develop courses online. I love that she has kept it simple, is open about her learning opportunities, and is consistent in her communication. She takes pride in the quality of her content and making a lasting impact on the lives and livelihoods of her followers. I was introduced to Amy via her podcast and then became one of her students. Throughout every touchpoint, she inspires me to be better.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I don’t mind the word, but I do think it has been overly applied. Just because someone has great ideas doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a thought leader. I do believe that other terms could be used. For example, if someone is inspiring via information, that person could also be called an inspiration leader or a catalyst for change. Sometimes we rest on buzzwords to convey ideas when we don’t know what else to say or are a bit too lazy to be original. Thought leaders exist, but there is so much more to being a thought leader than just the title.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Pay attention and follow your natural rhythm. Often we force ourselves to conform to a way of operating that is contrary to the way our body and mind function best. While, for some people, it’s optimal to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and only get 5 hours of sleep, that’s just not me. I have always been a late riser and a slightly nocturnal, so I don’t set meetings before 9 a.m., and I always make sure to get 8 hours of sleep. I also take a look at my natural cycles and plan project work blocks when I am most productive. I was so tired of struggling against my own nature and becoming frustrated with periods of low productivity. The most significant gift I’ve given myself is permission to navigate my creative flow in a way that makes sense to me. To gain that level of awareness, I have a daily meditation practice, work with a spiritual coach, and incorporate lots of love and vibrant energy into my day.
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. 🙂
I would inspire a movement where people live in full alignment with who they were and where their talents and passions lie. When most people are trying to determine a career path, they gravitate towards what their parents tell them to do or what they feel will make them most secure. Sometimes, they luck out and land in an area that makes them feel like they are on top of the world, but often they end up grinding and feeling like life is a struggle because they aren’t able to leverage the full extent of their talents. I would create a movement that allowed people to be okay with their evolution and growth and to incorporate the lessons that they learn along the way into how they bring abundance into their lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Use everything for your upliftment and growth.” — John-Roger, D.S.S.
Life is full of twists and turns. You could decide to look at those twists and turns as something negative or use each moment for your upliftment and growth. We often view change as something uncomfortable because we feel like we weren’t able to make a better choice. I try to look at change, struggle, and pain and discover the kernels of opportunity within. When I judge something as positive, I feel great. When I decide something is unfavorable, my goal is also to feel great and move forward in a positive direction. My intention is to evolve to a place where I love it all.
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. 🙂
I would like to have a long lunch with Oprah Winfrey. I’m particularly interested in how she transitioned from being a journalist to one of the most prominent thought leaders of the modern age. Growing up as a poor black woman, she was put in a box and told her outlook was dismal. Not only did she transcend that box, but she made one of her own design. She was able to keep her message simple, clear, and inspiring while still exploring all of the facets that make her great. I would love to listen to her advice on how I could personally maintain full authenticity and alignment with who I am while profoundly helping a broader audience.
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