This Former Beauty Queen Is Quietly Building a Media Empire
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the time is up.
By Poornima Apte
Iman Oubou was just 22 when she got an up-close look at the violence in South Sudan. She was getting ready to apply to medical school and had volunteered to be part of a medical mission to the region. Little did she know that the village she would be staying in would be attacked by rebels. “The hospital we were using to treat the injured was completely deserted,” Oubou recollects. “There were kids walking around with AK-47s.”
Oubou remembers that one month as the best time of her life. Living in such volatile circumstances taught her to make the best of any situation — a life lesson she frequently revisits in her role as founder and CEO of SWAAY Media. “Now, whenever I complain or think I’m having a hard time, I look back at my time in South Sudan and think nothing was harder than that.”
The striking 29-year-old launched the online media platform in 2016 as a way of empowering women in business through content that makes room for professionalism and glamor without compromising either. Oubou has steadily built an audience for SWAAY, hitting its goal of 300,000 unique monthly visitors by its first birthday. Her podcast, Entrepreneurs En Vogue, featuring interviews with millennial entrepreneurs, draws more than 200,000 listeners each week.
[Oubou] shines a spotlight on sexism in the workplace and, in particular, startup culture.
At a time when women’s issues and the Time’s Up movement are at the front and center of the national dialogue, Oubou is committed to doing her part for female empowerment. Through SWAAY’s content and initiatives such as #SWAAYthenarrative, she shines a spotlight on sexism in the workplace and, in particular, startup culture.
The SWAAYthenarrative initiative took shape in the wake of an op-ed Oubou wrote in 2017 for Harper’s in which she described a potential male investor asking if she’d worn her pencil skirt just for him. She also pointed out in the article that she was constantly told that she’s too pretty to be a CEO. The responses to her op-ed stunned her. “My LinkedIn and Facebook were flooded with messages from women talking about all these ridiculous experiences that were preventing them from pursuing a dream career,” Oubou says. “I realized then that my story was not the only one and that we had to build a narrative campaign to change the message and to start to erase sexist stereotypes.” SWAAYthenarrative features stories by 20 high-profile women who conquered sexist stereotypes in their careers. The goal, Oubou explains, is to encourage women everywhere to share their own stories and “sway” the narrative for younger generations.
Heather Monahan, a participant in the initiative and a career coach for women, says that Oubou has had a significant influence on her life. Monahan first learned of SWAAY as a contributor and then contacted its founder through Facebook when looking for career advice. Monahan says she was blown away by Oubou’s generosity: “She messaged me right back, gave me her cell and 45 minutes of her time. She’s constantly thinking about who she can connect with her platform,” says Monahan, who maintains an ongoing professional relationship with SWAAY.
Oubou grew up in Agadir, Morocco, and immigrated to Colorado with her parents when she was in her teens. Her father worked as an agronomy engineer and headed two major import-export corporations as CEO in Morocco before he joined the Coca-Cola company in Denver, and her mother was a small business owner. “They taught me that anything can be figured out if it’s worth the risk,” Oubou says. Being a teenager was hard enough, but being thrown into her junior year of high school in Denver without even knowing English was rough. Within a few months, however, Oubou hit her stride, mastering English and the far more complex language of high school social mores. She eventually graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins with degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology.
After college, Oubou worked in startups doing cancer research, earned a master’s in bioengineering and figured medical school would soon follow — until it became clear she didn’t want to make medicine her career. Having left her job in the startup world, she was at a crossroads. She dabbled in the skin care business and then decided to make a fresh start and move to New York. “I gave myself four weeks to find a job, and if that didn’t work out I would just go back home,” Oubou recalls. That job, in public relations, was Oubou’s early window into media. And, as a beauty pageant veteran (named Miss New York in 2015), she also had special insights into what works in the media landscape. She was instantly hooked, started her Entrepreneurs En Vogue podcast, and SWAAY was born one year later.
Creating a media platform for women in business is commendable, but it is also important to include men in the discussion, cautions Avery Blank, of Avery Blank Consulting, an expert on women’s leadership issues. Blank says that men can certainly consume and benefit from SWAAY’s content, especially as they become “more conscious and intentional about listening to and reading the voices and perspectives of women,” but she believes the conversation needs to expand beyond SWAAY’s audience of business-minded women. This is Oubou’s goal too: “One media outlet can make a difference in changing the narrative,” she says, adding that creating a digital platform like SWAAY allows her to deliver scale quickly. “It’s about women inspiring women through SWAAY, and that is a bigger, more impactful way to bring about change.”
A lover of boxing and world travel, Oubou is eager to keep the momentum going and deliver a knockout with SWAAY. She wraps up our interview for a meeting to flesh out the company’s agenda for the new year. The way forward, she maintains, is to use SWAAY to effect incremental change in societal attitudes, and that starts by emboldening women and making it easier for them to support each other.
- Poornima Apte, OZY AuthorContact Poornima Apte