Photos by Grant Friedman
Natalie Zfat never dreamed of becoming an influencer.
Growing up, she hoped to one day writing for Rolling Stone. It was a goal she realized at 21, when she cold-messaged the magazine’s manager on LinkedIn. Luck was on her side, and she got called in for an interview two weeks later.
“I booked a flight the next day,” she recalls. Although she was living in Florida at the time, she flew north for the interview in a heartbeat. Her efforts paid off, and she landed the job of her dreams shortly after her return plane touched down at home.
Skip ahead to 2019, and Zfat is a veritable social media influencer and marketing guru with a tribe of more than 51,000 followers on Instagram. By day, she collaborates with iconic global brands like Marriott International, Microsoft, and Samsung, working alongside them to create powerful content and cultivate their presence across a host of platforms.
Next up, she prepares to share her expertise at SUNY Ulster’s Own It! Entrepreneurial Women’s Conference on June 6. Held over the course of the day at the Stone Ridge higher education center, the conference delves into topics that range from writing business plans and leveraging social media strategies to marketing online and delivering effective presentations.
Leading up to the empowering event, we touched base with Zfat to learn about her path to success and how to own it in work and life.
Congrats on being named keynote speaker! Have you been to the Hudson Valley before?
Zfat: I was actually in Hudson as recently as last month working on a Ford campaign. We went to Moto and stayed at Wm. Farmer & Sons. The city can be so draining and so high energy, so it’s nice to have a place that’s off the beaten path where you can never leave your room or go to a restaurant that has great food and great company.
How did you transition from the writing gig with Rolling Stone to your career as a social media expert?
Zfat: I was at Rolling Stone for two years and got laid off (the publication laid off about 25 percent of the workforce that day). While I was there, I worked very hard, the hours were very long, and I didn’t make a lot of money. I knew the magazine world wasn’t going to be the way I made my living.
While I was laid off I developed a bit of a Twitter following. I started to very slowly accept offers from [companies like] American Express and Dell. Very organically, I started developing a client list. Then I blinked and I had a 10-brand client list.
What appeals to you most about freelancing and working for yourself?
Zfat: I couldn’t be prouder to be a freelancer and employ a team of freelancers that help me run my business. People are reimagining the way they work and are working from home and thinking about things like paid leave and pay equity. They’re seeing the value of freelancing and making your own opportunities.
[Freelancing] is not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me.
What is one of the greatest challenges you faced while developing your business?
Zfat: I didn’t know how to be a business owner. I didn’t know what questions to ask clients. I’m still very much learning.
Social media plays a critical role within your brand. Why do you think it’s such a powerful tool? What can Hudson Valley business owners do to improve their social media presences?
Zfat: I think social media has gone from an option to a priority. It’s changed the way we interact with customers and how customers engage with us. It’s an incredible opportunity when done right.
I advise a lot of small businesses how to get started. They can inform about products, use it as a focus group, and see what customers want next. It’s a direct line of communication. [For business owners,] if you don’t have a budget for photo shoots and getting products out to people who are influential or influencers, look at your content bank, at what people have already posted. If they’re posting [good content], use that.
Last but not least, how do you think women (and men) can “own it” in life?
Zfat: Be your boldest self. Write a letter to an editor or walk up to Mark Cuban at a pool party and tell him Shark Tank needs to step up its social media presence (true story). If you exude confidence and you provide value, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome. Even if that person doesn’t find value in it, you’ll go home knowing you stood up that day and spoke your truth.
Natalie Zfat is the keynote speaker at SUNY Ulster’s Own It! Entrepreneurial Women’s Conference on June 6. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the event website here.