Rafat Ali is a journalist, pioneering blogger, and entrepreneur. Editor & Publisher has called Rafat “journalism’s poster boy for career independence from news companies”. I am very pleased to share his story of persistence and success.
SM: Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
RA: I was born in the UK, but my family is from the northern part of India. My father was a professor and lived in the US, the UK, and other parts of Europe. For the first five years of my life, I grew up in Denver. Then we moved back to India, where I lived until I was 25.
SM: What did you study?
RA: I earned my engineering degree in computers in 1996, which was when the Internet had just started coming to India. We studied all of the underlying architectures of networks, and we knew all of the theories. We did not have any life experience. I became disillusioned two years into the coursework and wanted to get into writing.
SM: Why did you become disillusioned?
RA: I felt I would have the same conventional thoughts as every other engineer and doctor, which are what it seemed everybody there wanted to be. I thought copywriting would be interesting. I became interested in advertising and thought it was what I wanted to do with my life. It was a very glamorous lifestyle in India at that point.
I started reading everything about advertising. At the university library there were 50 books on advertising, and I read every single one of them. They were not new books; they were old classics. There was one trade magazine, A&M (Advertising and Marketing), and I would read that.
I finished school fine, and then I started applying to some advertising agencies and kind of got lost at that point. I was told I did not have the experience and could get a far better salary as an engineer. Entry-level copywriting is very bad in terms of salary. I finally got a job at a PR agency as an intern. I figured if I got an entry into PR I could make the jump to copywriting. I made 2,000 rupees [about $45] a month, which was not enough to live on in New Delhi. My family sent me some money each month and that is how I survived.
Through PR work, I was exposed to a lot of journalists. I did not like PR because I had to suck up to them. I figured I should try to become a journalist and write about the advertising industry. This was in 1997 and I applied to the editor of the industry’s only trade magazine in India, A&M, which I had been reading for years. The editor laughed at me because I wrote a long letter explaining how much I loved the magazine and the industry, and talking about everything I had been going through. He called me and told me I was crazy but he would hire me anyway. Unfortunately, the pay was worse than my internship.
I started at A&M by editing other people’s copy. I recommend this to anyone who says they want to be a journalist. Starting by editing other people’s copy is a great tool. I then began writing about the advertising industry, and my editor was really good. Soon the first India Internet World [trade show] arrived. The guy who wrote about technology for the magazine was out sick, and because my editor knew about my background in technology he felt I would know something about this.
They hosted a convention for journalists to show off high-speed Internet. I went there and saw graphic browsing, saw the web, and met a lot of US experts who had been brought over for the conference. That is how I got the bug. I started writing about Internet advertising for A&M. I realized there was only so much I could write about in India as we were simply following US trends. I decided to apply to five universities to obtain a masters degree in journalism and was accepted to Indiana University. They had a new media fellowship, which I was fortunate enough to receive.