In Her Shoes gives us the rare opportunity to briefly step into the lives of the women who inspire us and discover the strength, courage and ingenuity that has got them to where they are today.
Meet Rey Vakili, Anna Wintour’s former assistant at American Vogue. A Yale graduate and the Managing Director of LTK Australia, Rey gives us a lesson on the merits of hard work, optimism and resilience.
“I loved just shadowing such an incredible woman. I really found this love for business and entrepreneurship in a way.”
Judging by your incredible career so far, you strike me as very ambitious and not at all afraid to chase your dreams. What kind of values were you raised with, and what did your idea of success look like when you left home at 18?
I was raised to value family above everything and with that comes other values like selflessness, honesty and respect. My mum also really honed in the value of modesty, possibly to my own detriment. She’d tell us to ‘Never toot your own horn. Never gloat. Don’t speak about your success.’ She’s kind of superstitious in that sense. But it’s definitely something I really value and enforce in my life. One other thing, my parents are both first generation immigrants, and common to a lot of immigrants is that value and emphasis on education, and studying hard and getting good grades. At school my idea of success was pretty conventional. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but at least when I was at school in year 11 and year 12, I wasn’t really aware of what was out there in terms of jobs and careers and the expansiveness of what is now out there in the work place.
When you were 18 years old, you went to study Political Science at Yale – what inspired such a big move and why Yale?
I have an older sister and at the time, she was looking at universities overseas. While she didn’t end up actually applying, I just vividly remember all the pamphlets of these stunning campuses and I think that was when the seed was planted. From there it just kind of stuck. For me there was no other school than Yale. It was just this dream that I had in my mind. It was the only one I ended up applying to. The US application process is hectic. There was a point where I very nearly didn’t apply but my dad was just like, ‘Look, you’re going to regret it if you don’t give it a go. Get it in, then at least you can say you tried. And then if you get in, then you can decide.’ I did that and I got in.
You graduated from Yale and you were about to move home to Sydney, when a fellow alumni approached you and asked if you’d be interested in working at American Vogue as one of Anna Wintour’s assistants. Tell me about that and how your career went in a completely different direction…
When I was graduating, I cast a very wide net in terms of applications. I applied to a bunch of different jobs, but I knew I didn’t want to go into finance. I was looking at consulting. I put my application in for some random editorial assistant positions at Vogue. HR noticed that I’d gone to Yale, and one of Anna’s assistants at the time had also gone to Yale, so that’s where the application process began. They pulled out my resume, and this girl Adriel gave me a call. It was so different to anything I had expected to be doing. I knew it was going to be a challenge which excited me. It also promised a Visa which was great. I knew that no matter what, this was going to be an incredible experience and one that would probably open a lot of doors for me. It was something that I couldn’t say no to.
On your Wittner shoot, what was your favourite pair of shoes?
My little black and white checkered sneakers! I think I’m so used to wearing comfortable shoes now. Although all of the Wittner shoes were very comfortable. Sandals for summer as well will be a favourite. I’m just excited to wear nice things again.
Tell me about the interview process – what was your first interview with Anna like?
There were five interviews to the lead up to the interview with Anna – it was pretty full on. It happened very quickly as well. The actual interview with Anna was about two minutes, but it was very easy. The week I was set to go back to Sydney, I got a call telling me that I had got the job. I ended up going home, sorting out my visa and was back on a plane to New York about two weeks later.
What did you learn working at American Vogue?
So much. Firstly it instilled this love of fashion in me. Which was probably the biggest turning point in terms of my career and the trajectory I would later take. The great thing about the position was that it was an overview of the whole industry and landscape. You really got to see every aspect of the magazine and every aspect of the fashion industry. Anna’s such an incredible woman that I think what a lot people don’t realise is that she’s so involved in every aspect of that magazine, whether it’s the movies that are being reviewed or the books that are being reviewed, she’s read them, she’s watched them, she’s very politically involved. It was just a really cool crash course in life. Also, I loved just shadowing such an incredible woman. I really found this love for business and entrepreneurship in a way.
In that role you met some of the most influential people in the world, from President Obama to Kim Kardashian. Having met so many highly successful people are there any common traits among them that you noticed?
All of them have an incredible work ethic. I mean, Kim Kardashian is really nice. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, this is such a gracious, kind woman.’ She had an incredible work ethic. On time to the minute. Everyone who worked with her spoke so highly of her. For all of those people, yes to a certain extent luck plays a factor, but you’ve got to have something more to keep you in that position for so long. Ultimately, that comes down to blood, sweat and tears. Hard work. Another thing was this idea of networking and the idea that the little things matter. Everything from thank you notes to birthday cards and birthday presents. Things that you wouldn’t think are that meaningful, but mean a lot to the people who are receiving it and really help build those relationships. You just never know who or where your next big break will come from, so be kind, respectful and helpful whenever you can, because it’ll come around tenfold.
You’ve said, ‘Persistence is key to success, things have never come naturally to me and I believe in the value of hard work and persistence.’ What have you had to work hardest at in your career?
I feel like I’ve had to work hard at everything. Prioritising. Delegating. I’m a perfectionist and I like to have a lot of oversight on the projects I’m working on, but you have to trust that others will do the job as well as you. Maybe they’ll do it differently but that’s okay, you can’t do everything yourself. I consider myself a very home orientated person. I’m an introvert even though I come across as quite extrovert. I don’t think the fashion industry is the best industry to be in if you’re that kind of person. So I’ve had to work a lot on finding the joy in those moments where you are out and about and constantly on. I do find it quite exhausting sometimes.
Talk to me about how you met LTK’s founder Amber Venz Box?
I was introduced to Amber by Whitney Wolfe who is the founder of Bumble. Whitney was looking to launch an office in Australia at the time and was asking me if I’d be interested in working for Bumble. I was more interested in the fashion space, and one of her best friends is Amber. Two incredibly successful entrepreneurs. She introduced me to Amber when I was finishing up at Vogue, and I really loved the vision of formally Reward Style, now LTK, and all that they were trying to create. They were just launching their office in London and I felt like I was done with New York so I was very excited by the prospect of moving to London. I also wanted to get away from traditional media and explore a new space.
What LTK is doing is just really innovative. A lot of the social media platforms are just jumping on the bandwagon now and understanding the importance of this creator economy and realising they need to find ways to monetise this. These people are real entrepreneurs in a way. But LTK’s been doing it for the past 10 years so, it’s pretty cool to realise just how long they’ve been around and how long they’ve been trying to create this business around the creator, or the influencer. It’s a hard space to be in. You’ve constantly got to be innovating, you’ve constantly got to be keeping up with the new platforms and the new trends. Otherwise, it’s very easy to get left behind.
What do you think makes great content on social media?
I think it’s got to be authentic. I know it sounds cliché, but if you’re not being honest with what you love and with what you use and feel a connection with, then people aren’t stupid, they can tell. My motto has always been to be authentic. Find something that you love doing and sort of focus on that, whether you’re good at creating videos, whether your thing is fashion, of food, or beauty. I think it’s a lot harder now to be a content creator than it was 10 years ago. Just because it’s so saturated right? So you’ve got to find your niche and you’ve got to find the people that love that niche.
You’re spearheading the LTK launch into Australia. Are you approaching the Australian market very differently from the UK or the US, and if so, how?
Yes, we are approaching it quite differently. You’d think they would be very similar markets because we speak the same language, but it has actually been quite different. I recently started as managing director of LTK Australia, and for us, the biggest challenge has been this education piece. In the US and the UK now, to a large extent, they’re a bit more sophisticated on the brand tracking and the data side. They’ve had years of experience with this and they understand that you should see some sort of R.O.I on the creators that you’re investing in. They’re just a bit more willing to experiment with these different ways of marketing. On the creator and consumer side, also it’s been a big education piece. We need to educate consumers to get more comfortable with these links. On the creative front, it’s that idea that creators are the new storefront. It’s okay to sell stuff because you’re basically a digital storefront. Something that’s really cool that LTK has been trying to communicate is that in the same way a multi-brand retailer you visit takes a margin on a product if a creator is driving sales for a brand, they should be rewarded for those sales and those conversions. It’s a lot more authentic than, say, a brand partnership. Because you only earn a commission if you drive a sale, and you’re not being paid to link those products. So I think what you see is a lot more genuine promotion of a product, and people linking things because they really love it and they really use it, and then they are earning a commission on those sales.
You have a strong network of woman in your circle – who are the woman that inspire you the most and what does sisterhood mean to you?
My mum inspires me. Amber inspires me. Anna inspires me. My best friends inspire me, as well. I’ve been lucky to meet some incredible people on the way that are my friends but also so smart, so driven, so ambitious, and I really respect and admire them. I think what sisterhood means to me is being a cheerleader. Wanting the best for your friends and the people you surround yourself with. And not cutting down their dreams or belittling what they believe in. When I say cheerleader it’s not like tap you on the shoulder and tell you that you’re always right. I think you need critical feedback as well. But just someone that is there to support you and help you navigate your goals and ambitions and helps you actually get there.
You are a believer in routines and setting goals. How do you approach both of those things?
Goal setting is a really magical thing. I know that sounds crazy but it makes the impossible possible and it takes that blurry dream of a vision and breaks it down into digestible bite-sized pieces that you can tackle one by one. How do I approach goal setting? Setting time aside to actually write and plan. Because if it’s just all in the air, it’s very difficult to grasp. As soon as you write something down, it starts to become more of a reality and the more you write it down the more of a reality it becomes. Write it down a hundred times, and it will start to feel less ephemeral, I guess, and more concrete. I always write goals at the beginning of the year, but then I break those down into weekly to-do lists and journal entries of where I see myself being in 3-5 years. If you get it down, you at least can see what stays important and what continues to drive you through your life.
On habits and routines, there are so many decisions that we make in our life. It can be really overwhelming. Anything that you can do to make it less overwhelming is a good thing. So put those smaller decisions on auto-pilot so you can make more room for the big important decisions. Everything from the time you wake up, to breakfast – I have the same breakfast every morning. I’m really a creature of habit. The most successful people I’ve ever met are all such creatures of habit, with rigid, rigid habits.
Throughout your career, is there a piece of advice that has stood out to you?
I would say everything happens for a reason, is a good one. I really believe in that. Mainly because there are so many things that you can’t control. And I have faith that if you give it your all and if you try your hardest, then everything happens for a reason. And you’ve got a caveat with that. Because you just never know. Also, be optimistic. I think that has a similar ring to ‘everything happens for a reason’. Because there’s always a positive side to every failure, there’s a positive lining to every negative thing that happens and if you can just find out what that is, I think you’ll find that you’re just so much stronger and resilient.
A special thanks–
Georgie Abay & Rey Vakili