The Competitive Storyteller
How lessons from March Madness help SG’s Yalda Rafie play the long game…and win.
Yalda Rafie can’t stand to lose.
Whether it’s losing a byline to a competitor, or seeing one win an award a client submitted for, Rafie says her love of sports instilled a competitive spirit in her that never went away.
Soccer was Rafie’s gateway into sports fandom. As a child of Iranian immigrants, Rafie inherited her parents’ zeal for soccer. One seminal moment for her was the 2006 World Cup. Watching the Portuguese national team’s fourth place run in the tournament, she recognized Luis Figo from a shirsey her friend wore regularly. But her grandmother was quick to point out another budding superstar on the team.
“But do you see No. 17?,” Rafie’s grandmother asked.
No. 17 was Cristiano Ronaldo, who’d go on to become Portugal’s all-time leading scorer and an all-time great. Rafie’s jaw dropped.
“It was Ronaldo, and his beauty, and his grace, and his unbelievable soccer playing that made me a fan,” Rafie says today.
While Rafie followed Ronaldo’s Manchester United and Portugal teams throughout her childhood, it wasn’t until she arrived as a freshman at Gonzaga University that she discovered her passion for college basketball.
Gonzaga's sleepy campus of 7,000 students is tucked away in the mid-size city of Spokane in Eastern Washington. In the late winter, when the nights are long and the days are chilly, Rafie, an Oakland native, says there wasn't much to do but watch college hoops.
Rafie fell hard for the team. As her love for the Zags grew, so did her interest in storytelling. By her junior year, Rafie, who studied broadcast media, was interning with Gonzaga Athletics’ video team, giving her an enviable portal into both the team and the world of digital media. She also learned how to plan projects, such as a pregame hype video, coordinating and seeing them through to the finish line.
Over the next two years, Rafie helped produce content, from a “Mean Tweets” spoof featuring star guard Kevin Pangos, to a March Madness hype video. During her senior year, Rafie couldn’t hold her tears as she directed her last game as a student. It felt like the end of an era.
It turns out, Rafie’s twin journeys as a lifelong Zags fan and a communications pro were just taking off.
After graduation, Rafie joined SutherlandGold as an intern, working with clients like Doctor on Demand, Marble and JoyRun. By 2017, she was an Associate Account Executive. While helping launch clients from stealth, and writing briefing documents, she still kept close tabs on the Zags.
Sometimes, those two worlds collided.
One night, Rafie had just come home to Oakland after a weeklong trip to Dubai for her cousin’s wedding. She found herself staring at her TV, with the realization slowly sinking in that she’d have to get on another flight within hours.
It was the Spring of 2017, and the Bulldogs had just defeated South Carolina in the National Semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Now, just one win stood between Rafie’s alma mater and a national title.
So in the midst of processing the Zags’ newfound intimacy with glory, Rafie called her former manager, Keith Chapman.
“It’s taking everything in me to not buy a plane ticket to Phoenix right now,” Rafie said.
“Yalda, you have to buy this flight,” Chapman pleaded. “I’m sorry, I love you and the Zags, but you’re never gonna see this again.”
Rafie bought the ticket, and never looked back.
The next morning, Yalda touched down in Glendale, Arizona, where later that day Gonzaga would finally meet its match. The University of North Carolina defeated The Zags, overcoming a three point halftime deficit to win its 6th National Championship. She had traveled nearly 650 miles while still jet-lagged only to watch her beloved team lose.
And yet…she didn’t have a single regret.
“We’re all just waiting for that national title, so if you can be there when it happens, it’s worth it,” Yalda said.
Playing the long game is a key part of being a die-hard sports fan. It’s also a core part of working at an early-stage company. Rafie says that long game often comes with lots of ups, downs, and do-or-die moments.
Rafie sees similarities between the ebbs and flows of a Gonzaga basketball season and that of her job at SG. While the Zags typically rip their way through their West Coast Conference season, the intensity increases greatly when college basketball’s behemoths stand in their way come March.
“You might have some smaller wins early on with a client, but when it comes down to the big moments like funding announcements, it’s like the playoffs and you want to win when it matters,” Rafie said.
While working with software company Pendo this past fall, Rafie felt like a Bulldog trudging through her regular season as her team secured bylines and media opportunities for relatively mundane events. But as the account ramped up, her “Big Dance” had arrived.
With Rafie leading the way, SG coordinated a successful media dinner for Pendo, held at New York City’s Amali. There were some nail-biting moments early in the evening when rainy weather and bad traffic kept many reporters at bay. But right as the dinner was starting, journalists from Bloomberg, Insider, and Quartz flocked in, and the event turned out to be a slam dunk.
It’s still early in the college basketball season, but Rafie’s already in the trenches with the team this winter. When the Zags came to the Bay Area for a relatively mundane pair of games earlier this month, Yalda made a weekend out of it, hosting fellow alums and friends from out of town, the plans revolving around games with fewer than 5,000 fans in attendance.
After all, Rafie's learned that in work and in play, hustling and grinding when no one is watching can be key to nabbing the show-stopping wins.