Kenyan-born Zain Verjee spent 14 years at CNN as an anchor, reporter and interviewer, before bringing together her passion for Africa and interest in online communications with the creation of aKoma, a digital storytelling platform. Beyond the many countries she has covered as a reporter, Zain also invests her personal time in understanding people around the world.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I was hosting the mid-morning radio show in Nairobi, Kenya, on the 19th floor at Capital FM, when I heard a loud bang and felt the building shake. At first I thought it was an earthquake. We saw smoke coming out of an area of downtown Nairobi. It was a terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in August 1998. This shifted my personal interest from music and entertainment to hard news, and a desire to understand more about the world and why this happened.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
It was serious, impactful and I developed a huge depth of knowledge, for both the issues at stake and how to present them in a way that viewers or listeners could easily process.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I trained on the job and I believe that’s the best way to learn. You can turn to the internet today for tips on how to be a better journalist, a host, a reporter, a producer, a fixer, an engineer, whatever you would like to be—you can learn by doing. Take advantage of all learning available online, for free and combine it with finding a space to do what you love. Make it happen.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I received a great deal of encouragement. I learned to rely on a handful of folks I trust and really take their opinions and critical feedback to heart. Being a public figure means you are fair game and everyone has a point of view. You can’t take all of it on, so you have to filter what makes sense and what doesn’t. I have been quite fortunate in that at key moments of my career the right person was there at the right time, championing my career and encouraging me to take risks and believe in myself.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
No. I am grateful for everything I have experienced.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’ve completely redefined myself and my goals, while remaining in a space I am interested in and passionate about: storytelling and Africa. I view growth as key to a career. While in London with CNN, I felt I was no longer evolving either as a professional or as a person and I knew that to learn and achieve more I had to move outside of CNN and traditional media. So I left the company in March 2014 to start aKoma, a digital storytelling platform that aims to bring unique African stories and perspectives to the world. I’m creating akomanet.com with a core team and am very excited about our progress. Digital and social media are the future and I want to be on the front-lines, applying my traditional media knowledge to it, and taking new risks. It’s been very challenging and at the same time exceptionally rewarding.
If you can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
My battle with my skin has always been a challenge. I suffer from severe psoriasis and when I have a flare up, I do not feel completely stable! There are natural and traditional methods of healing. I have done both.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
The most useful skill I have is the ability to laugh at myself and not to take everything too seriously.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of receiving my Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at Oxford University this year. It was very hard to juggle CNN and writing, and then a start-up and writing. I tried all different genres of writing: a screenplay, a book of poetry, memoir, short stories and fiction. I deliberately put myself out of my comfort zone and evolved as a writer. My brilliant CNN producer and I co-wrote a sitcom (she did most of it) and I am really proud of the work. It’s set in a TV newsroom where the prime time shows and the morning shows battle each other for guests!
Any advice for others entering your profession?
With a changing media environment and the pace, pressure and access to varied forms of information, it matters more than ever to stick to the principles of solid journalism. The cardinal rule is “it’s better to be right than first.” Don’t forget that, and enjoy the journey.
Read aKoma content on Medium.
Follow @zain_verjee and @akomanet