Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- S.M. Comparative Media Studies (2007)
Sam Ford is Director of Cultural Intelligence for Simon & Schuster, a CBS company. In addition, he is co-leading various initiatives of the Future of Work in Kentucky. This includes taking part in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP) as part of Team Kentucky, the first U.S. region to ever be accepted to the program, as well as projects with MIT CSAIL, the MIT Open Documentary Lab, the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s Civic Imagination Project, and others
As a Knight News Innovation Fellow with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, he is co-leading the Community Stories Lab with Dr. Andrea Wenzel–work, which received the inaugural Research Prize for Professional Relevance from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in 2018. He also serves as a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing.
Sam is co-author of the 2013 NYU Press book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture; co-editor of the 2011 University Press of Mississippi book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era; and frequently publishes academic work on media fandom, transmedia storytelling, professional wrestling, soap operas, the marketing and communications world, and a range of other subjects. Previously, Sam served as VP, Innovation and Engagement, with Univision’s Fusion media Group; as a director at strategic communications firm Peppercomm; and as co-founder and project manager of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium.
He has worked with a range of organizations, including Alabama Media Group, The Coca-Cola Company, Lowe’s/Orchard Supply Hardware, MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, ORBmedia, Poynter, the U.S. Department of State, and WNYC/New York Public Radio. He has also been a contributor to a range of publications, including Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
I began writing as a teenager as a community contributor to a local rural weekly newspaper, taking over a small town community news column that my grandmother had written for decades. That drove me to attend journalism school. However, entering journalism school at the beginning of the 2000s, as the media industry dove into a prolonged period of continuous disruption that continues to this day, I ultimately decided to add on additional majors focused on the study of the media industries and mass communication and the current shifts they are in the midst of today. That larger focus on understanding cultural shifts and changes, driven by a humanities-focused cultural studies approach, fundamentally shaped my career focus from going to work as a reporter upon graduation to a focus on the larger macro-shifts that have been happening in the contemporary media and communication landscape.
What influenced your choice of graduate program/programs? How has it/have they shaped your career choices and professional ability?
I knew I wanted to better understand the changing media landscape, and how it was impacting both nonfictional and fictional media industries. At first, I was unsure the best means by which to study it–so I looked toward American Studies departments around the country. Then, I heard about the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, with its emphasis on understanding and studying moments of media forms in transition, as well as its “applied humanities” mindset/approach–to think about how humanities work puts significant effort into bringing its knowledge into conversation with the world outside academia. It gave me the chance to pursue a career that wasn’t about choosing between an ongoing path in academia or a path wholly outside of it, and it gave me the chance–through its approach on marrying class work with research labs focused on bringing knowledge from inside the program into the outside world–to work on a project that sat between media studies in academia and practitioners working to change policies and approaches within the media and marketing industries. That balance between academy and industry has heavily shaped my career path in the 12 years since graduating from MIT.
What do you wish you’d done differently or more of while you were at MIT?
MIT really is drinking from the firehose. I was fortunate to be in a program that encouraged interdisciplinary studies and taking classes across MIT, and even over at Harvard, through the exchange of the two universities. The biggest challenge is that your time as a student at MIT is awfully short compared to the breadth of classes that could have impact on your work, so I recommend being strategic about what you sign up for…and making a plan from the beginning to stay engaged with the Institute once your time as a student wraps up.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
My department certainly held to that cliché of “preparing you for jobs that don’t exist yet.” In the four “in-house” jobs I’ve had in my years since leaving MIT, as well as in my consulting and research work…all have taking positions that didn’t exist prior to my coming aboard or tackling that job. In all those cases, the work has been both figuring out the job and doing the job, which I have enjoyed.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
I’m motivated by considering new strategies and new ways of working in order to bring media products and communication into the world that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Whether that involves helping a B2B company rethink how it shows people rather than tells people about its expertise, a hyperlocal news outlet considering sustainable ways to maintain a news organization that is responsive to its community, or even a media company consider ways to build a “slow innovation” approach to new ways to tell stories and connect with underserved audiences, I’m interested in envisioning and building the architecture for new approaches to communication and media-making.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?
It’s never been clear what sort of position I’m a natural fit for. When all your previous titles are positions that hadn’t existed before like “VP, Innovation and Engagement” and “Director of Cultural Intelligence,” people aren’t sure where that fits. I’ve taken to saying: “If you know what you’re looking for, I’m probably not it. But, if you have a job and you can’t figure out just who to talk to about it, maybe that’s the one for me.”
Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?
Typically, I try to think about where the project or job fits into my overall career trajectory and where I want my work to head, balanced by the reality of what I need right now.
What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?
Having the opportunity to play a hands-on role in launching a research consortium while at MIT gave me the opportunity to work with leading academics in my field and meet leading practitioners in the media and marketing industries who were interested in new ways of thinking about their professional lives at a moment of major transition for the media industries. We even had the chance to launch a conference that we ran for six iterations, called MIT Futures of Entertainment, through which I forged a whole range of professional relationships that have stuck with me since.
What professional development activities do you find really useful these days?
I’m a strong believer in one-on-one conversations, when and as you can fit them in. No matter where you are at in your career, find ways to map out some time to have check-in chats with key collaborators who have been instrumental to your career, and to continuously leave the door open to bring new people into that fold. One great challenge is how to keep up to date with folks doing work that might be relevant to yours. A couple of years ago, I started a newsletter I only do 2-3 times a year that highlight and link to some of the things I’ve been working on. I did that after I kept realizing that someone who I’d worked with in the past had been working on something connected to what I was working on, and we never connected the dots. I’m ambivalent about something like a newsletter, because I don’t want it to become too much “selling myself.” But no matter how many channels you are connected through with people, you can’t assume you know what’s going on with them, or that they’ve seen what you’re up to, if you don’t have those one-on-one chats or other direct points of communication.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
An MIT colleague of mine said to me one day, a few years back, to think of what I want to be working on and start writing, speaking, sharing, and doing small projects in that direction when I can…and see what happens. Of course, the reality of needing paying work will always intercede, but I’ve found that to be helpful in framing the way I think about where I choose to invest my time.
What career advice to you have for current MIT students?
Be focused on what you want to do, but don’t be too narrow about what it is you think you want to do. Curiosity and serendipity have their merits. So work with purpose toward your goals, but be open to having that work take you unexpected places.
What does “work-life balance” mean to you, and what do you do to maintain a work-life balance?
I’m not someone who is particularly good at compartmentalizing what I’m thinking about…so “work hard/play hard” never particularly worked for me. Instead, for me, it’s been thinking about work with flexibility. In my experience, if you’re flexible in what you put into work, many of your employers or project colleagues are flexible to you in return. At times, that has meant working from home but being willing to travel as much as called on. At times, that has meant having flexible office hours around family events but being willing to put time in on nights or on weekends. At times, that has meant working really intense days, followed by more “laid back” days. I think it’s being realistic about what all parts of your life require, and being honest with the people you work with and the people you share other parts of your life with about what’s going on and where you have to devote your time. It’s also about being really clear about the order in which you are willing to disappoint people. You won’t be able to do everything everyone would like for you to do all the time and have a good and balanced life.
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
When you study media, it’s hard to find something that truly falls “outside work.” So I enjoy a lot of reading, watching, and listening, but it’s hard to turn “work brain” off for that. Conversations with my kids are endlessly fascinating and take me down unexpected rabbit holes–but, since I study culture, it’s hard for that not to at some point cycle back into my work. But, again, since I’m not good at compartmentalizing, I’ve come to realize that there’s no way to keep work and life separate but rather to see my work as one of multiple key components in my life.
Surprise! Richard Branson called and gave you $10 million to start a business. What’s your heart telling you to do?
I want to start a place-based Work of the Future lab, located back home in Kentucky. I want to think about “Future of Work” not in broad global prognoses but in terms of thinking about how these changes impact a particular connected place-based ecosystem. I want to do this in a way seeking “slow innovation” little bets…Experimenting with new ways of approaching work, building on the assets already here, and thinking about what’s possible and sustainable in a place perhaps not imagined to be on the “winning side” of the future of work automatically. This would involve a lot of collaboration within the state, and lots of partnerships with labs seeking new approaches outside the state. In fact, we’ve been pursuing this way of thinking with some labs at MIT in Kentucky…and I wish that weren’t just primarily side hustle.
Last updated 2019