Nadira Kharmai Wants to Share Your Story

Nadira Kharmai decided to become a business owner early on. Majoring in broadcast news at Grand Valley State University, she had the opportunity to take on a few internships in her field -- WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Tampa, and WTHR, an NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. She sent her demo reel out to "literally hundreds of places," but found herself disappointed in the responses. "I wasn't going to sit there and do nothing," she says.

The Monday after Kharmai walked the stage for her college graduation, she went downtown and bought the LLC for her social media video company, Empress Productions. "Social media was still sort of fresh and in its grassroots phase, and I wanted to capitalize on that and be a part of that movement," she says. "I wanted to give people in Grand Rapids a useful tool for their social media platforms."

The first couple months, she says, were terrible. She was making low-budget commercials, wasn't sure what she wanted and wasn't an entrepreneur. Being a business owner was something that ran in her family -- her aunt and uncle came from South America to the U.S. with nothing but a high school education and became successful entrepreneurs in New York. But Kharmai wanted to make it work here. She decided she needed to find some good mentors and learn the ropes of marketing and being a business owner. She found the support she needed with Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) and Count Me In.

Through these programs, Kharmai was able to pitch her idea and receive help from other women entrepreneurs. "Every Wednesday at 10 a.m., for an hour and fifteen minutes, we do this conference call," she says. "These women have been in business for 12 to 15 years. [We discuss] so many facets of being a business owner -- finances, marketing, emotional intelligence, hiring and firing, investors. It's this wonderful collaboration of some minds that really want to get work done."

As helpful as it is to learn about the mistakes you shouldn't make from those who made them first, Kharmai also feels equally gratified when she can provide a fresh perspective in these meetings. 

Buying quality gear for a video business is often costly. Kharmai was able to finance her business working for another West Michigan start-up, modeling and talent firm The Matthew Agency. Kharmai has been featured in smaller print work as well as bigger national and global campaigns. "The Matthew Agency came three years ago and I'm one of the originals," Kharmai says. "That's a really neat thing because [owner Jerrad Matthew] has taken his company from the ground up to something amazing -- something that's becoming quickly recognized as a national agency for some good talent."

Kharmai mentions two male models who were just sent by the Agency to New York for Fashion's Night Out. Kharmai herself was recently flown to Costa Rica to work on an ad campaign for Merrell, a division of Rockford's Wolverine World Wide. She emphasizes that you don't have to move to New York or Los Angeles to get quality modeling work, you just have to work hard. "You have to think about yourself as a brand," she says. "My dream isn't to be on the cover of Vogue. I'm a lifestyle model. I can emulate a brand and be a spokesmodel via my body language. It's something you have to work for and it's a business, too, and thankfully, the Matthew Agency does all the work for you."

With Empress, Kharmai focuses on producing cost-effective and sustainable web video to be shared via social media. She describes her work as giving a client valuable tools to help them share their story. While several of her clients are lifestyle companies, she also works with bars and clubs. Some of her clients include Old Orchard, the YMCA, Funky Buddha Yoga Hothouse and local eateries Louis Benton Steak House and Bar Divani. Kharmai serves as a middle ground between the self-made iPhone/flipcam videos and costly productions, with an emphasis on relationship-building because, she says, "marketing doesn't happen in one day." 

"There are people who have all the gear and know what to do, any they might not do it as professionally, but for a fraction of the cost," she says. "I've been operating for two years, but you have to remember that I come from a journalism degree, a communications background and a modeling and spokesmodeling industry. So, all that creativity you're getting has some backing to it."

Kharmai says every day is different for her. As the sole-proprietor of a business, she is often busy editing, shooting, reading up on new techniques, doing work for the Matthew Agency or spending time with her girlfriend, Jenna. Which Kharmai says is another interesting facet of being a business owner -- she's a "minority, very openly gay, young woman," and she's not sure how that will work out. 

"I'm wiling to put my heart and my equal rights prerogative on the line," she says," because it's something that matters." And while Kharmai says that when it comes to business, she doesn't care if her clients have an opinion about her love life -- "They're getting products form a professional that happens to be gay," she says -- she does want to "challenge viewpoints." 

"I want to enrich [people] with awesome media and awesome conversation," she says. "I want to impact people, and it's not just with Empress Productions, not just with this whole social media moment. I'm sending you a message, and it's your job to filter all of it out and say, 'what is she really trying to say?'"

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photography by Adam Bird
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