We caught up with Thea Neal, a recently named Forbes’ 30 Under 30, who has been revolutionizing the social media game for Hallmark’s retail division. When she’s not generating millions of impressions through influencer partnerships, she can be found mashing buttons at Up/Down, drawing creative inspiration from Union Station and musing about a support group for dog moms helping their puppers through surgery. We asked her about the Forbes 30 Under 30 process and how KC shapes her experience.
INK: What you do, in your own words?
NEAL: Well, I work at Hallmark (laughs). My role is to focus on Instagram and influencers, as well as social media as a whole, which I manage for the retail division, meaning Gold Crown stores.
There are about 2,000 of them, and they’ve been around for a really long time, so I’ve been working on developing how the store is seen. I don’t want it to just be a place to go buy ornaments. To do this, I’ve been working with influencers like SunKissAlba to highlight products for a younger group, especially younger millennial moms. For example, we recently did a gift guide tailored to an influencer’s autistic son. We want people to identify the brand with the idea that you care enough to share the very best. My biggest win this month has been partnering with KC Stauffer, which has garnered us over 1.8 million views. I couldn’t execute these partnerships without our amazing partner agencies and the amazing people I work with!
INK: Any KC influencers?
NEAL: With Hallmark, we just did some videos with [former Ink staff member] Gwen Hefner, who you may know as The Makerista. We brought Gwen into Hallmark and shot some really great content that showed products and the Gold Crown brand through her point of view.
INK: What are your favorite parts about what you do?
NEAL: It’s so fun to reach out to someone you already follow and tell them, “Hey! I have this really great product for you”-- and see how they use it through their own interpretation.
At Hallmark we have all these amazing artists like master watercolorists, so it’s easy to be creative around all these super artistic folks.
INK: Tell us about the Forbes’ selection process.
NEAL: I was nominated by a winner from last year named Andy Bosley. We’ve never met each other in person—we know each other through the Internet and mutual friends. He reached out in August to let me know that he’d nominated me, but for months I heard nothing.
Right before Halloween, I got an email that was like, “Hey! You’re a finalist! Forbes needs you to fill out these 15 questions in the next 24 hours.”
My reaction was, “Crap! This is kind of scary.” You can imagine me filling these out on my couch at 10 o’clock at night just trying to get them done.
The waiting after that took forever. You don’t hear anything until the moment the thing is published, but as a social media person I was stalking them to see when it would go up.
[Check out Ink’s 30 Under 30 Class of 2017 at inkunder30.com]
INK: What was your reaction to the whole thing?
NEAL: I actually wrote a LinkedIn blog post on the subject. I remember thinking, “This is so cool; I worked my butt off for this,” but then Impostor Syndrome set in. Thankfully the post received a lot of encouraging comments from people who have been in a similar situation. It was nice to have other people, especially other women, letting me know that I wasn’t alone.
INK: How has KC impacted your journey?
NEAL: I’m from Michigan, so I went to undergrad at Michigan State. After I attended graduate school at Duke and I stayed in Carolina for a while. I didn’t really want to leave because the weather was so great. I didn’t really get why people choose to live in cold and snowy places (laughs).
Eventually I was contacted by a recruiter for Hallmark, and I flew out to KC for an interview. Immediately, I was like, “Oh, damn! This place is kind of cool!” Now, I live in the Crossroads and it’s super cool. It’s got the best parts of the midwest—friendly but gritty and full of artistic energy. Also, I walk to work, and it’s a life changer.
Kansas City’s allowed me to return to my midwestern, approachable roots. Michigan people will hate me for saying this, but the food here is way better than Michigan. It’s one of the best things about KC.
[Get more stories like this straight to your inbox. Sign up for the Sidenote.]
INK: What’s your favorite neighborhood?
NEAL: It has to be the Crossroads.
I’m always saying I want to franchise Up/Down. It’s always popping off and if I could figure out all the costs of overhead and maintaining the games and such, I’d be opening one in every city. Maybe someday!
INK: Where do you go for inspiration?
NEAL: I love Union Station. It’s the most beautiful building in the world. When I’m 100 and someone asks me my for my favorite spot, I’ll say that.
It’s on my Instagram all the time. They have those old pictures on the wall from decades ago and that big blueprint of the Station itself. Apparently right now if you donate $150 you can buy that actual print. Unfortunately you have to do it in person, so I have yet to sneak out.
INK: How do you spend your free time here in town?
NEAL: My dog just got ACL surgery, so I’m supporting him as best I can right now. I also run a race every month, which is a really cool way to get to know the city. Right now I’m working on the Heartland 39.3 Series, which is 3 half marathons in 5 weeks, as well as the Santa Dash 5k in Westport, which should be a little easier.
INK: Got any big plans for the future?
NEAL: I always say I’m trying to figure out a way to get rich quick (laughs). It’s very silly, but my idea is to start a support group for other dog moms trying to get through their dogs’ surgeries. I don’t know if there’s a market out there, but I’d be invested.
I also try to find time to volunteer. I do a lot of work for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and Rotary Club, and am always trying to do more. I’m hoping to be on a 10-year plan to get onto City Council, too.
INK: Do you have any advice you’d like to share?
My 30 Under 30 advice is to fake it til you make it. Volunteer for stuff that is way out of your scope - it’ll change your life.
As for life advice? Eat dessert. I’ve never eaten a dessert I’ve regretted.
For the complete Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, click here.