Welcome to the new age of talent development — a philosophy that deviates from the traditional framework of talent, public relations and management, which you’ve likely never witnessed before.
Global phenomenon, Elsa Majimbo, and strategist / manager, Mohamed (Mo) Kheir, are here to school us on the art of betting on yourself, focusing on the long game, and always controlling your own narrative.
In this post-Zoom world, where we’re gradually returning to the in-person experience, you might be surprised to discover that Majimbo and Kheir have never actually met in person. At least not yet.
They have collaborated and created a full-on, actual universe together, all thanks to a unique connection, a strategic vision, and of course, the magic of FaceTime and audio notes. While physical connection is important, in this case, it wasn’t a pre-requisite or requirement for the groundbreaking work Kheir and Majimbo created together.
Kheir and Majimbo are proof that a dream team can exist, beyond the IRL.
In this instance it took Kheir’s hyper strategic approach, and Majimbo’s trust in Kheir’s big vision.
“The two main reasons that we get along are personality and work style,” Majimbo explains. “Mo is super funny, not as funny as me, of course, but we are super close friends. Mo approaches work in the same way that I approach chess — he is hyper strategic and thinks many moves ahead, considering all the angles.”
When Kheir first approached Majimbo via Instagram DM — that is how their business partnership began — he recognized her celebrity appeal and quality, that ‘X factor.’
“Mo was clearly a fan who saw me not just for where I was at, but where I could be. He also knew how to talk to me and explained a solid plan for how the first six months should go. Mo promised big things, but when he broke down how we would achieve it, it all made sense. We achieved all the goals in a matter of months and set even bigger ones — we are now surpassing those goals as well.”
Among their most recent projects: The Alphabet for kids & ADULTS, the debut comedic book co-created and co-written by Majimbo and Kheir. (It was illustrated by Pepijn Temming and edited by Eva Curry.) This marks the first time a comedian has collaborated with a couture house, and this collaboration marks Majimbo’s debut into the high fashion world.
The first edition dropped in April of this year as a limited-release, and was not for sale; the second edition, which is set for global release, is coming soon.
The book is also the physical representation and manifestation of the unique collaboration between Kheir and Majimbo.
Kheir is a partner at Iroko Treehaus (ITH), a young Los Angeles based branding, strategy and investing agency, which works on projects of varying scales. Whether investing into people or larger ventures, the approach is the same: cultivate brand, then amplify platform.
Majimbo’s star rose back in the early days of the pandemic thanks to her hilarious lo-fi Instagram videos. Her authentic appeal, razor sharp comedic wit, and innate talent captured the attention of the world, at a time when humor was necessary and brought escapist relief to our collective souls.
Majimbo has flipped the script from influencer to icon, and has always operated from a place of main character energy.
With the success of co-created releases like Snack Queen (an ASMR-style song produced by Cautious Clay that dropped to coincide with U.S. Thanksgiving), Bedtime with Elsa (an interview series that’s syndicated on Snapchat and features guests ranging from Lilly Singh and Daniel Kaluuya), and Ask Elsa (Majimbo’s campaign with Bumble), Majimbo has proven to be a talent with global appeal.
Kheir has quickly built his name as a multidisciplinary strategist who approaches talent development from a unique perspective. Fusing his marketing and design expertise with traditional talent development has allowed him to push well past industry norms. He is a multi-award winning architectural designer, national award-winning comedian, and two-time author. His first book was released in 2020, titled Alien of Extraordinary Ability, and was presented by global luxury fashion department store, Dover Street Market.
There are several elements that have contributed to Majimbo’s meteoric rise to fame. Under the guidance of Kheir, she has had what some would call “the audacity” (or in industry terms, the chutzpah) to turn down projects if they weren’t aligned with the long-term. For Majimbo — a 15-time chess champion — success is about the long game, not the quick hits.
“It’s almost unheard of for a comedian to rise in the speed that Elsa has, but then to also land the couture collaboration — it’s unprecedented for a comedian to do that in a period of less than a year,” Kheir explains. “And she was able to not only collaborate with a couture band, but to own that collaboration outright. We have ownership in everything we have created, from books to the streamer series that we have in development. You don’t build a legacy on rented land.”
That was super important for Kheir and Majimbo — as it also meant full creative control for any spinoff or projects related to the Valentino book.
Kheir and Majimbo recognized that it wasn’t necessarily just about creating and releasing a book, as it was about creating and releasing an entire universe that surrounds this concept of the alphabet.
“When you create something that is gestural, that is iconic, it can scale in its own self,” Kheir asserts. “And so one of the most important things was to own it. On my end, that was the biggest achievement, being able to say, ‘Elsa, we own this outright.’”
“The importance of owning IP is also because what I do makes me so happy,” Majimbo explains. “And having someone grab that away from me and have the power to own my creativity, or tell me what I can and can’t do? That’s the red line. For me, it’s the deal breaker — it’s the one thing I don’t compromise on. And also, owning your own IP just generally makes you more money. And so many people drown because they don’t have the IP — musicians, even people with reality shows. And I never want to be in that space. So I wouldn’t compromise my happiness for a few dollars now, when I can secure a really big bag, later.”
The other point that Kheir drives home: Majimbo refused to box herself into the influencer category, and Valentino recognized her as the global talent she is.
When Majimbo first broke out onto the scene and during her ascent to meteoric fame, Majimbo was referred to by others as an “influencer” and a “Kenyan social media star,” mostly because the media didn’t know what to call or label her.
But Majimbo’s appeal transcends geography, generations and traditional demographics — she is global.
An important takeaway courtesy of Kheir: If you don’t define yourself, someone else will.
In the early days of Majimbo’s career, the media used four keywords — or let’s call them four corners — to box her in: Influencer. Pandemic. Kenyan. Chips.
“These are the four keywords that I wanted the press to stay away from,” Kheir explains. “I usually prefer that the press doesn’t mention where Elsa is from in the titles, because I feel like if you’re going to talk about Timothee Chalamet in an article, you wouldn’t mention where he’s from. Literally, where is Timothee Chalamet from? In reality, we knew that Elsa had built a cult community from being genuinely funny and creating global humor that everyone could connect with. And the metrics showed that was the truth — it’s your job to build the narrative that you want. So, we adjust ‘Kenyan comedian’, to ‘comedian’. And we adjust ‘first female Kenyan comedian to get a couture collaboration,’ to the ‘first comedian to get a couture collaboration’. There is often times power and scale in simplicity.”
For Kheir, it comes back to the importance of asking yourself, what is your brand?
“No matter what the scale, we’re always developing a brand,” Kheir asserts.
Within talent development, what sets Kheir apart is the level of brand strategy, press consideration and investing capabilities that ITH bring to the table. The agency is highly selective when it comes to clients, stating that it’s not all about a big social following or talent — hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit are vital.
Kheir approaches both brand and talent development in the same way. He focuses on building up the talent’s brand equity, then works to monetize that brand equity by launching new businesses verticals. The goal here is to help talent develop their own venture ecosystem, built on their carefully cultivated brand.
And just like her razor sharp instincts in the chess world, Majimbo’s intuition came into play when Kheir first approached her, to develop her brand: “I always trust my gut. It’s like a game of chess — some moves can fast-track you to success. Mo wasn’t just approaching it as talent management, he saw me as a global brand, which would move beyond social media. Like me, he knows the importance of building brand equity, so as to leverage it to do amazing things.”
Kheir intentionally decided to start leaning into Majimbo’s chess champion status for her first Forbes feature, in December 2020, as opposed to leveraging that title sooner.
“Within the talent development side, we definitely bring a point of difference to the industry — for us talent development requires a branding and marketing approach to building brand equity, then you can easier monetize that brand equity by carefully launching adjacent business verticals. We want to build worlds around compelling individuals.”
Kheir received his master’s in architecture and simultaneously studied branding and marketing.
“There’s so much poetry, in design. Without poetics in architecture, you’re an engineer. An architect is someone that tells stories through built form. It’s the difference between building a house and building a home. That type of storytelling and strategic thinking can be attached to many industries, for it’s the ability to see something not just for what it is, but for what it can be.”
Case in point: When Bumble wanted to collaborate with Majimbo, they wanted her to post a simple brand promo, preferably from her bed, the way the world was accustomed to seeing her. But Kheir pushed back and decided to create what would become a mini-series, shot in a full-on studio, with a glam squad. The aim was to strategically create an aspirational, elevated version of Majimbo, even if it meant taking on the production expenses.
Because part of defining yourself is dressing for the role and the life you want.
The result? Ask Elsa, a three-part series for which they own the IP, created and written by Kheir and Majimbo, and the first series released from Majimbo’s own production studio, Chess Studio.
And after being approached with many opportunities for TV series and projects, which Kheir and Majimbo turned down, the dream team now officially has three television projects in development, which they concepted.
So if 2020 was Majimbo’s year of being discovered and skyrocketing to celebrity status, how would she call this chapter in her life?
“This chapter is about self-actualization. I don’t want to ever let people’s opinions of me, positive or negative affect my goals or drive.”