SPOTLIGHT ON SUCCESS – ALIF KHALFAN
WHERE do you currently work, and what do you do?
I currently serve as Vice President at The Walt Disney Company, where I oversee Product Strategy for Disney Parks, Experiences, and Consumer Products’ games and interactive experiences studios. My job is to identify forward-looking product opportunities, combine them with potential partnerships, and recommend the optimal business models to capitalize against them. In short, I look at the macro trends in the technology market and guide the business. Then I have to convince my boss that it’s the right thing to do.
WHAT’S the most exciting project you have worked on to date?
In my professional career, I have had the extremely good fortune of working on projects that leverage some of the most iconic characters of all time, including Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars franchises. One of the more memorable projects for me was when I was able to collaborate with our R&D team to develop the world’s first mass-market Augmented Reality headset, Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, where the consumer is able to finally experience the thrill of wielding a lightsaber.
Outside of work, one of the most interesting projects I get to be involved in is working with professional basketball player Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest). Through a series of serendipitous conversations and meetings, a friend of mine and I are now serving as his official tech advisors for the many deals and ideas that he brings to the table inside and outside of basketball. Sometimes this leads us to meet with other famous people. Other times it gives me a glimpse into the world of professional athletes and celebrities. But most importantly it lets me help them plan for a successful future after sports.
WHO is the most inspirational person you have come across?
I want to learn how to be a better person in many aspects—humility, intellect, athletics, selflessness, and business to name a few – so I actually look up to many different people who are stellar in these individual traits. This way I have a much higher bar for what I can achieve as I seek to encompass their collective best qualities.
Among the many friends and random people that make up this list, my dad is someone who inspired me as a kid to excel in more areas than one. Even now as an adult, I continue to meet people across the USA who pull me aside to tell me uplifting stories about my father and what he has done—many stories that I have never heard before. I know he is an inspiration for a lot of people, and I hope that I can one day be seen in a similar light.
REWIND 10 years. Is this what you thought you would be doing?
Back in high school, I had a lot of different ideas of what I wanted to do when I grew up, and my mind seemed to change every year as I learned more about the world. These roles included being an architect, comedian, engineer, actor, professional soccer player, and doctor. Never would I have imagined that I’d get the privilege of attending a top university in the world, or working on video games that I loved growing up, let alone being able to contribute to companies at an executive level. Similar to how my adolescent mind was all over the place, so was my path to getting to where I am today.
While in college, I quickly learned through working at a series of large companies and startups that the startup world was what excited me most. Much to the chagrin of my mom, I declined offers from Goldman Sachs and NASA, and instead accepted jobs at no-name 10-person startups which shared one thing in common; they all kept failing after a few months and left me without a job.
Despite these shortcomings, I mustered up the courage to try again at working for a fourth startup. This time I joined a small company making video games in early 2009. Fast forward nine months again… And the company was still alive! Thank goodness. Now I didn’t have to once again explain to my mom that I was going back to eating Cup o’ Noodles every night. In fact, it continued to gain such traction each month, Disney acquired the company in late 2010, and I eventually became the youngest Vice President at Disney at age 25.
I haven’t lost sight of the startup world, though. Pursuing new technologies at break-neck speed will always interest me. Disney launched a Startup Accelerator in 2014, and I became a mentor for the program. I get to sit down with a diverse set of 10 promising companies per year and advise a select few on how to focus, execute, and grow their businesses. This, along with a handful of other startups I advise outside Disney, allows me to satisfy my startup desires while also contributing to a larger company that I love.
AT what stage do you think to yourself “I Made It”?
I don’t think anyone with a competitive drive will ever think they have “Made it.” After you reach one big success milestone, you look ahead and place another one a little bit higher. I have learned to celebrate my successes, but not lose sight that there is always more to be achieved in this world. I have also defined what success means to me, which may be different from the traditional definition.
To me, success is achieved when you have accomplished something to your own satisfaction, the value of which will not change with different peoples’ perspectives & opinions. It is entirely driven by your own internal gauge. And when other people think you’re successful, it’s just because your internal bar is higher than theirs for that particular accomplishment.
Here are some personal success milestones that I still would like to achieve:
- Sit on the board of a large company
- Make a positive impact on people’s lives
- Get married and have an awesome family
- Leave a legacy on this world
At the end of the day, what matters most is that you, by your own definition, can celebrate success.
HOW do you balance all of the activities going on in your life?
I must admit, it was not easy getting used to more and more responsibilities over time. The ability to manage my time and try to accomplish as much as possible boils down to mastering two key assets about myself: self-motivation and discipline.
I like to plan ahead. I try to spend a little bit of time on one day planning out the order in which I should execute certain important tasks in the future. It’s really easy, as you all know, to not want to do something on your schedule or to-do list. I have to have the discipline to listen to my past self, who planned out the events I need to finish to make me most efficient, because I may not presently be in a position to re-think it. Over time, after years of experimenting with how I respond to different priorities and approaches, I started to understand myself more. I became better at getting the right prioritization for maximizing both efficiency and my own happiness.
It may sound weird, and it takes time, sure. But I’m investing in myself. And this process will pay off for the rest of my life.
FINALLY, any advice you can give to the people’s reading this post who also aspire to work for their dream company or job like you?
I would classify my advice into three main pieces:
Learn. Never stop learning. The world will always be changing, and so must we. Computer Science invents new coding languages almost every year. Your college major and all the education you just went through may not be as relevant to your job five years down the line. You may need to learn how to make financial forecasts as an English major, or how to write professional memos to a company of employees as an Electrical Engineer. The truth is that learning doesn’t stop once you’re out of college.
Adapt. If there is anything I have learned from working at all these places, it is that adaptation to your business, your team, your industry, everything, is critical to have continued success. In order for businesses to stay relevant, they must innovate. In order for humans to stay relevant, they must adapt.
Share. I would have never been given some of the opportunities I received if I did not help others with their requests. Doing this consistently over time and without any expectation of a return allows others to think of you when they need help solving problems—good or bad. You never know when somebody you assisted previously will give you a call with an exciting opportunity. There is no possible way that I would have been able to work on a fireworks crew, become tech advisor to an NBA player, or drive in President Obama’s motorcade if I hadn’t shared my time with others.
Ten years ago, I would have never predicted that I would be playing the specific roles I am today. But there is one aspect of my aspirations that remains constant. It is what I believe led me to where I am, and what will continue to lead me to where I go in the future. It is the aggressive desire, determination, and discipline to achieve. You can apply this to anything that you do in life, whether it’s sports, school, or work. At the end of the day, our identity is tied to what we can do for others. And the more capability we have at achieving, the more opportunity we have to make an impact.