A CMO's Journey from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley, with Jinal Shah, GM & CMO at Zip US

March 6, 2024

Welcome to another episode of How the f**k did you get that job?" This week, we're excited to sit down with Jinal Shah, the GM and CMO of Zip US, a digital financial services company making credit accessible to as many people as possible.

If you've ever been part of an exhilarating, fast-paced (aka f**king crazy) startup, you know that roles are often as flexible as they are demanding. In early-stage startups, job descriptions blur, departments merge, and you're expected to roll up your sleeves to get shit done. Jinal, as a leader navigating these fluid dynamics, took to this environment like a duck in water after spending years in the agency world.

In her dual role as GM and CMO, Jinal has exhibited an understanding of the art and science of marketing that really impressed us. She’s been instrumental in fostering an environment at Zip US that values data-driven decision making, while also championing the creative potential of her team. Jinal consciously aims to be an inspirational leader, encouraging her team to explore, innovate, and continually push the boundaries of what's possible.

I loved this conversation because it reinstated my belief that startups can have top tier creative talent in their ranks and that they needn’t rely on fancy agencies to tell them how to talk to their customers. It was refreshing, inspiring, engaging.

The following is a Q&A from our interview, edited for clarity and brevity. But before we dig in, check out the full episode here:

Q: So we’re going to talk about how you got to where you are today as CMO of Zip. Let's go back to the beginning - how did you decide that going to university in the U.S. was the right path for you?

Jinal: To be honest, at 18 years old I don't think my decisions were extremely profound ones. I was really just looking for a way to run away from the limited options I saw for myself in India, where it seemed like engineering or medicine were the only viable professional paths. I was incredibly lucky to have a green card through my family, and when Temple University offered me a full scholarship, there was just no way I could afford to attend anywhere else.

My father was incredibly supportive, giving me the simple directive of "study whatever you want, as long as you'll be the best at it." Those are extremely empowering words for an 18-year-old to hear. It takes so much pressure off and instills a motivating confidence. With that backing from my family, I headed to Philadelphia to pursue a degree in journalism at Temple.

Q: Was there a particular moment when you realized engineering and medicine weren't going to be the right fit, and that you wanted to take a more creative professional path?

Jinal: I think I always knew that on some level, even if I didn't fully admit it to myself at the time. Growing up in an environment where only analytical skills were valued and celebrated, my creative tendencies were constantly fighting for airtime and expression. It wasn't until later that I realized I don't have to bifurcate my skills like that - I'm extremely analytical, as evidenced by my mean Excel skills, but also very creatively inclined.

At the end of the day, curiosity about the world and a yearning for adventure were the driving forces that drew me more to journalism than engineering or medicine. Those fields felt too constricting for my sense of ambition and wanderlust at that age.

Q: What do you remember most vividly about your time at Temple and the start of your journalism career? Were there any classes or experiences that laid the groundwork for your future in marketing?

Jinal: A couple of key experiences really stick out. First, Temple itself was predominantly attended by other first-generation college students when I was there. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many of my classmates who were the first in their families to get an education - a reality I was familiar with from my upbringing in India, but hadn't expected to see so prevalently in America based on my perception from movies and media.

There was this incredible grit, perseverance, and ambition among my fellow students. Most were working full-time jobs to put themselves through school. Just being in that environment sharpened my drive and work ethic in a really profound way.

The other seminal experience was an assignment in one of my journalism classes to go out and interview a stranger, then write their entire life story based on that encounter. It taught me the power of empathetic listening and understanding people's lived experiences.

One woman I interviewed said something that has stuck with me forever: "Families come together when someone dies or gets married. But why do we wait for those sad times? Why can't we gather during the happy occasions too?" It opened up my eyes to how much wisdom can be gleaned from people's stories if you just take the time to listen with curiosity.

That spirit of curiosity, understanding human truths, and appetite for people's stories is so fundamental to great marketing. It's about tapping into genuine consumer insights in an empathetic way, then honoring those insights through your campaigns and brand experiences.

Q: Let's fast forward a bit - how did you land your first job out of college? As a young grad, how did you get your foot in the door in those early roles?

Jinal: My first internship was thanks to being relentless in following up with a guest professor who came to lecture at Temple. She said no one else had ever followed up to ask for an internship opportunity after her talks before! I've carried that hustle mentality with me throughout my career.

After the internship, I landed my first full-time job at the banking company Advanta. They brought me on because the CEO was a fan of my blog that I had been writing about marketing, technology, and youth culture trends. I ended up pitching him on the idea to create a credit card product tailored for young entrepreneurs, since that was an underserved audience in the finance world at the time. He bought into the vision and I got to work on building that product from scratch as a young hire.

Q: You spent nearly a decade in the advertising agency world at major firms like J. Walter Thompson. What were some of the biggest lessons and experiences that prepared you for your current marketing leadership role?

Jinal: I owe so much to my years at major ad agencies - it's where I truly learned the fundamentals and craft of marketing and advertising. You develop an incredible sense of conviction that you have to back up your point of view and recommendations in every single room and meeting you're in. It forces you to really hone skills like processing information, making strategic connections, communicating clearly, and trusting your instincts.

The collaborative nature of the agency model also taught me that you can never launch anything alone. Building great campaigns requires seeking out a diverse array of perspectives and skillsets, integrating feedback from client partners, and a willingness to iteratively evolve ideas. That value of inclusive collaboration has stuck with me.

A couple of campaigns I'm really proud of from my agency years:

We pitched and convinced Macy's to roll out wifi across all store locations and incorporate QR codes to unlock exclusive content experiences. It was an early example of blending culture and commerce through technology in retail environments.

Another highlight was turning the Christmas story "Yes, Virginia" into a Broadway-style play that we distributed for free to schools and teachers. Arts funding was being cut in public schools at the time, so it was gratifying to keep imaginative experiences alive in an accessible way.

Q: What ultimately made you want to leave the agency space and move into product marketing roles at companies like S’well, Feather, and now Zip?

Jinal: Early in my career, I was attracted to agencies because that's where all the innovative marketing thinking was happening outside of company walls. But over time, I saw that shift as larger companies built more robust digital, social media, and creative capabilities in-house. The innovation was increasingly happening inside organizations rather than just at agencies.

So after getting my formal training in the advertising craft, I wanted to pivot toward an environment where I could build more commercial acumen and develop as a marketing leader. You don't get as many opportunities for end-to-end business ownership at agencies. I was hungry to roll up my sleeves and live the impacts of my marketing work more directly.

Specifically, companies like S’well, Feather, and Zip were attractive because of their founder-led cultures and the aspirations to scale big, transformative ideas - not just market products. At S’well, it was about pioneering a world without single-use plastic. At Feather, we were rethinking how furniture is consumed through sustainable rental models. And now at Zip, the goal is fundamentally disrupting access to credit and upending antiquated lending paradigms.

I thrive in entrepreneurial, founder-led environments. There's an intoxicating spirit and culture code that is incredibly inspiring but very difficult to replicate within larger, more established organizations. I cherish the personal and professional growth that comes from sitting side-by-side with founders as they bring world-changing visions to life.

Q: For someone evaluating company culture as a potential job candidate, what advice would you give on identifying healthy versus toxic environments?

Jinal: First and foremost, you have to deeply understand your own values, beliefs, and personal priorities. Get clear on your non-negotiables so you can start filtering opportunities through that lens.

From there, ask probing questions that get past the surface niceties and really give you true glimpses into an organization's cultural norms and leadership principles. One interviewer recently asked me, "What's one thing you've had to actively deprioritize in your life?" and it struck me as such an insightful way to understand priorities and potential mismatches.

Fundamentally though, the most important factors are choosing to work with people you genuinely like and respect. You're going to be spending more time with colleagues than your own family in all likelihood. Their values, attitudes, and behaviors need to be aligned with your own worldview. It's an ongoing learning process of codifying the right interview questions, but prioritizing fit with your future coworkers is crucial.

Stepping into the CMO role at a publicly-traded company like Zip was initially an intimidating prospect. But the founders have worked hard to nurture an environment where people feel empowered to show up authentically. As a working mom returning from maternity leave, the supportive policies and culture gave me confidence I could integrate my personal and professional selves in a healthy way.

At the end of the day, my career has been defined by working at the intersection of culture, creativity, and commerce. I'm energized by the frontiers of disruption and the opportunity to rethink industries that have been stagnant for too long. Payments and fintech are spaces ripe for a more equitable, empathetic revolution - and that's the type of transformative vision I'm passionate about bringing to life as a marketing leader.

Untold stories from the world's most influential marketers. New episodes every Wednesday.  
We’re OpenFortune. We put your brand in front of millions of engaged users – and give them a message from you.
Learn More