A Style All Her Own: Meet Michelle Shahparast, Co-Founder of Unwritten
Sometimes a little encouragement can go a long way — like, a really long way — to businesses and opportunities that almost seem to create paths of their own.
Michelle Shahparast has experienced this firsthand. Shahparast is CEO and co-founder of readunwritten.com, a millennial-focused online publication, run on our DreamPress platform. What started as some nudging from her older brother opened doors to a career that wasn’t even on her radar.
Creating the Perfect Fit
Born and raised in Maryland, Shahparast grew up playing field hockey and tennis but also had a passion for fashion.
“I thought I’d go to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and enter the fashion industry,” she says of her teenage dreams. “I was creating and designing my own clothes in high school.”
The timing was a little off, however, as she started eyeing colleges and, more significantly, tuition prices mid-recession. So Shahparast opted for University of Maryland to snag in-state tuition.
Her brother, Sean, who is seven years older than she is, had gone a similar route, studying finance there. Shahparast chose the same major, with hopes of gaining a solid business foundation for her plans in the fashion world. And, as older siblings often do, he gave her some advice about the path she was taking.
“My brother told me that he didn’t really realize the resources and free time he had while he was in college,” she recalls, “and he pushed me during my freshman year to use those things to be entrepreneurial.”
Shahparast took the advice to heart, designing and selling T-shirts for the men’s basketball team. She lived in the same building as basketball players and recruited them to wear her shirts to create buzz.
“It was my first step in being a business owner, making something a reality, and I realized I liked this entrepreneurialism,” she says. “I wanted to try it with something I was a little more passionate about.”
Shahparast and her brother started brainstorming, and she found herself asking, “What’s missing on campus?”
She soon came up with the idea of creating an e-commerce site for local college girls who wanted to buy and sell used clothes online. It seemed like the perfect fit for someone whose role model was Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso.
“There were a lot of girls who would only wear their new clothes a couple of times before they were done with them, and I wanted to sell those clothes and give them more of a cut than any other consignment store would,” she says.
She decided to split the money with her suppliers 50-50, whereas other consignment stores would only pay 20-30 percent. Shahparast soon found herself running around to sorority houses to pick up the clothes, then photographing them, writing the descriptions, and posting them on her site.
“The girls really didn’t have to do anything,” she says.
Six months later, Shahparast decided to start a lifestyle blog to raise awareness of her e-commerce brand.
“The whole tie-in was to have a site that supports college girls finding their individuality and how they wanted to express themselves,” she says. “I always had a crazy, funky style. My friends would make fun of me for what I would wear when we were going to parties, but I wanted to be fun and comfortable.”
Empowering college women who feel pressure to make a name for themselves was — and still is — important to Shahparast.
“Their lifestyle is theirs and they get to write it for themselves. Women are told how to present themselves, what is the cool factor,” she says. “When it comes to really expressing yourself, everything about your personality stems from that first thing that people see. I want women to be confident and comfortable in their own skin and wear clothes that match their personalities.”
Just before the launch of Unwritten in September 2012, Shahparast channeled her talent for creating buzz and blasted the campus with marketing for the blog.
“We really wanted to make a splash,” she said. “We even threw a launch party.”
The hard work paid off, and the first week Unwritten was live it garnered strong traffic — a couple of thousand visitors for just a few articles.
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Tailoring to Millennials
As readership grew during the next few months, so did the frequency of posted articles. Soon Shahparast realized her site wasn’t just meant for a local audience.
“We started to expand to other colleges,” she says. “It was so incredibly involved; I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing and digital media world. It was a crazy experience to teach myself, back before everyone owned a blog and it was super oversaturated.”
The site’s focus on fashion and lifestyle was a hit with readers. Its first super viral story was “10 Things You Need to Stop Wearing Immediately.”
“We wanted people to feel like Unwritten was the friend you always wanted, someone who understands what you’re going through, the one to give advice that your other friends aren’t giving,” Shahparast says. “We wanted to let people know they were not alone — that every story is worth being told.”
The vibe rang true with the millennial audience and even snagged the attention of the Huffington Post. “One day I got a note from one of the content editors at Huff Post, saying they loved how sassy and on point it was with this generation,” she says.
That note led to a partnership in which their articles could be syndicated and published on Huff Post. “It was a great incentive for our writers, an exciting way for them to be rewarded and get exposure,” she says.
The site’s topics now encompass college life, relationships, beauty, food, and wellness, which also include mental health stories.
“Two stories come to mind that impacted readers. One was about a University of Pennsylvania runner who committed suicide. People really felt the power of that story,” she says. “The one that went completely viral, with more than a million shares, was about why people in their early 20s don’t need to settle down. Everyone’s life goes at their own pace, and you need to accept that.”
Shahparast, who doesn’t consider writing one of her strong suits, says it has always been her goal to share relatable pieces.
“I was a millennial and wanted to publish for millennials; I was the target audience,” she says. “When you try to get into journalism, sometimes people want to come off older and wiser, but I think it’s better to be relatable and to have the content that speaks to them on their level.”
Sharing a variety of views that causes conversations is another goal. “I’ve had to remove my personal biases because we represent all opinions. I can’t nix something because I believe otherwise,” she says.
Now, Unwritten boasts more than 100 writers and posts 6–8 articles each day. The significant growth has been exciting, but it also presents challenges in keeping content novel.
“There are going to be repeat topics, but it’s about having the fresh perspective,” she says. “When I try to encourage writers, I ask, ‘How can you make this topic your own? How can you create a unique conversation?’”
Some of the stories Unwritten publishes are so personal they make readers feel like they’re having a one-on-one conversation with the writer, Shahparast says. “It’s like having a friend for when you’re feeling alone or down. We understand our audience and know how to talk to them and get them through their 20s,” she says.
Fashioning a Future
Shahparast continued with Unwritten through her college years, but she also knew that she was good with numbers and flirted with the idea of working in the banking world.
But after working crazy long hours during a finance internship, she realized she missed the ownership and creativity she had with Unwritten. Shahparast took a job with the Huffington Post after graduation, then moved to Refinery 29, and is now at Vice as a senior media strategist.
“Unwritten helped shape my college experience, and I learned so much more than I ever could have from classes,” she says. “Employers are impressed to see what I did while a student.”
Now she spends one to two hours each day on Unwritten, squeezing that work in before and after her full-time job.
“It’s kind of crazy. I get into the office with my coffee earlier than my co-workers and also work on it before I go to bed,” Shahparast says. “I review the content that goes out every day: the titles, pictures, theme, look.”
In addition to the 100-plus writers, she has a staff of six to eight editors and five people on the social media team. Most of Unwritten’s staff consists of college students or recent grads who work solely for the experience or school credit; Unwritten continues to receive applications from aspiring writers every day.
“We’re giving them responsibility that they wouldn’t get at a larger publication because they’re too junior; a lot are doing it for exposure in the media world,” she says. “They learn how to have full ownership of a role and learn social strategy from the ground up.”
And with 700,000 unique visitors — all organic — each month, Unwritten seems to have a good thing going. It still is hitting the college demographic but also has a group of readers who have grown up with it.
“It’s still heavily millennial based, but there’s really heartfelt stuff on there that someone in their 50s could resonate with too,” Shahparast says.
As Unwritten matures, Shahparast feels like there are a lot of options for its future. She’s mulling over ideas for expanding into social videos or possibly a podcast.
“Part of me would want to explore partnerships with other brands, leveraging content, or possibly sell it to someone else,” she explains. “I don’t know where I’m going next in my career, but I would love to give it to someone who is passionate and knows how to run it. It was my baby and the start to my career, so I would want someone who feels the same way.”
It’s hard for Shahparast to think about all the stories that would have been left unwritten if she hadn’t followed the advice of her brother over six years ago.
“If I never had started Unwritten and had gone through the normal college path, I think my life would be completely different. I probably would be working in finance or in a finance-related role,” she says.
Her alma mater is a school that recruiters come to for accounting, finance, and business degrees, Shahparast says, and it would have been hard to get an internship in digital media relying solely on school resources.
“I basically had three years of experience with journalism and digital publishing under my belt when I graduated,” she says. “If I never started Unwritten, I wouldn’t have gotten the leg up and built my career to what it is now. It’s pretty crazy to think about.”