Turning Your Passion into a Career–With Yahya Bakkar


I’m really excited about this interview! I’ve known Yahya Bakkar for a few years now. I met him in college, and watched as he dropped out of college, turned himself into a successful motivational speaker, and found his long-lost mom after 24 years–a story he chronicled as part of a documentary called The Secret of Destiny.

His recent TEDx talk has been viewed almost 200,000 times just in the past 3 months, and today he’s going to talk about his career, how it all happened, and how you too can turn your passion into a successful career.

About Yahya Bakkar

YahyaBakkar2Yahya Bakkar is a Youth Motivational Speaker and author of two books: Beyond Motivation, and The Ultimate Guide to Teen Life. He has spoken at Harvard University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and various nationally recognized conferences and organizations, and he has trained with the top experts in human behavior, health and wellness, and conflict resolution. You can find out more about him at Yahyabakkar.com, and watch his recent TEDx talk here.

Interview Transcript

(Audio transcription done by Speechpad)

Alex: Hi there, change-makers. My name is Alex Cequea. I’m highlighting the
best in the world of social good. Today’s guest turned his passion for
inspiring and entertaining people into a fulfilling career as a
professional speaker and entrepreneur. His name is Yahya Bakkar. He’s a
youth motivational speaker and author of the Ultimate Guide to Teen Life.
His TEDx presentation which he did earlier this year has been viewed almost
200,000 times, and that’s just in the last three months that the video has
been up on YouTube. He’s a good friend. I’m super excited to have him and
to interview him today. Yahya, thank you so much for being here.Yahya: Thank you for having me, man. It’s an honor.Alex: So first of all, I want to ask you about becoming a youth
motivational speaker. When did you know that that’s what you wanted to do?Yahya: It happened by accident actually. I was at MUM and I was
planning on becoming a doctor and 15 credits short of graduation, I had one
more semester left, I just realized that it wasn’t for me. Becoming a
doctor wasn’t for me. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the quote “Books
can guide you, but your heart defines you,” by Jay-Z. I hold that true to
me, so I decided, “You know what? I’m just going to drop out, then figure
out what I’m going to do.”When I dropped out of college, I went back home to New Jersey. I was in
Iowa at the time, and I told my dad “Hey, I’m not going to become a doctor
anymore.” The culture I grew up in, people want you to become either a
doctor, or a dentist, or a lawyer, one of those careers. So when I told him
that, and I’m the first person in my family to ever get an education in
America, he was really, really, upset.

So we had a falling out and pretty much he kicked me out of the house, in a
nice way, I guess, if you could have that way. I was homeless for about a
month. Felt miserable, felt ashamed, humiliated, not knowing what to do and
then one of my best friends brought me into his house after he heard what
was going on. I lived out there for about three months and in that process,
in my own self pity and despair, he was like “Dude, I see you helping
people, man. You have such a story. You got to speak to young people.” Or
something like that.

So I was on Google one night and I typed in “speaking to young kids,” and
at this time, the only thing that I could add of value was my experience of
the past seven years at the time. I was 22, I believe, and I’m 25 now.
Since I was 15 I was interested in personal development, spirituality,
health, kind of like the self-help kind of genre, and I said, “You know
what? Let me see if there’s, you know, speaking to young kids.” Then
YouthSpeaker University came up on the search bar and for those of you who
don’t know my personal mentor his name is Josh Ship. He started an online
program for authors, speakers, or people who wanted to make an impact and
income helping people who wanted to influence young kids, you adults, and I
found it. At this time, mind you, I only had about $30 total and his online
membership was 297 or $300 per month.

Alex: Wow.

Yahya: Yeah. I was jobless at this time so I said you know what? I
even sent him an email saying “Dude, I really want to do this, but I have
no money. I only have $30.” He’s like, “The best way I can help you is if
you do the online program.”

Alex: Wow.

Yahya: Obviously, he was trying to filter out the people who were
serious and who weren’t serious. During this time, I looked up all the
motivational speakers who were speaking to young kids. Youth motivational
speakers who were doing what I was doing and I emailed almost every single
one of them, the veterans, and I barely got any replies. But the fact that
I was actually doing it was just like a confirmation for me, and the
universe if you will, saying “I’m ready to take the next steps.” So I found
a job as a waiter for the weekend. I made $300 cash and I invested it
immediately into the program. That’s how it started.

Alex: Wow, so wait. All right. So you were at the university. You decided
you didn’t want to do the career path that was layed out for you. You went
home and your parents, being from another country, said “No way.” Kicked
you out. Now you’re homeless, trying to figure out how you’re going to do
this. You find this program from Josh Ship, who is a youth motivational
speaker mentorship program. It’s $300 a month. You find a job. So you’re
kicked out of your house, your living with a friend, you work as a waiter
for a weekend?

Yahya: Yeah. I worked for a waiter for about two, three months until I
found something.

Alex: And that whole time you knew “I’m working towards this thing.”

Yahya: Yeah. It was more of realizing the value and the vision. Here’s
where I want to make a clear distinction. It wasn’t like “Oh, I want to
become a motivational speaker.” It wasn’t like that for me. It was seeing
my value and my worth, and what I could see myself doing, and saying “Wow,
this is the next step. This is a tool. This is my stepping stone and I’m
going to focus on that.”

Alex: What is that value that you saw in yourself that you thought the
youth could benefit from this?

Yahya: I personally felt like I had a story to share. I went through a
lot because in my mind I was saying maybe I’ll become a life coach or a
motivational speaker once I realize my story. The value that I had and when
I do share my story with even my friends it’s not like I’m trying to
motivate them or inspire them. They’re naturally inspired in the process,
and they’re encouraged, and they say you need to share what you have to
share. So it’s just understanding that when I’m naturally being myself and
sharing from the heart people are inspired by the process that I just
realized that was value right there. It was something worth sharing and so
I had to let go of my fear of what I envisioned for myself and just kind of
say “OK. I’m going to put myself on the line and see if I can do this.” And
go out.

Alex: So some of that story, I mean you do have an incredible story, you
talk about that a little bit in your TEDx talk.

Yahya: Yes.

Alex: Part of that story is about finding your mom who you’d been separated
from for… 24 years?

Yahya: 24 years. Yeah.

Alex: 24 years. And reuniting with her and the lessons that you learned
through that, really amazing TED talk for anybody watching I’ll put the
link down here and you can watch it. Really cool. How did you disseminate
that into something that people could get value from?

Yahya: You know what is was? It was by accident. It was such a
reflective process for me because the way the mentorship program works is
Josh Ship and Youth Speaker University basically outlines the black and
white of the business. Like here’s what you need to do in order to get
noticed as a business because it’s great if your talented, it’s great if
you have a message, but if you don’t know how to market your talent or your
message it means nothing at the end of the day.

Alex: Right. So the value is you this value that you want to share but you
really need to learn the ropes of how the business of it works in order to
be effective. Otherwise you’re just going to have a lot of dreams and no
one’s really going to notice. You’re not going to know how to market
yourself. How to really get your message out there.

Yahya: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Just having that and following the
steps that he outlined each month was in and of itself extremely valuable.
My first speech was on March 17th Saint Patrick’s day of 2011. Basically
this was my speech. I found something cool that read in a book, responds-
ability, and it’s your ability to respond to any situation in your life.
You could probably watch my YouTube videos out there from my first video.
It’s kind of humiliating. I said this is my story. I got kicked out of my
house. This is what happened with my dad. This is the background I grew up
in. I’m just going to share it and say you could overcome your adversity.
It was a simple message, it was just packaged differently, and so I
expressed that until about a year and half to two hears that I started
finding my voice because that’s another thing to. You know what I’m saying?

Alex: Wow. So let’s take a step back at there. Your first speech was in
2011 and you had this message down. How did you grow that into a speaking
business into audiences that you could come and talk to? I know you spoke
at a lot schools.

Yahya: Right. Yeah. Well from a practical stance, from a business
stance, you have to understand in the youth market your target audience and
your target market are totally different. My target audience were young
adults, like teenagers so speak, and college students so I would share a
message with them but my target market were advisers, teachers, principles,
et cetera.

Alex: They’re the ones that are hiring you.

Yahya: Exactly. So I had to make sure I met their need and then when I
got on stage I had to make sure I delivered on that level. That was one way
for me to understand differentiation and a lot of people they make a
mistake in thinking that the target market and the target radiance are
exactly the same. You know what I mean?

Alex: Right. Yeah. That’s a great lesson. So you started marketing to the
parents to the people who are going to hire you. How do you go about that?

Yahya: First thing first was I created a website and I tried to create
an avatar. Understand who my avatar was and for those of you who don’t know
what avatar is basically your ideal client. My ideal client was a 35 year
old woman named Sarah who was in education and was looking for a speaker to
motivate and inspire her students. So I had to position my website
according to her needs. You know what’s crazy? I believe that you’ll become
more successful in business when you become more successful at listening to
who you’re working with. It’s crazy, because I’m more of a talker than a
listener, so it was like a personal development journey for me in the
process, which is great, because that’s what I learned for YouSpeak
University. It’s like hold on, hold on, I know you have a message but who’s
actually going to be buying into your message? What are they actually
wanting from you? So it was just an interesting lesson for me to learn.

Alex: Right. So yeah. That’s a fantastic lesson. So you started the
website, you’re listening to the audience, and your trying to build this
website for Sarah, the 35 year old person who’s going to hire you, and then
what happened then?

Yahya: So maybe I state it like this. My first gig was on March 17th.
I would cold call schools around my area and I had nothing. What? Yeah. I
created a free website at this time on I think it was Wix.com.

Alex: Yeah Wix. I remember. I remember your website.

Yahya: Yeah. Yeah. I just created something simple like “Motivational
Speaker.” Something simple, right? So I called different schools, got a
bunch of rejections, and then one school said, “You know what? How much is
your fee?” I said, “Actually I’ll do it for free if you could record my
speech.” They decided “You know what? We’ll just give it to you for $100,”
and they recorded it with a regular camcorder in the back. I came in and I
spoke. I remember my fiance was there and my best friend were there and I
just did my speech and from that speech I created a small demo video. That
demo video took me to another gig. So from $100 to another gig. I forgot
where it was. Yeah. It was at Clifton High school. So my demo video now was
from my second gig ever and it was a $600 paid gig.

Alex: Wow. So back up a minute. So your cold calling, you get this gig for
free, just say I’ll do it for free as long you film me. They pay you 100
bucks anyways so bam, money in the bank. Right?

Yahya: Yeah. I was like “Yes.”

Alex: And now you have a video so now you do the exact same thing with the
next school but now you have a video to show?

Yahya: Right. So what I did with the next video was I found one of my
best friends who was working and I hadn’t seen him in a long time but I
found out he was in film school doing his thing. He wants to become a
director and he had cameras. I was like “Bro, can you help me? This is what
I’m trying to do.” He was like “OK. I’ll see what I can do.”

So he brought one of his friends and they just recorded me that day. We
created them a video and man I was a pain in the ass because I was like “I
wanted it to be perfect, I wanted it to be good,” Everything like that and
yet that video was the start of launching me towards my third gig and then
the gigs afterwards where my third gig I got paid $2,000. So I went from
$100, to $600, to $2,000 and I’m not just saying that because money was a
big deal. It’s just to show it’s possible if you just take action and
actually move forward. The value will be preceding.

Alex: How much rejection did you take through all this because I imagine
you probably got quite a bit?

Yahya: Yeah. So my mentor Josh Ship says, “For 100 calls, you expect
99 rejections.”

Alex: Wow.

Yahya: It’s getting into the mindset that you can expect a rejection
that’s going to happen. You could expect the no’s. In fact, if you’re not
getting the no’s that means you’re not doing your job. So if you can get to
the 100 and then find one, and mind you this is just a rule of thumb,
usually I would get maybe two, three yeses within 60, 70 calls, you know
what I’m saying? So that was the little formula that we had there.

Alex: I have a friend, Seth. He does a lot of cold-calling. He says that he
tries to get ten no’s a day.

Yahya: That’s good. Yeah.

Alex: And he’s says he’s never hit it.

Yahya: Yeah. Exactly.

Alex: He tries. He’s like “I’m going to keep calling until I get I a no”
and he just kind of keeps them going.

Yahya: Yeah. You want to fall in love with the rejection. You know
what I’m saying? Like “Man, I hope you say no.” Do whatever you can to get
a no. Try your best to get the yes but be excited for that no and it’s a
totally different game changer.

Alex: That’s great. So then you continue to grow your business from there.
Now you’re actually getting money for these gigs. You have a speaking reel,
you have a website that’s up, and what did you do after that?

Yahya: I just kept rinsing and repeating the process. So now that you
have the necessary tools, the website, the demo video, which is the most
important marketing tool for any speaker is a demo video. Once you actually
have that in place next is just keep cold calling, keep cold calling, keep
cold calling, keep emailing. Figuring out who your target market is and
just repeat the process.

Afterwards, once I started doing that, about a year into it I started
writing my books. I self-published both of my books and I was just like I
need to get something out there to kind of position myself not as a
beginner. A lot of people who just start out there’s this insecurity or
fear, and I experienced this, that, “Yeah. I can’t charge a lot” or “I
can’t go after and get these gigs because I’m just starting.” Instead of
thinking about it that way, it’s like, “Well I know I’m just starting but
how can I position myself in a place where I don’t need anybody’s
permission to validate my value.” And that’s when i started creating the
books and trying to figure out how to get everything together.

Alex: Really cool. And our book, how long did it take to write your books?

Yahya: So The Ultimate Guide to Teen Life. I found a ghost writer. I’m
not a great writer. I can write but grammatical errors will be there and
everything, the whole nine yards. I found him I think through craigslist I
believe and basically we just found a way for it to work. I’m a great
speaker. I could rant and think of certain things, and he was a great
organizer. So he would organize these things and so I paid him, what was
it… I forgot how much I paid him but it wasn’t a lot. It was a great
deal. That took about eight months but my second book, Beyond Motivation:
Why Teens Seem Disconnected and What You Can Do About It, I wrote that
myself. That took me one month. It was about 100 pages.

Alex: Wow.

Yahya: Yeah. So it was interesting. The Ultimate Guide to Teen Life
was about 200 pages and the Beyond Motivation was about 100 pages. But

Alex: So for some of the Change Makers right now watching who want to write
a book, what advise do you have for them in terms of writing a book?

Yahya: Get on it. Don’t use an excuse just figure out a way. All you
need to know is the process of it. You have two options you want to get
traditional publishing or self publishing. If you’re just starting out, you
don’t have a platform, I would recommend self publishing so you can
position yourself there. But if you have something of value and you do have
a platform go the traditional publishing route. Because regardless of how
bad the book is, if you have an audience, an army that’s behind you, it’ll
be dumb for the publishers to say no, because you have ready buyers. My
suggestion, if anybody wants to write a book, first build a platform. That
was my mistake I didn’t have a platform. I just built a product. It helped
me because when I was in front of my gigs, when I was speaking or what have
you, I would plug in my books at the end of my speech and I’d have some
kids buy books. But the market that I’m, the audience that I’m in, they
aren’t big fans of books. They’re more big fans of shirts.

Alex: Wow.

Yahya: Like if was speaking to college students they’re more big fans
of books than shirts but I’m speaking to teenagers. So the book was really
just an appeal for the target market, the teachers, the parents, the
principals, and it was another way for me to add value after I left the
stage. It’s somewhere they can keep so get over your fears, do what you can
to build a platform, and then just lay it down the line. It’s a lot easier
than you think. I mean if I can do it and I failed my sophomore year of
English I think you can do it too.

Alex: That’s really cool. I like that insight and I also really appreciate
how you made the distinction about your audience and what works for them in
terms of you sell shirts to the high school students and books to the
college students. That’s really cool. So let’s talk about your message a
little bit. What are the ways that you hope to inspire your audience? What
is that drive that continues to create content for you?

Yahya: Well ultimately I have like two missions that I do my best to
live by. I want to be able to live fully and be an example of that, but at
the same time, be able to love better. So when I’m speaking to students, or
whoever it might be for that matter, those are the two principals and
values that I try to stand on heavily. Live fully and love better. When I’m
sharing my story about finding my mom, and then sharing my story about the
struggles I had with my father, and going to school, it all boils down to

If you watch my Secret of Destiny topic you helped me with, I really
appreciate it, my mom said the secret of destiny is to completely
understand your purpose. She said love is the secret of destiny. Love is
the secret to completely understanding your purpose and I thought that was
really interesting and coincidental because I was talking about love before
I found my mom. And for her to validate or confirm that for me was really
mind blowing so to speak.

My ultimate mission basically is just to share that. Whatever route you do,
whatever you do in life, make it centered on love. Do what you love to do,
surround yourself with people who love you, and love yourself as
unconditionally as possible because in the process you’re going to attract
the quality of love that you deserve from that space.

Alex: That’s beautiful, man.

Yahya: Thank you brother.

Alex: You’ve had all this success with speaking and touring. I know that
you recently spoke at Harvard. What was that like and how did that come

Yahya: I want to make a clear distinction here with Harvard. I didn’t
speak to the college students at Harvard University. It was a conference
called the National Student Leadership Conference and there were students
who were transitioning either thinking about going to medical school or
engineering school but they were housed around Harvard University, the
medical school around that area. The area that I was speaking in was at
Harvard. It was interesting, because a lot of people when I say that are
like “Oh, crap. He spoke at Harvard?” Well it’s great for positioning. I
could literally say I spoke at Harvard, that’s no problem. But yeah. It was
more I was speaking to leadership students, students who were student
leaders, and yeah. That was the experience. But I did speak at Harvard
before that and there were foreign students coming from China and they were
there at Harvard University. So I never spoke to college.

Alex: That’s awesome. How did that come about?

Yahya: Well the Chinese importunity, where the foreign students came
there from China, that happened through a Google search. Somebody Googled
my name, they found me, and they messaged me, and they said “Hey, we’re
going to be at Harvard and we want you to speak,” so I said “OK.” The
national student leadership conference, I was cold-calling and one niche
that I wanted to tap into was leadership, motivation and Leadership. So I
found their conference, emailed them, they contacted me, and they wanted me
to be a leadership facilitator there, and so I did. I’m going to be going
this year again, so they’re going to bring me back for the summer again.

Alex: That’s fantastic. Were these paid?

Yahya: Yes. They were paid.

Alex: Both of them?

Yahya: Both of them. Yeah.

Alex: Really?

Yahya: It was really interesting how that happened. I didn’t get paid
a lot compared to what I’m asking for now which is for an hour I’d ask
anywhere between 2,500 and 5,000 per gig. I’m just being absolutely
transparent with you guys but for that event I got paid like 7,000 for two
months. When you take the time and that ratio it’s not much but it was a
great experience because in the summer time, specifically in the market and
the industry that I’m in, summer times are slow. Schools are not open. So
it was a great way for me to test my craft and see what my message and
content would be for the following months.

Alex: Very cool. That’s very cool.

Yahya: Thank you.

Alex: I want to ask you about success, personal success. How do you measure
your personal success?

Yahya: That is a deep question.

Alex: In three words or less.

Yahya: Three words or less? OK. This is going to sound so cliche, but
honestly it’s live, love, laugh.

Alex: Nice.

Yahya: That’s how I would define it because in the process you can go
after whatever it is that you want to go after, but if you’re not doing
these three things I assure you, you won’t be successful. You won’t find
meaning in your success. That’s what I would say. Live, love, laugh.

Alex: So with everything that you’re doing, all the things that come your
way, you bring it back to living, loving, and laughing?

Yahya: Yeah. Yeah.

Alex: And that’s how you measure success?

Yahya: Yeah.

Alex: I love it.

Yahya: Ultimately, yeah.

Alex: I love it.

Yahya: Thank you man.

Alex: I have one more question for you and we’ll end it with this one. What
advice do you have for the Change Makers right now who want to turn their
passion into a career like you have done with speaking?

Yahya: Great question. OK. Remember this whenever you’re going through
your challenges or fears, which we all have, remember that your voice, your
message, your life story, was meant to serve someone out there in the world
who doesn’t feel like they have permission to be who they are, to follow
their passion, and to surround themselves with people who are like minded.
The fact that you are personally taking action to say, “I know I have my
fears but I’m still going to act despite of my fears,” and you have that
courage and you go forth learning whatever you have to learn.

Remember that you are helping so many people in the process without even
you trying to. I know a lot of people want to say “I want to change the
world” and that’s great but there are over 6 billion interpretations of
what the world may be and ultimately you want to change your world. And
naturally when you change your world people around you are going to feel
compelled to do the same for themselves. Be that example and keep going out
there. Embrace the failure, embrace the rejection, and don’t take no for an
answer for your calling.

Alex: Beautiful. I love it man. Yahya, thank you so much for doing this
interview. If you want to find out more about Yahya and his TEDx talk, I’ll
put the link over here, depending on where you’re watching it. But you can
find the link or you can search for him on YouTube. You can go to
YahyaBakkar.com and hire him to speak or connect with him. He’s awesome, as
you can tell. Join us next time. Thank you so much.

Yahya: Thank you.


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