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21 July 2023

Always Inspired: Azerbaijan’s First Podcaster Leila Aliyeva

Leila Aliyeva, the founder of Always Inspired, one of Azerbaijan's most popular podcasts, talks about her journey from a corporate career to an anonymous food blog to an open and honest podcast discussing mental health.

Always Inspired: Azerbaijan’s First Podcaster Leila Aliyeva

Image: courtesy photo

Azerbaijan is a country of contrasts. On one hand, it is historically the first Muslim country to grant women the right to vote. On the other, today, its society remains conservative and patriarchal. The word of the man of the family remains of the utmost importance. Leila Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s first podcaster, had to experience this firsthand. At 16, Leila decided to study abroad, was granted her father’s approval, and spent two years preparing for the exams to get accepted to the university. However, on the day of her final exam, her father simply refused to let her go, saying that he never even meant to allow her to study abroad in the first place. “My world had collapsed. I thought I didn’t have a future,” Leila reminisces, adding that she stopped talking to her father for two months after that. 

Now looking back, Leila is certain it was a blessing in disguise. Having been given lemons, she figured out how to make lemonade—today, Leila has one of the most popular podcasts in Azerbaijan, Always Inspired. It is her openness, honesty, and sincerity that made this project so unique in a country where many remain uninformed on the importance of mental health, certain topics are still taboo, and women continue fighting to live their lives on their terms without their father’s approval. 

Yet back then, young Leila couldn’t even fathom what was awaiting her in the future. And so it was, instead of crying herself to sleep, she decided to get a job. More so out of spite, she says. Being only 16, Leila had to wait to get a job legally. So, at first, she got an internship that paid her $100—an achievement she was especially proud of, as it proved to her father, who didn’t believe she could get a job on her own without any experience, wrong. Yet between that and Leila becoming a podcaster, there was still a long way to go and a whole career in the hospitality business. A few words must be added about her successful corporate career. For ten years, Leila was employed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baku, starting as a PR coordinator and eventually climbing the ladder to the position of Public Relations Manager. Then there was The Ritz Carlton in Baku, where she was Director of Marketing for a year. And recently, Leila has started a path as a Career Advisor in addition to her other businesses. 

“It seems to me that there are two people in me,” she starts by explaining that it is thanks to her creative side that she can run an Instagram page and a podcast while also having a full-time job behind the scenes. It was this urge to create that inspired her to initially start her food blog on Instagram in 2015, reviewing restaurants in Baku anonymously. Her podcast was born four years later due to her revealing her identity on Instagram and opening up about her mental health struggles. 

“Faced with panic attacks in 2018, which developed into intercostal neuralgia, I was the first person [in Azerbaijan] who began to openly talk about the importance of mental health on social media,” Leila says, adding that during this dark period in her life, she had suicidal thoughts. “I am going to start therapy, if you have such symptoms, you are not alone, I am with you,” Leila wrote to her followers, not knowing what would come from her sincere post. “My blog then just exploded. So many people wrote to me that they were going through the same thing, that they didn't know where to turn, that they had the same symptoms, they didn't know that it was called panic attacks. Then my blog changed its course, my goal was to help in any way I could.” And so Always Inspired podcast was born. “The long-term goal is for the podcast to be useful. To make a person feel that they are not alone. That there is someone who understands what they are going through,” Leila says. “All these years, I have been creating something that will exist even after me.” 

Always Inspired podcast has many sub-podcasts in it. In addition to Leila’s personal stories in You are not Alone, she also interviews other contemporary Azerbaijanis. In 2020-2021 her podcasts were getting around 70,000 plays per month, and as Leila shares, “that was my personal peak.” As a result of her success, Always Inspired was noticed by Visa. In 2021 the She’s Next Empowered by Visa series was launched as part of Visa’s sponsorship with Leila. This came as a surprise to her, “Neither the blog nor the podcast has ever been commercial for me.” Even now she is “selective with advertisers,” Lenovo being the only other big advertiser she has accepted in the podcast’s history. Leila shares that recently she started realizing the importance of monetization, as by “giving away your main resources—your time and your energy” any creator “won’t last long” if the only thing they get back is the feedback from the audience. Still, Leila is yet to start reaching out to advertisers herself. 

Despite her creative path’s successful fruits, Leila refuses to leave the corporate world as it is another part of her. “Because I am a perfectionist in life, it is important for me that everything is clear. And the corporate structure gives it to me. I think it would be difficult for me to work in some less structured organization. I would not be able to devote myself to social media fully,” she explains. “I don’t consider myself a content creator. I can disappear from the blog for a month because I don’t feel like posting.”

When Leila says, “It's not a hobby, it's altruism,” it becomes clear that for such a career-driven and ambitious young woman, she is not one to sell out, whether for sponsorships or a higher number of followers. She truly believes in her mission to help others. “I had almost 30,000 organic followers [on Instagram], I paid the company to unfollow inactive ones. The dilemma [I am facing] is that I want to develop and bring something useful to more people and communicate with a large number of people, but at the same time it is difficult for me to get out of my shell,” Leila adds, further proving her selfless joy from the act of creating and being of service to her community. “It is better to have 1000 people who are like-minded, deep, and intelligent than 100,000 people who do not understand what I mean.”