Stand-up comedian and award-winning podcast host, Shereen Kassam, shares her inspiring creative journey.

Shereen Kassam had never heard of “stand-up comedy” until one blustery day in her mid-20s. Her mother had volunteered extra space in her daughter’s Boston home to a budding dental student needing a place to crash for the weekend. Shereen, a self-proclaimed introvert, begrudgingly went along with her surprise guest’s plan to attend a “stand-up show.” She never expected that night to completely change her life. 

The dental student and friends had a rollicking time while Shereen grew silently frustrated at how boring the show was. “I was so frustrated,” she recalls, “that I went up to the comedy house’s management and demanded a refund!” The comedian shrugged at her saying, “It’s not so easy to make people laugh. Have you tried it?”

The plucky Shereen felt a novel spark inside her that she had never felt before. “I think I loved this ‘stand-up’ idea, but it baffled me how a bunch of white men could go all night talking about their girlfriends and dogs when there were so many other important experiences to talk about.”

Shereen Kassam

Shereen Kassam
Shereen Kassam

She stared back at the comedian thinking to herself, how hard could it be? Shereen secured the details for a comedy class that night.

Shereen had been in her freshman year at Brown University when September 11, 2001, happened. Being the daughter of two South Asian immigrants in America was already an isolating experience, but when she graduated college and started working in the Northeast, her own personal experiences with ignorance and bigotry were piling up silently in her mind. That night with the dental guest, difficult-to-relate comedians, and the absence of people and voices like her own, suddenly opened up her untapped creative powers.

Shereen started taking classes right away and attending comedy shows. “My parents freaked out thinking I would leave my secure paycheck for comedy. Being the immigrant kid I am, I didn’t dare think of quitting my job.” However, comedy filled up her nights and weekends. It became a release valve, a platform, and a special community of thinkers. 

“As a woman of color in America, you really don't run out of new material,” Shereen laughs. After any incredulous experience such as having her small carry-on publicly searched before a flight, or remembering a quiet transgression like being spit on right after 9/11, Shereen would sit and write ferociously about every detail. “Then I’d trim down my many pages into the 30-second story that mattered,” Shereen adds, “and of course, nail the punch line.”

On stage, Shereen served her sharp-eyed stories in a relatable style: “Anytime someone [in Orlando] finds out I’m Muslim, they get angry. I have to say to them, ‘Calm down, calm down…I’m not the 9-11 kind of Muslim. I’m the 7-Eleven kind!

Throughout her journey of learning and performing stand-up, Shereen didn’t easily find comedians or mentors that looked like her. “But it didn’t matter if my audience was South Asian, Arab, White, Black, male, female, they laughed because they got the idiocy of the situation.”

Shereen kept booking stand-up nights, was invited as a guest host on a morning show, and was part of a team that started an evening radio show. Meanwhile, she also diligently continued her career in marketing. After her MBA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, she worked at Amazon, then landed a job at The Walt Disney Company in Florida.

By 2019, Shereen was responsible for marketing new business initiatives at Disney, including Disney+, which was a brand new streaming service, unlike Disney’s other offerings. “Everything about launching a new product is creative because there is no playbook,” she recalls. It was also the first time in her life she struck a “work-life balance,” something she hadn't realized was possible given the “work-work” mentality to which her immigrant parents ascribed.

With her newfound balance of time, Shereen’s comedy career took off like never before. She was invited to comedy festivals across North America, performed on HBO and NBC, and even had the chance to open for well-established comedians like Arsenio Hall.

Today, more South Asian comics fill America’s airwaves than when Shereen started. But she kept wondering how to better bridge the gap she saw in her 20s when no one performing looked quite like her. How could she make more connections to creatives who would mentor the next generation? What could successful creatives teach and share with others on a creative journey?

Shereen Kassam on stage

Shereen Kassam on stage
Shereen Kassam on stage

To answer this call, Shereen launched her own podcast called Creative Breakthrough, in 2018. The highly-rated podcast features successful creatives who share their journeys in candid conversations with Shereen.

Her podcast guests range from successful actors like Rizwan Manji to comedians like Maz Jobrani and producers and writers like Tina Mabry. Each guest recounts overcoming barriers--be it financial, with family, or their own internal fears and doubts. They speak to their tactics on maintaining creative side gigs or full-time creative careers, and they share their incredible work ethic, tips on getting started, and how to avoid creative burnout.

“It may seem like each guest was an overnight sensation landing TV deals on Netflix,” says Shereen. But each of her guests has silently hustled, sometimes for 15 or 20 years, to refine their voice and make opportunities happen.

“As Maz Jobrani said in his Creative Breakthrough episode, make sure you spread out across different channels. Then when the opportunity comes, you are ready for it,” recaps Shereen.

Shereen’s own story - overcoming societal expectation, family pressures, and even personal assault - are inspiring for budding creatives of all backgrounds. “I think my parents finally came around to my comedy career when they saw me perform for the Diamond Jubilee talent showcase. When Ismailis thought I was funny, then somehow my parents accepted it, too,” she laughs.

Perhaps the only regret Shereen has is wishing she could go back to her years of education and re-take at least one or two creative arts courses. Looking back, she has no doubt of how creative expression enriches private and professional life.

“I was just teaching comedy to high schoolers in the Global Encounters camp!” recounts Shereen. She was astounded that high schoolers already knew what stand-up comedy was and that they could develop their creative passions within Global Encounters, a Jamati program.

It goes without saying, Shereen believes in holistic, lifelong education and in the power of creative pursuits to heal, empower, and connect people at any stage in life. She continues to grow her presence across platforms and share her comedic wit with the world.

“My advice?” Shereen thinks for a beat before affirming, “If it interests you - and even if it doesn't - go try it. Take a class. The barriers to creative expression are lower than ever. So pick up a pen or camera, and go put it out in the world.”

(Follow Shereen at and listen to the Creative Breakthrough Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Stitcher and Google Play)

To hear more about Shereen's story, listen to her interview on the Ismaili Connection podcast click here.