Intelligent, ambitious, successful and beautiful. A devoted wife and above all, a dedicated mom. As one of her friends put it to me, “Rena is the whole package.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I will miss her dearly.
Rena Shaheen Zeya was born in the village of Bettiah, India in the northeastern state of Bihar. On the day she turned six years old she immigrated to the U.S, with her family. Their first home was in Carrboro, North Carolina. Her teenage years were spent in Winston-Salem.
Rena was the middle sibling of five children born to Hassan and Rehana Zeya. She and her sister Gazelle, although 16 months apart, were in the same grade and attended college together too—the first two years at Wake Forest and the final two years at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Rena earned degrees in Mideast studies and English. Her most memorable and passionate experience at school was working on air at the local radio station.
She moved to Austin, Texas to attend the university there for a Masters degree in journalism, and in 1984 she landed an internship with CNN state department correspondent Ralph Begleiter in Washington, D.C. A year later she was offered a production assistant job at CNN in Atlanta. Rena moved steadily upward in the organization from writer to producer to executive producer to vice president. And by 2000 she was named senior vice president of CNN International, managing a staff of more than one hundred superb journalists. She hired many of the anchors, and never hesitated to provide meaningful guidance to them. Likewise, she poured many hours into reviews and discussions with her entire staff to perfect their skills and build the best team possible. She was always a team player, never grandstanding herself.
Rena was a strong advocate for diversity in the workplace. She practiced what she preached and in so doing hired the best candidates for every position.
One of the most joyful experiences through her work was the bond she enjoyed with other women in the industry, including those whom she met through the Betsy Magness Leadership Program. They were executives like her, supporting one another as they navigated the corporate environment. And she was a role model and mentor to many women within the CNN organization.
Early on, Rena saw the importance of developing digital-delivered news and she was very excited at the opportunity to become the senior vice president of CNN.com in 2007.
Yet, she was always striving for more and felt she could make an even bigger impact running a digital news business if she had an MBA. So in 2009 she took leave of CNN and entered an 18-month MBA program at Georgia State University.
Immediately following her graduation she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Rena approached the disease and treatment as just one more hurdle to clear—just another bump in the road— upset only by the fact that it would delay or scale back her work ambitions.
Following an apparently successful chemo treatment, Rena was hired by the Weather Channel as senior director of digital content. She was elated by the warmth and support she received from her new colleagues. Three months after starting work, Rena’s cancer returned but this time, more ominously, it appeared in her spinal fluid. This was a rare and serious development that required very aggressive and brutal treatment. But Rena’s main concern throughout the six-month ordeal was missing out on leading her team projects at work. She worked as much as she could from home as she recovered from a stem cell transplant.
Battered, weakened but undaunted, she was eager to return to work in the summer of 2012. But in late October the disease had reappeared in the spinal fluid and around the brain. Radiation and chemotherapy followed. Yet throughout this horrible ordeal, Rena remained positive and forward thinking, unafraid of the consequences.
She had access to some of the best doctors in the world who specialize in her form of cancer, but in the end all therapies failed to cure or control the disease. Rena accepted her fate with astounding grace and absolutely no fear. Her only worry was that she wouldn’t be around to provide guidance for her kids who were both now in college.
Rena cherished her Indian heritage and nothing would make her happier than eating Indian food, especially her mom’s.
She loved to read and had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, but was certainly not above enjoying trashy entertainment magazines.
Most of all, she was devoted to her family.