INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN IN THE EVENTS INDUSTRY PART 10: Laura Schwartz, former Director of Events at The White House.
This year I’ve interviewed some amazing female event professionals from all around the Globe, leading the way in our industry and achieving great things whilst planning great events.
I wanted to create not just a platform to share stories, but to inspire fellow #eventprofs at every stage of their careers; from events students to CEOs. It’s important to spread the word about people who inspire you, whether it be from something they’ve said, a piece of work you admire or a talent you aspire to learn.
For my last interview of 2018, I’ve chosen to interview someone who has really stood out to me as an Events Professional, and not because I’ve worked alongside her or even met her before – but because to me, everything she says epitomises determination, empowerment and self-belief. Laura Schwartz began volunteering at The White House aged 19, the youngest ever female presidential appointee in history. Through hard work and her eagerness to learn, she worked her way up to the position of Director of Events at the White House, organising some of the most important events in the world during the Clinton Administration.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say this would be my dream job (you’ve got to aim high, right?) so I reached out to Laura’s team to ask for the opportunity to interview her on her time at the White House and the lessons she learnt along the way.
Can you tell me how you found your way into the events industry?
I worked my way from the ground up, answering phones in the White House Press Office as a volunteer at 19 years old whilst attending university in Washington DC. I volunteered 2 days a week, and instead of just ‘9 to 5’ I came in at 6am in the morning and left at 10pm at night, was there at weekends when I could to help more, and people started knowing my name. Not because I tried to get in their face, but because no job was too big or too small.
That summer, I was asked to stay on. There was actually another volunteer from the university, but no one even knew her name; she just came in 9 to 5 and left. I took notes, asked questions when appropriate and kept volunteering. Healthcare started, so all of a sudden, the President and First Lady were travelling, doing great events to promote, and so I was asked to join Hilary on some trips to help coordinate her television appearances.
At the end of that summer, I was asked to stay on again, and was hired as a staff assistant at the White House Press Office. About 6 months later I was filling in for the newly departed Midwest Press Secretary and was asked to permanently fill that position at 20 years old. I kept working hard and became the Director of Television in 1995. I was always there, ready to help out.
The White House Director of Events was a really sharp woman, I loved watching her in the action right in the thick of everything from morning to night. Despite having a great position as the White House Director of Television, it was important to me to keep on volunteering. You’re never too established or too old to help a colleague, even if it’s not in your job description, even if you’re not getting paid extra for it… this is how we help others and learn at the same time. And that’s what I did!
Two years later, the Director of Events left to move away. I never thought she would; she was amazing at her job – but then the Clintons asked me to take that role.
I was really just keeping focused on helping others and continuing to learn, having the right attitude and work ethic – I did that, got my work done, and it led to me being firstly the youngest ever female presidential appointee in history, then becoming the White House Director of Events.
It really shows the commitment you had; when you put your mind to something and you’re determined and happy to help out when you can it pays off.
I had no expectations to stay on beyond that one semester, I had no goal in mind – I just wanted to learn and give back – that was my goal, and I found my direction in life.
So, as the White House Director of Events for the Clinton Administration you were tasked with organising some of the most important events in the world. How did that feel?
I created and produced over one thousand White House events including State Dinners, NATO’s 50th Anniversary which is the largest gathering of Heads of State at any one time, as well as the White House Carnival and the concert of the century at the turn of the millennium. They were just incredible events that I had the tremendous opportunity to be involved with and I had a great team working alongside me. There were also smaller events; press conferences and small private family functions – and you really had to give the same attention to detail whether it was a small function or a state dinner or America’s millennium celebration.
You do that by focusing on the guests. I cannot talk enough about how we do not host events, we host guests; and as long as that is at the core, no matter how large or how small – how big or tight your budget, you can create an incredible experience, whether you’re at the White House where I was, on the World stage, or your own stage, every day.
What was the stand-out moment for you during your time at the White House?
Seeing how the event that you create can touch people’s lives and how it can empower others. When I saw the President connecting with a critically-ill child, or comforting a family who just lost a soldier, or celebrating the things that are great with our nation even in dark times, I think that was the most gratifying thing. When you saw that personal effect, that empowerment through the event that you created. Again, you are creating the event so that it can have that impact on the guests, and if you’ve done it right you can see true emotion come through.
Can you tell me about the motivations behind your book ‘Eat, Drink and Succeed?’
Firstly it’s ironic because President Clinton gave me my start in communication, events and politics; and after the administration ended the first event I was hired to speak for, starting the second half of my career in speaking professionally was actually the Donald Trump organisation Miss USA Pageant. They asked me to speak to one thousand business women and pageant participants for a convention, about State Dinners, and how pretty they were. I said ‘well, State Dinners are gorgeous… but there’s so much more to them than just the great food and drink. And as women (whether you’re in high school or in the career you’ve been in for 30 years) these so-called beautiful social events are your place to break through the glass ceiling and make connections, having a conversation to change your life and someone else’s.’
Discussing the topic, I called it ‘The Networking Power of Social Events’ – how to get more out of any event than just the free food and drink! It really evolved into my book – ‘Eat, Drink and Succeed’ which I put together in 2010, and I’m humbled and grateful for its success; it has tools and techniques that you can use to deliver in any social situation, to network in a positive, powerful and productive way.
You’ll notice that ‘network,’ the word, isn’t in the title of my book – and that’s because at times networking can often seem manipulative, and some people approach it with a ‘what can I get from you’ attitude instead of a ‘what can I do for you’ approach which is what I discuss. When done in the correct ways, using the tools and techniques in my book, I think it can be just that- and something you thought was just merely a happy hour or a staff lunch or weekend charity gala could change your life.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to my parents. They’re an incredible unit together, and amazing individuals. They started a photography studio out of our home when my Dad lost his job in the Cheese Industry, and I was in 2nd grade. I’ve seen them move to 4 different studios since, getting bigger and bigger every time, and not once taking out an advertisement. Instead, they’d always been involved in the community and working with great organisations, helping neighbours and businesses.
That’s how we should all function, not just as one neighbourhood or community but the world; because we live in this globally inter-dependent world due to technology and partnerships. What my parents did in Plymouth, Wisconsin (population 6000 people) by helping others when there was a need, turned into customers and clients. My grandmother used to say ‘what goes around, comes around’ and usually that’s taken in the negative- but if you help others, never knowing when you might need help too, they will be there for you.
I saw my parents do that, which was very much networking without an agenda, in a positive and productive way. Those were the same skills that I took with me when I was volunteering at the White House next to another university student who turned up for her shift and then left but I asked if I could help out and put in extra hours.
I’m a firm believer that if you’re given an opportunity, even to volunteer at an event or whatever it might be in your community, if you really take hold of it and give it your all, you’ll be amazed at where that might take you that you never thought you had a need to know. I try to leave a lasting impact and to give a charge that is positive and powerful no matter the audience.
Top tips for aspiring event professionals?
Shadow people. Volunteer to get involved in an event that maybe you don’t have any background in; maybe you do social events and weddings but there’s a corporate conference happening at the local convention centre- go ahead and offer up your talents to see the behind-the-scenes approach and help in any way that you can. People rarely say no to a volunteer who wants to work. You’re not going there just to mingle, you’re not just trying to get a free ticket – you’re there to work and to expand; people admire that and take note of it.
By the way… I’m not just talking about the 18 year old that wants to get in to events, or the 22 year old that wants to try out corporate events, I’m talking about someone that’s been in the industry 20 years, 30 years, and think that they can expand and learn by trying something out in a different genre. Volunteering knows no age limit or limit of gain!
Thank you so much for Laura for taking the time to chat with me and tell me more about her incredible career. You can find out more about Laura, her experience, speaking, commentating and fantastic book by visiting her website here.