Laura Schwartz had no political ambitions. In fact, she was just 19 years old when she began volunteering at the White House, where she answered calls. She soon found herself climbing the ranks until she ultimately became the White House Director of Events. SpiceNews sat down with Laura to discuss her career journey and what it was like running events for the former leader of the free world.
Laura, tell us a little bit about your time as the former director of events at the White House
As the White House Director of Events I learned that there is no better way to effectively communicate a message than through powerful face-to-face events much like SpiceNews highlights everyday. Events whether a large conference, a small business meeting, a-get-together after work — these are all moments where we are able to, as I like to say, share our challenges, search for solutions and celebrate success! And it is you — the event producer, manager, coordinator — you name it — that makes it happen. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life as you touch the lives of others through events no matter where they are staged — The White house — or Your House. No matter how happy or difficult life may be for your guests at that moment — you bring them into an experience where they can focus, learn, meet others and create a memory that will last a lifetime. There is always something larger than yourself and when you work with others on a collaborative mission…collaboratively — you can achieve great success together!
What were the steps you took to get you into such a coveted role?
In 1993, I started out at The White House as a college student volunteering to answer phones in the Press Office with no pay and no expectation of a job. I was in Washington, DC at the American University for a semester program that coincided with President Clinton’s first inauguration. A former student from the program a few years back was now working for then President-Elect Clinton, rang up American University and asked for volunteers…I thought it would be interesting, it would be something bigger than myself and I just had one semester in the program and wanted to make the most out of my experience. As for politics – I was never political….my family has always voted on the issues and for both political parties – they were never donors or political activists. So I was focused on the issues too and I did proudly vote for my first time in 1992 and that was for President Clinton based on what he proposed on education and health care — but I had no personal political connections.
I volunteered for anything — whether it was answering the phones, making copies etc. — nothing glamorous. But I arrived earlier than any other volunteer and left later as well. People noticed my work ethic — I was asked to stay on after the semester and became an official Staff Assistant in the White House Press Office which was basically being paid for what I had been doing which was an incredible validation. From there I continued to work with the staff of the press office and volunteer for anything needed no matter how small it may have seemed. Then, when the Midwest Press Secretary left the Press Office I was asked to fill in — then, they asked me to take on the job permanently. It was there that I focused on verbally implementing and describing the President’s message both proactively and reactively with the television and newspaper press from the Midwestern United States. I continued working with other members of the Press Office and when the Director of Television left his role in 1995 I was asked to step into it. Now I was visually creating the televised message of the President Foreign and Domestic. In 1997, I moved from the West Wing to the East Wing to become the White House Director of Events — it was there that everything I did from answering the phones, speaking with the press, producing television interviews….all came together to make me better in the new role. I never could have walked into the role of the Director of Events without having done every step prior and by watching and learning from others.
What were the most challenging aspects of that role?
There is of course the stress of having your events on the world stage but honestly ALL of our events are on a world stage with today’s technology. You never wanted an event “mishap” to become the message of discussion — you wanted to support the message of the day through the event at hand…not override it. I believe you can best ensure success through empowering a team by sharing information. That sharing of information is a key factor in determining an event’s success. We have all worked with people throughout our lives that perhaps hold back bits of information to…let’s say… make themselves more powerful? But that is just to the detriment of any event. We prided our office on collaboration and sharing of information. Sharing information will empower your event and make your team stronger — you will teach and you will learn from each and every walk through to make yourself and the event better.
Mentoring is a two way street and I discuss it in my speaking programs as a core of networking — networking can be interchanged with communicating, connecting and mentoring — it is important to do it on a walk through just as much as in your life every day.
What was it like working with Bill Clinton?
Working with President and Secretary Clinton was an enriching experience both professionally and personally. As the youngest female Presidential Appointee in history at 20 years old, they both were mentors to me as well as my “boss”. They taught me lessons each day by simply observing them, briefing them and working alongside of them. I had a very straightforward and respected relationship with the both of them and when asked a question or to explain a decision or event I would always underscore “why I was saying what I was saying” — not just simply giving an answer. They taught me to be well thought out and prepared that way. I also did not look at them as only “their titles” as the President and First Lady of the United States — but rather incredible individuals who served in that role in which through the events would demonstrate to the United States and the World the policy and dignity of the White House and America.
What were the types of events that you were organizing at the White House?
Anything and everything that happened on what was nicknamed the “18 Acres” which is the size of the White House and the land around it. I produced everything from State Dinners to Bill Signings, Message Events, Press Conferences, NATO’s 50th Anniversary, America’s Millennium, and the first ever White House Carnival on the South Lawn and much more. I produced over 1000 events as the White House Director of Events with an incredible team of volunteers and staff.
I enjoyed the task and challenge of every event.
What is your profession now?
I am a Speaker, Author and International Television Commentator. As a speaker, I both keynote and emcee large international conferences and individual business and industry events. As a television commentator I am the fill in host for Larry King on his show “PoliticKING” interviewing world leaders, captains of industries, celebrities and politicians and I serve as a television commentator offering my perspective internationally and in the states on special and current events as well as leadership affairs in the world.
We understand you are presenting at Executive Secretary LIVE this year, can you tell us why you’re passionate about this conference?
Since I wrote the book on Networking, “Eat, Drink & Succeed”, I could go on and on and on why networking is key to our lives both professionally and personally; at Executive Secretary Live and back in our offices, communities and our homes and I will when I keynote on July 15. For now, let me say this — Networking is the foundation of the partnerships that carry us through our lives and we carry others through theirs. Our safety nets in life are not mechanical, they are personal and it is your fellow attendees that you meet, learn and experience with at Executive Secretary Live that will be you biggest cheering section, safety net when you falter and full of ideas when you need to be inspired as you will indeed inspire others.
When we positively network together, we partner. When we partner, we have endless potential.
If you could give one piece of advice to EAs or event professionals, what would it be?
It is so difficult to drill down to only one piece of advice but I will say what I feel is a most valuable skill for the PA to embrace — and that is a culmination of knowledge, partnerships and learning which makes us successful. Every thing you have to teach, you have to first learn yourself. Now, this may be technology, the benefits of a product, a brand, a relationship with a boss — you name it there is a learning curve for everything base on our own interests and places we excel in life. But your personal skill, drive, resourcefulness and positivity combined with thoughtful questions and research is the way to dive in and become an asset and a PA that is able to propel a vision forward every day. A day that you can go home and be proud of…everyday because YOU made a difference.
Laura Schwartz will be speaking at Executive Secretary LIVE, a global forum which will see 250 executive assistants gather to discuss the changing face of international businesses. The event takes place at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland on the 14-15 July.