When Laura Schwartz was offered a volunteer position at the prestigious White House in 1993, she had no political connections, experience or background. What she did have, however, was determination to succeed, a ‘never-give-up’ attitude and an undying passion for her job – qualities that opened doors for her at every step of her career. In a candid chat with Rushika Bhatia, Laura shares her inspirational story, secrets to success and how she motivates people to Eat, Drink & Succeed…
As former White House Director of Events, bestselling author, motivational speaker and business owner, Laura wears several hats. How does she juggle them all and what has been her biggest challenge to date? “Although every aspect of my work life involves doing different things, the common denominator is making an impact on the lives of others and sharing my knowledge and experiences with the people around me. I constantly remind myself that this is my primary goal and it makes doing everything so much easier,” shares Laura.
She adds, “I think the biggest challenge definitely is being an entrepreneur and running your own business. It’s a 24/7 job – you have to take charge of everything from A to Z. Most importantly, you have to realise that no task is beneath you – whether it’s picking up phone calls, meeting clients or making appearances, it’s all part of the business.” Laura embraced such work ethic very early in her life, coming from a family running a small business.
“My parents ran a family business in my hometown Wisconsin. So, from the very onset, I was always exposed to entrepreneurship, working independently, making decisions and managing processes from end-to-end.”
The White House years
How did a teenager from Wisconsin make it to an executive management position in arguably the most powerful executive office in the world? “When I was studying in Wisconsin, I never imagined – or planned – to work in the White House. It so happened that I moved to Washington for a semester programme. During my stay, I came across a volunteer position at President Clinton’s press office in the White House, which involved answering phone calls, making coffee and photocopying. It was nothing glamourous or exciting, just basic duties.”
“After a few weeks of working there, I found myself wanting to learn more about how things were done and I started looking for ways to increase my contribution within the team. I would sit and make notes when important board meetings took place, send out follow-up e-mails on behalf of senior staff members, write press releases and so on. I wanted to stand out from the five other volunteers working alongside me. It wasn’t too long before I was offered a permanent position as a receptionist. But, accepting that offer meant that I wouldn’t be able to interact with senior staff members the way I did or move around and learn new things. So, I decided to decline the offer and continue as a volunteer.
“When I declined the offer, my boss approached me and asked me what I was looking for in a position. Following a very honest chat, my boss offered me a staff assistant’s position and I instantly took it up. That’s really how my journey began within the White House. I slowly climbed up the ladder to become Director of Events. At every step of the way, there were of course several challenges, but those came with immense opportunities. I never hesitated to voice my opinions and made sure that I was giving it my all.”
What was the biggest challenge that she faced at that time? “I remember thinking at that time that I had no political experience. It was really hard identifying who’s who in the White House. I borrowed the phone book from the office and used it to memorise the names of everyone in the office. I didn’t want to make any mistakes because at a world-stage, there is absolutely no room for error. It was a turning point.”
As a young twenty-something, what were some important lessons that this experience gave you? “Being a volunteer, and eventually a permanent staff member, paved the way for my career. In that fast-paced environment, I learnt that is was imperative to continuously develop, grow and innovate – something that I still adhere by, as an entrepreneur.”
“More importantly, I realised that if you want to climb the professional ladder, you have to understand the power of social networking. And, this is what inspired me to write my book – Eat, Drink and Succeed.”
The power of social networking
At the age 19, Laura started her career by answering phone calls at President Clinton’s press office. In a few years, she was producing over 1000 events as the White House Director of Events. Laura credits a large part of this growth to networking. “Most people underestimate the power of networking – meeting and interacting with new people is at the very core of career growth and development. Being able to make connections with influential people – the who’s who of the political circles. This, of course, applies to any industry sector that you work in.
You need to create a powerful social network in which you can meet new people.”
“The fine line between business meetings and leisure gatherings has long been erased. For instance, even a state dinner at the White House is in fact a glamorised business meeting, where you could easily close a deal. A great example of this was Steven Spielberg who came up with his brilliant DreamWorks idea at a White House state dinner.
“And, this isn’t just true for people in the higher echelons of society, this is applicable for anyone!”
In her bestselling book, Laura explains: “The ability to pull off a networking power play in under three minutes rests on various powers that you need to practice, plan and rehearse. Whether it’s a business lunch, annual conference, birthday party or black-tie gala, you have the power to make every event beneficial and the power to make yourself remembered.”
The next level – Being an entrepreneur
Laura went from being the youngest female presidential staff appointee to starting her own business. What was the transition like? “One of my biggest challenges was translating my terrific experience at The White House into meaningful, practical content for the corporate sector, aspiring entrepreneurs, young students or anyone else looking to make a difference. This made me extremely nervous. But, at the same time, I was also excited because it meant I was turning my passion into my profession.”
As a professional speaker, Laura delivers powerful keynotes; sharing real life experiences, motivational thoughts, historical anecdotes and key techniques from her best-seller Eat, Drink and Succeed.
What advice would Laura give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the region? “I would like to highlight three major factors to bear in mind – relationships, credibility and mentorship. Building powerful relationships through networking will help you at every step of the way. Also, having a mentor, someone you look up to, is so very critical. Mentors can be someone you really admire – it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone that is 10 years senior to you, it could very well be someone the same age as you but doing something truly exceptional. Finally, make sure that when you do have an opinion, you aren’t be afraid to voice it, and back it up with credible sources. Making yourself heard is so important!”
Rushika Bhatia Editor
Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.