You’ve probably heard of POTUS, SCOTUS and FLOTUS…but have you heard of ROTUS, or “Receptionist of the United States”? On this episode, you’ll meet ex-ROTUS, Katie Herbek, who worked at The White House in her early 20’s, overseeing the guest book and greeting top world leaders and celebrities in The West Wing. On this episode, Katie takes us through working in the campaign world during the 2008 Obama campaign, teaching in Italy for 8 months, working at the White House, and making the jump into education policy at the U.S. Department of Education. Katie encourages us to choose a word that represents our “north star” to guide us through the tough decisions in our careers – and her word is “equity.”
A theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would’ve said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job.”
Welcome to The Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color, killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Hey, everyone, welcome to our second ally guest episode of the season. I’m so excited to introduce Katie Herbek to you. Katie was my classmate during business school and she was just one of the warmest and most intelligent people that I crossed paths with. On this episode, you’ll hear about how she worked in politics on the Obama campaign back in ’08, she taught in Italy for a bit, she worked at the White House as ROTUS, and now she works at Ford leading mobility, technology and infrastructure. Katie talks about how her career mantra “Work hard, be kind, and don’t talk shit about people” has actually helped her get pretty far. I think one of the biggest lessons Katie offers us is that as long as you build genuine relationships with people and work hard, it does pay off in the end.
Priscilla: Hi, Katie. Welcome to the show.
Katie Herbek: Thanks so much for having me
Priscilla: Definitely, really excited to have you on the show and have you talk about your early career years in politics, working at the White House, working in federal government and how it’s led you to a career that intersects business and public service. So, yeah, let’s get started, so tell us a little bit about where you’re from and, yeah, what was it like growing up where you were from?
Katie: Yeah, so I am a native Texan. I grew up in a small town called Friendswood. I think that some people don’t necessarily consider it a small town anymore. It really is a suburb of Houston, but it felt like a small town to me growing up there. My parents are actually from New Jersey, so my dad and my mom met up there. They’re divorced now, but my dad got a job with NASA, and so they moved to be near Clearlake and they chose Friendswood. I’ve always been quite progressive. When I was four at daycare and they did a funny poll, who would you vote for? I stood up and said Michael Dukakis, like, so, like, I’ve always been a Democrat, right? And that’s not necessarily Friendswood. Friendswood is a very white town. I think according to the census, at least the last time I checked it, it continues to get whiter actually and it’s a lot of affluent people. I don’t necessarily consider myself affluent and my parents got divorced and that actually put some real economic strain on our family, and my mom would work, like, two, if not three jobs. So, yeah, so I felt it as even though I’m a white lady, heterosexual, cis-gendered all of those things, I felt very different in Friendswood because I didn’t think like everyone else and my parents were divorced and we didn’t necessarily have a ton of money, and so in that environment, I was like, I’m ready to get out of small town America.
Priscilla: Totally, yeah, I’m also from Houston and I just remember also having that feeling of, I need to get out, I need to experience something different, so feel you there. So, I know you landed at UT Austin and you majored in PoliSci Government and Political Communications. How did you figure out your next steps for getting a job after graduation?
Katie: That is a very good question because I didn’t do a great job of that. So, I have a fun story which is that my first semester my senior year, I went to an academic advisor and I was very clear, okay, I’m getting two degrees, so I want to make sure I’m fully covered and I have all of the things checked, and we went over the degree credits that I had and how many more I would need over the next two semesters, and we were good to go, so I signed up for classes in the fall and had an idea of what I would do in the spring, and at the beginning of the spring semester, that academic advisor told me that she had done the math wrong and I was 20 credits short of graduating.
Katie: Yes, and again, I was like, staying for an extra semester is not an option for me, like, I have to go start my life in the real world. I think at the end of the day, if I had gone to my parents and been like, “Hey, this happened, I’m probably going to have to stay a semester, they wouldn’t have minded.” I was a full financial aid student, so they would support me in small ways, help me out with the groceries and stuff. I was just on my own at that point, I was an adult, so it could have done that, but in my head, I was just like, I can’t. So, my last semester I took 18 hours in the classroom and then I took an online algebra class or something to get the last two hours. So, I was so focused on getting through the semester and getting the courses done so I could actually graduate, and I didn’t tell my parents this. I just was like, I just have to do this, this is the world that they’re operating in. So, because of that, like, April came and my friends had started to apply to jobs and May comes and I’m like, man, I don’t know what I’m going to do, and that job that’s really important, I don’t have. Two things were really helpful, one, I had a family that I had nannied for and I reached out to them and said, “Do you need a part-time summer nanny?” and they said, “Yes, we would love for you to still nanny for us,” and then the Annette Strauss Institute where I’d had an unpaid internship, they found money for me to be a part-time employee. So, for June, July, and August, it was like, okay, you’re covered for three months and it allows you to stay in Austin, and I also bring that up because a theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would have said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job,” and also they created in the environment in which I could go to them and say, “Hey, I’m in a pickle. I don’t have a job yet. What do you think?” And I wasn’t even saying, can you give me a job necessarily, it was more just, do you have any thoughts or advice? And they were willing to help me out with that. So, that took me through the summer, and then my dad lived in DC at that point and I had never given DC a shot as a government and political communication majors, which sounds strange, this was 2006, and he was like, “By the end of the year, you have to have found a job, be on your way to finding a job, I’m not going to kick you out on December 31st, but we need to see a plan, but you can have a little bit of runway,” which is really, I’m so thankful for because interning in DC is this very strange thing because a ton of internships, you’re interning for free, as I talked about before, depending on the industry and it’s just free, and they just assume that you will figure out a way to live and eat, and function and not be paid, and if you have an entry level job, you’re paid like $25,000 or $30,000 in DC which is not as expensive as New York, but it’s getting there, right? Even back in 2006. So, yeah, so little so I’m really lucky because being able to intern and take a free internship because I had a free place to live just made a huge difference in my life, and so that’s what I did right after – well, not right after school, I stayed in Austin, but then the first step was moving to DC, lived with my dad and I started interning and Senator Barbara Boxer’s office on the Hill, which was just, I met some really wonderful people, another woman named Caroline Sacone. Another theme you might pick up on is that I’ve been really lucky and my bosses have been tremendous and they’ve made such a big difference and really continue to be supportive throughout my life, and so Caroline was my boss, my de facto boss, and she was in the comms office, she thought I was competent, so I ended up being in the comms shop a lot and got to be responsible for clips in the morning and the afternoon, and Caroline took me under her wing and introduced me to people and helped me think about what I could do next.
Priscilla: That is amazing. I also interned on the Hill in DC during college, and I just remember thinking that it was so hierarchical, right? Like, you had to start as a staff assistant and then move up to a legislative correspondent, like there was a very clear path and the pay was not so great. Did you sort of consider taking that path?
Katie: I did and I didn’t, so I thought it might be hard to get a start in an office that I wasn’t a native of the state. I mean, it’s not completely unheard of, but I was a Texan that was getting to work for a California senator, and I’d like to think that if I’d continue to work hard and there was an opening, I could have done it, but yeah, if you can end up with the right senator, right, any one that got to intern and work in Senator Barack Obama’s office, I’m sure, feels this way, but like as Senator that is on a committee that has an issue you really care about, I think that is really wonderful and great, and can result in a really fulfilling career. But as you mentioned, there’s this strange hierarchy, and so some ways, it’s like you just land where you land and you get a job wherever you can and that might end up with being a legislative assistant in an office that, yes, it’s a job, but maybe it’s a senator or a member that you don’t have a ton of connection to and they work on issues you don’t have a real connection to, and I think that can be hard.
Priscilla: Yeah, that totally makes sense. There’s always that geographic tie that’s really important in those offices. So, what did you end up doing next?
Katie: So, I took another bit of a detour. I had studied abroad when I was in school and I loved it. I was in Italy, in a small town and I had the chance to go back and help at the school and essentially help in the kitchen and helping the office in exchange for room and board, and so I did that for about eight to nine months.
Priscilla: Oh, my God, that’s amazing.
Katie: In 2007. Yeah, it was really wonderful, and again, I acknowledge like the place of privilege that comes from to have parents that say, “Sure, go for it.” I mean, they both were like, “We’re not paying for this, like, we’re not paying for your airplane ticket there. We’re not giving you walking around money,” but they were supportive of my desire to have that experience, which I think in some ways is maybe the best scenario because I did have to work for things and I had to learn that work ethic really hard and know that things were not going to come free, but I was coming from a supportive place and they were never against anything I did, I was loving it, but then I was okay, what’s next? Like, you could do this forever, but that would likely result in becoming an English teacher or a nanny, a full-time nanny, and that could have allowed me to stay longer, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to do those things, but the presidential election had already kicked off and was really pumping, and around August or September, I guess around that time, I was like, man, I really, I want to go back and I want to figure out if I can work on a presidential campaign, and so came back to US and Caroline Sacone who I had mentioned before in Senator Boxer’s office was still involved, and so met up with her and was like, “Okay, I want to join a presidential campaign. I have never done that before, so I don’t really know how this works, but if you could help me out,” and she was awesome and she was like, “Yeah, put your resume together and we can send it to folks,” and she sent it to her roommate, either it was her roommate at the time or a previous roommate, Britt’s boyfriend, Peter, and Peter was in Iowa for Barack Obama doing advance and Peter got my resume and hopped on the phone and it was really like, “I deeply believe in Barack Obama. I want him to be the next president. I will work hard. Tell me how to do that,” and then I got connected to the campaign and I did my first advanced trip.
Priscilla: So, just really quickly for those who don’t know, the white house has a team called the advanced team and they do advance trips. So, Katie, tell us what is advance.
Katie: So, advance is you literally go and advance as a candidate and you set up events and that can be anything from a town hall to really big rally. So, I went out to Iowa around this time 13 years ago and I did a trial trip, a test trip for advance, and I did press advance with, and I learned from Peter and that’s where you’re like, where are the press going to stand? Where can they cover the event? Do they have power? Do they have internet? Which again was just starting to become, like, we need to have internet at all times. Before 2007, people aren’t really thinking about like wireless or that you could just have internet wherever, and I did well and I loved it and I didn’t really go home again. So, I started on the campaign in October of 2007.
Priscilla: That’s incredible that you were there when Obama was elected and that you were part of that in ’08, but eventually, the campaign is over and you have to find a job, right? So, what did that look like for you? What was your next step? Did a bunch of jobs open up? What was that like for you?
Katie: Yeah, so doing advance is one of the ways that you, you can end up becoming invaluable, and there’s not a ton of advance people. So, immediately, there’s something called the Presidential Inaugural Committee or the PIC in DC parlance and because of myself and all of my colleagues knowing how to do with just and events, we very quickly all got at least temporary jobs on the inaugural committee. Some people get jobs at the transition and the hope is that either working on the transition or working at the inaugural committee also means that there will be a job after that. So I worked on the parade route, the logistics for the parade route on inauguration day and was at the inaugural committee, and so that’s another, working on a campaign is awesome and I think really important, and then if your candidate wins, it sets up this opportunity to keep working just depending on what your skillset is and what you’ve done, and so yeah, like I said, being able to do logistics, it’s okay, we need those humans for the inaugural events, for the balls, for the speech, for the parade, for everything, and so that was my job for, I guess, about two months.
Priscilla: Got it. So, I know that next, you went to the Department of Veteran Affairs for your first job. Were you doing similar work that was logistical in nature or was it something totally different?
Katie: It was similar. I didn’t want to travel as much. I had lived on the road for 13 months and I wanted to travel a little, but not a ton, and so the Department of Veterans Affairs is a really nice place. I worked for Secretary Shinseki and he definitely traveled and visited veterans and hospitals, but he wasn’t traveling every single day, and I had this really wonderful boss named Dan Logan and Dan leaned into what I had learned from the campaign about traveling and travel logistics but also how you can create a meaningful event or interaction, and I was doing a little bit of just like the scheduling of a trip and working with travel agents to book a flight, but then I was also working with Dan on, okay, if he’s going to this city, what are the things that he could or should do? Who should he talk to at a hospital? How can we make sure that the secretary’s engaging with veterans in a really meaningful way and learning from them? And so, I got to start to pivot and do a little bit more of the strategy behind events and just using someone’s time really wisely, which is if you’re not just thinking about the logistics of it, that’s what scheduling in advance can really do, is there’s a finite amount of time, so how do you use that time smartly and wisely for everybody?
Priscilla: And so you were probably like 23, 24. How old were you when you joined the VA?
Katie: I was 23 and yeah, I turned to 24 while I was at, is that right? No, I was 24. I turned 25 when I was at the VA.
Priscilla: Yeah, and was that on the younger end or was that pretty average?
Katie: I was like a child, essentially, and some people treated me that way. They were just like, “Who is this 24-year-old, 25-year-old who has never worked in government?
Priscilla: Yeah, because I mean, it just seems like such a high level or very professional environment and you were so young.
Katie: Yeah, I’m really lucky because Dan never treated me that way, my boss who hired me and then Secretary Shinseki never cheated me that way, and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, they never treated me that way. They had confidence in me and they felt, well, if you worked on a campaign for 13 months and if Barack Obama can trust you and if you’re hired out of the campaign, then we’re going to trust you. So, that was really helpful in my confidence, but there were a lot of people that, so another dynamic in government is political appointees versus career appointees, and I even hate to say that word ‘versus,’ but career staff, they’re there day in, day out, year end no matter who the president is, and they are working really hard, and then either every four or eight years, they have this wave of new political staff that come in and I can understand why they would be like, “Okay, it’s another young political appointee,” but honestly, the career staff were wonderful to me. They were like, “Great, you’re ready to dive in. You want to be,” and I did want to be at the Department of Veterans Affairs; you want to be at an agency that maybe isn’t the most glamorous but I think does some of the most important work, and so overall it was great, but there definitely were some times where I think people were like, “This girl is 24.” Cool, and you just have to push through it and just be like, “Yup, I don’t know what to tell you, but I promise you I can work really hard and I have had a ton of responsibility before, and that can happen again here too, and I’ll just let my work speak for itself.”
Priscilla: I love that attitude. It’s just like, yeah, let my work speak for itself. That’s such a great attitude to have and I really think that that’s how you build trust with people, is just showing up, doing the best that you can. But yeah, so I know that after the VA, you jumped to the White House, which is amazing, how did that happen?
Katie: That was another case of be nice work hard, don’t talk shit about people. So, I was recommended for the job. The woman who had been receptionist of the United States or ROTUS had done it for about a year. She had the opportunity to move to a different position. They needed to replace her. My understanding is that they weren’t having a ton of luck, and so someone said, “Hey, we really still got to find someone to be ROTUS. They need to be organized and firm but friendly,” and someone said, “Oh, I think Katie Herbek would be good at that and she’s over at the Department of Veterans Affairs but we should ask if she’s open to moving over,” and I interviewed with Jim Messina who was one of the deputy chiefs of staff, and he hired me, and then I moved over to the White House and, yeah, it really was like, if you can work hard and be kind, I think that goes a really long way when people need to fill jobs.
Priscilla: Totally agree. So, I find it so epic that your title was ROTUS. That’s pretty cool.
Katie: It’s pretty fun. There is POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, SCOTUS, and then ROTUS. I do always clarify people, so I was not the personal secretary, the person that sits outside the oval office, those were other humans who are, they were all awesome, so I sat in the West Wing lobby. If you walked in the West Wing, you see the person who is ROTUS, you see their face first.
Priscilla: So, I know that then you moved over to the Department of Education and you were a specialist assistant in the office of Innovation and Improvement. That seems like such a huge jump and very different. How were you able to make that transition?
Katie: So, I had been doing more logistical, operational type of roles, and I really liked them and it exposed me to a lot of things, but I wasn’t getting to dive into policy, and I wanted to make that change, so I really tried to just sit with what’s interesting to me, what do I like? I think you might hear that as a theme, and I tried to be reflective about that, and I found that I was really drawn to education issues and specifically, K-12 education and wanting to create an equitable experience in schools for as many kids, for every kid, because I loved school not just because I’m like a nerd, but Friendswood did have good schools, and even if things were like a little nutty at home through my parents’ divorce, I had good teachers, I had a good school, I liked being there. It was calm and it was a respite, and I really thought, like, every kid should have that. If they want to love school, they should get to love school. It’s fine if you don’t love school but if you want to, it should be a great place for you, and so I did a little bit of research and reached out to, also in administrations, there’s something called a White House liaison, and there’s one or two people that fill that role at every department and they are also political appointee and they’re engaging with the White House and they also help and fill out and staff the political appointee roles at agencies. So, I reached out to the White House liaison who was at the Department of Education and said, “I’m really interested in trying to dive into a policy role. I don’t have any experience in K-12, but I would really like to work on it. Are there any openings?” and it just so happened that in OII, they had what’s called a schedule C that they hadn’t filled, and I went over and spoke with Jim Shelton who was the assistant deputy secretary of OII and then he became the deputy secretary of the department and he is probably the smartest human I’ve met maybe second to Barack Obama. I mean, they’re just brilliant, but Jim was so smart and so experienced, and I talked to him and was like, “I don’t know anything about K-12 education, but I’d really like to learn, but I do know how to get things done, so if you need that in the office, I can come do that,” and Jim took a chance and had faith that I could figure out the policy piece, but that I could help him get things done, and so that’s how I moved over to OHI.
Priscilla: Okay, so let’s fast forward a little bit. I know you had five amazing years in the Ed policy space in DC, but eventually you decided that you wanted to pivot into something different and I know that you did found your startup which is Civic I/O and it’s still around, but you also decided to apply to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. It seems like such an unexpected step to go to business school after being in government and policy for so long, you could have gone to Harvard Kennedy School and gone down this different route, but you decided to go to business school, so what was driving you in that direction?
Katie: So, it was probably two different things, one, unfortunately, certain roles at a nonprofit, it’s really hard to bust through that to get a different type of role, and quite frankly, to be paid more, and another thing that I think that women are not taught to talk about is salary and really wanting to get paid their value, and somehow that’s not okay, and if you’ve been in public service, worked in nonprofits, you’re supposed to just be like, “I will get paid less than everyone else ever, and that’s okay,” and I think to an extent, if you’re not running a for-profit and you’re not rolling in cash, but I just sorta took a step back and was like, I think I’m really smart and I think that I work hard, and I should get a salary that reflects that, and it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen without some letters behind my name, to be very honest, and it was not going to happen at the job that I was at. It just felt like I’m in a bit of a rut, and so I could try to pivot on my own; I could try to go to the private sector or I could go back to school and learn some new skills and really get clear and tight on what I want to do next, even though that’s going to be the potentially more expensive route. And then, the startup really came from, my good friend works for a mayor and he had seen this gap in how people were not engaging with mayors on really innovative and entrepreneurial, interesting things, and then another friend who has also worked in government space, event space, fundraising, and the three of us said, I wonder if we could create a platform for specifically mayors, like local level staff and leaders to engage with in this technology, the forward-looking newness of it all, and we can partner with on it and get their approval, and so that’s how that started, and that coincided with me moving back to Texas and being like I can do the job at the non-profit remotely. I would like to go back to Texas and in my spare time, we’re going to work on this startup.
Priscilla: Okay, last question. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your early career years given that you’ve worked in so many different industries, have moved around a lot, and have had really cool experiences?
Katie: I think I’ve come to a place where what I would say right now as a 36-year-old in the middle of a pandemic, but who has an undergrad degree and a graduate degree and has worked for well over a decade, it is to find your true North for what motivates you and for what you want your job to be about, and then that is something that you can compare opportunities to and also how you’re going to approach that opportunity. Mine is equity. I am highly motivated by trying to create a more equitable world. I am not perfect at it because I’m a human being and I’m flawed, but when I think about my jobs, when I was, even on the campaign, I was deeply motivated by, we want everyone to have as much information as they can have and access to voting so that they can make a decision about who to vote for, and everyone has that. When I was at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I was learning a ton from Secretary Shinseki and I was also thinking about how do we create an equitable post to DOD world for veterans and for veterans’ families? How do we make sure that their educational services and their healthcare services are equitable? And then, when I was at the Department of Education, I leaned into that even more. But the through line for me is equity, and what that allows me to do is in my personal life but also my professional life, really think about, like, how am I spending my time? How am I going to approach this job? We didn’t even get to touch on my fellowship at True Wealth here in Austin when I was at school with Sarah and Carrie, but they are a VC, women-led VC, they invest in women-led companies in the healthcare and sustainability space, and even that work was really thinking about how can there be products that create more equitable health outcomes and positive health outcomes for people? How can those be available? And those are the kinds of things that Sarah and Carrie are investing in, and I don’t think you have to figure that thing out immediately, you don’t have to know when you’re 18, but when you can understand what’s important to you, it becomes really easy to say, “Should I take that job? Should I interview for that job? Will I be happy and motivated each day?” Because if the answer is yes, then you can really put your energy in going after those things, and if it’s no, then you can step away and make sure that the person that is for, they get to access that thing and you can keep working towards the things that are for you.
Priscilla: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing and for being with us today, Katie.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On our first ally guest episode, we hear from Doni Tavel, an Indianapolis native who moved to Los Angeles after college without a job to pursue an exciting career in music. In Los Angeles, Doni learned what it meant to be a personal assistant to a celebrity and eventually networked her way into an international marketing role at Interscope Records. Five years later, Doni was traveling the world with talented artists like Maroon5 and Sting, fulfilling her vision to make it in the music industry – all thanks to her grit, humility and hard work.
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Doni: And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Before I introduce today’s guest, I want to invite you to follow us on Instagram if you haven’t yet. Come join the conversation and the community that we’re building at ECM Podcast, that’s ECM Podcast, so that you don’t miss any new episodes or updates. Okay. So today’s episode is a Good one. We’re featuring our first ally guest, Doni Tavel. Doni and I crossed paths in Austin while both attending UT Austin for business school. And we took a class together on the science of happiness that required us to write a pretty in-depth biography about our lives that we also all had to read. And when I read her amazing story about moving to Los Angeles from Indiana, without any contacts, and then breaking into the music industry successfully, I just knew I had to ask her to be on the show. Doni tells us what it was like to visualize and then execute on an exciting goal to move up the ranks in international music marketing, and then travel the world with amazing artists. So, if you’ve ever thought about breaking into an industry that’s tough and that requires a lot of networking and knowing people, then this is a great episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Doni. Welcome to the show.
Doni: Thank you so much. And aloha from Oahu.
Priscilla: Oh my gosh. I’m so jealous you’re in Hawaii. That sounds amazing. But yeah, so Doni, why don’t you introduce yourself and just give us a little sense of your personal background?
Doni: So I am from Indianapolis, Indiana. That is where I grew up. I decided not to venture too far from home for undergrad. I went to Indiana University Bloomington, which was pretty fun, but I knew in college that I wanted to work in music. I had this epiphany that the things that I was good at were all of my business classes and the place that I spent all of my time and money was in the music world. So I thought if I can combine these two things, I am always going to be happy because the benefits of my job are going to be the things that I would otherwise pay for. And even on the toughest days in my job, it’s going to be stuff I’m excited to be doing. So I followed that kind of intuition out to Los Angeles right after school. And that’s where I kickstarted my journey.
Priscilla: Yeah. And since you realized this was something you wanted to do in college, did you end up doing a lot of internships to help you figure that out?
Doni: Absolutely. And I think that is so key. As soon as like how this epiphany, really, about working in music, the next day, I sat down at my computer and made a list of every single music company that I could find in Bloomington, which surprisingly there’s a fair number of music companies, that was very surprising to me. It’s very similar to, I guess, most college towns. It’s big when the college students are there and not so big when they’re gone. But I emailed the guy. It was a roots and reggae publicity company, and they also did a little bit of booking and I emailed him and just said, “Hey, I’m a college student. I’m super excited about music and I’m detailed-oriented, willing to do the work. And you don’t have to pay me. I will work for free. I just really would like to learn about what you do. Would you be open to having an intern?” And so I met up with him the following day after that, and he brought me just like a box of CDs and said, “Listen to all of these things,” and RIP CDs, remember those?
Priscilla: Oh my God, CDs.
Doni: And so I had literally used to ride around in my car listening to these CDs that this guy gave to me, trying to familiarize myself. And then the next thing he had me do was start working on some press releases for those and figuring out how to talk about those bands. And so it was a much smaller company. And then I used that as a stepping stone the following summer to get an internship in Chicago, which was at a company called Aware Records and A-Squared Management. And that I think was really the beginning of my official music career. It was a little bit risky because obviously I wasn’t in Chicago. So I told my parents, “I might be living in Chicago this summer for an internship.” But yeah, they had worked with a bunch of artists that I love, including John Mayer and Dave Matthews Band and just all of these incredible things. And I thought, “If I could work there.” They’re working in real music. It’s not like these unknown folky bands that I’ve never heard of. And so I went up there and worked with them all summer and I had an incredible mentor named Josh Terry. He was very candid all summer, was very hard as a manager, had very high expectations. And I think you learn some of the tough lessons that way, just about being detail-oriented and not dropping the ball and all of those things.
Priscilla: How did you end up learning about the different jobs that exist in the music industry, and are there a lot of jobs?
Doni: There are a ton of jobs in music. And I think one of the things that I always tell people who come to me asking for a career advice is to just get to know the business. There is an excellent book by Donald Passman. He is an entertainment attorney who wrote this book called Everything You Should Know About the Music Business. And he updates it every couple of years to reflect current technologies and current companies and just the shifts, the major shifts that have happened in music. And that’s a really good place to start because it teaches you all about the label business and now the streaming business. It teaches you about music publishing. It talks about the roles of accountants and lawyers and that sort of thing in the context of music. And that book is really written I think more for an artist to understand who the people are that should be on their team. But I think as any person who’s trying to break into the industry, the best thing you can do is to have an understanding of what types of companies exist.
And then when I was first starting, what I did is I would literally, after I had these big lists of, okay, there’s talent agencies, there’s record labels, there’s technology, I went through and I just looked at every single career site and just started reading job descriptions and saying, “What kind of jobs do they offer in these places?” Just researched the industry generally, know that there are record labels, know that there are agencies, know that there are publishing houses, know that there are, I mean, infinite things. Think about what your skill sets are and what you can bring to the table and what things excite you, and then just start reading some of those job descriptions. If you can think about some of the functions that you like, maybe it’s marketing, maybe you’re a finance person, start reading the job descriptions that will identify the skills and such that you can be cultivating to prepare for those jobs. And don’t start reading them when it’s time for you to start applying, start reading them before you’d be applying to full-time role. So by the time that you do get to those roles, you have all those skills that they’re looking for.
Priscilla: So after your college graduation, I know that you headed out to LA to start your career in music. What was that like moving to LA with no job?
Doni: I went to LA with nothing but a mission to get a job. I did not have friends or family or contacts, and that was super scary for me. I at first thought that I was going to move to Nashville because I thought to myself, “You know what, that mentor that I had in Chicago, he had since moved to Nashville and started a music company of his own.” And so I thought, “Wow, he can help me. He’s plugged in.” But then I thought, “You know what, what good is that going to do me?” I need to really trust that I have built up a skill set that is valuable and I know that I personally am motivated enough to at least try and make this happen. And so I, of course, had to lean on my parents a little bit because it’s pretty expensive to just move out to Los Angeles and the music industry doesn’t have the best track record of high paying jobs, especially at the entry level. So yeah, I went out there and had nobody, so it was a pretty lonely time. And I can remember just the apartment building where I was living in West Hollywood had this lovely rooftop, not I’d say lovely, I don’t know. It was very bare. There’s nothing up there. I just brought a blanket and would sit up there and look at the Hollywood Hills and think to myself, “I cannot wait for the day when I’m sitting in Los Angeles and I’m just at brunch with my friends and I can look around and think, ‘Oh, I made all these friends while I was here. I have a job and it’s going to be so great.'” And just visualize what my life would look like once I had gotten all of my ducks in a row. And it takes a lot of time and it will probably take a couple of positions to really figure out what your place is in the industry. The first role that I took definitely wasn’t my forever role. And I learned that really quickly even though that’s what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I would say give it time, believe in yourself, which is like such a cliché thing to say. But if you know that you work hard all the time and you can honestly sit with yourself and say, “I know that I’m motivated enough to go out there and make this happen,” then you can do it.
Priscilla: One of my favorite things that you just talked about and referenced is the power of visualization. And sometimes this sounds really like woo-woo and like hokey to people, but I am huge on visualizing what success looks like. And I just think it’s so powerful to be thinking about and feeling and getting excited about our dreams and our goals, because it does put you in a different kind of mindset. But anyway, how did you manage to get that first job in LA?
Doni: I would say that, as in probably most careers, it’s a lot about being in the right place at the right time. And especially in music, things move so quickly. So that was one of the reasons that I thought to myself, “I’m not going to get a job applying to things from Indiana. I need to be in LA. I need to be introducing myself to all of these people and make sure that the people who have access to these open roles know that I’m looking and that I’m available to start immediately.” So anybody that I met in LA, I basically said, “These are my interests. This is what I bring to the table. And I’m so excited to find — I’m really open to talking about any job opportunity that’s out there.” I think informational interviews, informational chats are so important. And as somebody who’s trying to learn about an industry, that’s one of the most valuable things you can do, because you might learn about a role that you never knew existed.
And so the first job that I had was in the talent management space. And the guy that I worked for actually managed Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker. And that was just like the most Hollywood experience I could ever imagine. I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is an artist that people know. And I’m working out of the office in the Hollywood Hills.” And I think that role came out of a mutual friend who is on a listserv of exclusive Hollywood postings. And it didn’t say the company and it did say the artists. But because I had gone to coffee with him and said, “Hey, I’m really open to anything. I’m interested in talent management. But if anything else comes up, please keep me in mind.” And I made sure everyone had a copy of my resume. And so as soon as he saw this job posting, he sent it over to me and said, “Hey, this is online. I don’t really know much about it, but feel free to reach out to them. Here’s the link.” And so I just started throwing my hat in the ring for things. I think it’s super important to be open to every conversation, especially at the beginning of your career. And don’t think that you’re above any role. Obviously know your worth and know your value, but I think it’s really important even just to have those conversations and go through interview process so that you get that experience and you can get a better understanding of which things you like and don’t like.
Priscilla: Okay. So your first role, I remember the title was executive assistant. What did that really mean? What was your day-to-day like in that first role?
Doni: Oh, man. So every day is a little bit as an assistant. And I think it’s really important to clarify if you are interviewing for an executive assistant role, if the nature of the role is purely professional and business or if it also includes the personal life of the executive you’re looking after. Mine was a little bit of both. We worked out of a home office, so it was an office of four people, a pretty small situation. Part of what I had to do was prepare coffee in the morning and accept all of the Amazon packages and things that came to the house. But then within my first week, one of our artists was recording a music video. And so everybody was offsite and I was alone in the office and they would call me and say, “Hey, you need to figure out how to get this thing to set.” And this was before Postmates and Uber Eats and all these things where you could just have a courier go and deliver stuff. So I’m sitting there like, “How am I going to get this to the set? I’m not allowed to leave the office.” I mean, you just never know, every day is different. But I think the key to being a really good assistant to anyone is to really get to know them on a personal level so that you can anticipate the stuff that’s going to make them happy or upset them. Or you can learn about how do they like to travel so that when you are booking travel for your executive, they only like to sit on the right side of the plane and the aisle seat, or they would like only transatlantic flight of on this style of plane. I mean, little tiny details that most people wouldn’t think about. It’s those little nuanced things that really show that you’re paying attention and that you care. And that’s what gets people to know that you’re going to go that extra mile, that you’re going to pay attention. You’re not just going to do enough to get it done, but you’re going to do it well and you’re going to make sure that everybody involved is taken care of. And not just for personal things like travel but for any part of your job. What is this, like a Peloton quote, how you do anything is how you do everything, I swear. So every task that was assigned to me, I thought I have to do the best possible job on this. Because if I don’t do a really good job on these little small tasks, I will never be entrusted to do the much bigger projects. So that’s how I looked at everything.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that makes total sense. People are always evaluating to see how you treat the little details, the small things to see if you can handle bigger projects. So that’s really cool that you had that intuition. So tell me about how you decided to end up leaving that role and then ending up at Interscope Records.
Doni: So I was starting to see that a lot of the decisions that we were making and a lot of the money that we needed to do certain activities was controlled by the record labels. And to me, that was really curious and I thought, “I would like to know how and why those decisions are made.” And so I just started looking at what roles are open at these major labels. I thought it would be really interesting to go and work for a bigger company that had a little bit more structure, because there’s always the possibility of transferring within a company. So if you come in doing one role and you do it for a year and you’re like, “not exactly my cup of tea,” at a big company, there’s always a possibility of an internal transfer if you apply and if the company, obviously, lets you do that kind of thing. But I just thought it’d be interesting to see bigger structure.
And so I had started to apply for a couple of things through the Universal Music Group career website. So Interscope sits under the umbrella of Universal and I just one afternoon was going to a bar for a birthday party of a mutual friend. And so I sat down at this bar, drinking a margarita and was talking to another girl who is there, telling her about what I do in LA, and that I was really interested in a career switch and a career advancement. And she said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. What kind of jobs are you applying for?” And I said, “I’ve applied to a couple of things on Universal Music Group’s website, including this job and that job.” And she said, “Huh, I posted that job. That’s really interesting.” And I thought, “Oh my God. What do you mean you posted the job? Like you also applied for it or what do you mean?” She said, “I’m a recruiter for Universal.” And in that moment, like all of the Hollywood stars aligned. That thing that I said at the beginning, being in the right place at the right time. That evening, she said, “Send me a resume. I have a different job that I think you’d be a really great fit for. I would love for you to apply.” And she said she’d been having some trouble finding the right candidate for it.
So I sent her my resume that night, like immediately when I got home. Tuesday, I had an interview, and Thursday, I think it was, I had a job offer. So it was super quick and it really just goes back to that whole being in the network, being open to conversations, putting out into the world what it is that you’re looking for and what you want, and just making sure that you’ve done all of the work in advance to set yourself up for if any opportunity becomes available, you’re just ready to jump on it and take advantage of it.
Priscilla: I really love that because it shows how important it is to really get out there and talk to people and let them know about your goals and your dreams, especially when it comes to an industry like the music industry that’s hard to break into. You were not scared of going out and telling people what you were interested in doing. And that was a big factor in your success, so I think that’s great.
Doni: Definitely takes some practice, learning how to ask for what you want and doing it tactfully. You don’t just want to go out here asking the universe, “Hey, give me this, give me that. I’m entitled.” You always want to stay away from that. But demonstrating that you are a valuable asset to a company and that you are excited and passionate to work hard and get to whatever point it is that you’re aspiring to, I think that’s how you land those productive and helpful conversations, where people are ready to turn around and be like, “Oh my gosh, let me help you get there.”
Priscilla: Okay. So tell us about your time at Interscope and what were the lows and the highs of that time.
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Doni: So I came into Interscope as an assistant. So I made a kind of horizontal move from one executive assistant position to another executive position assistant. But I came in on the international team at Interscope and I had such an awesome boss. And so I worked for him just like I did in my other role, I was exceptionally detail-oriented. I paid really close attention to who he was as a person and kind of the things that made him feel like I was really focused and everything was organized and taken care of.
But one of the other things, in his office, I was really the gateway between everybody else, all of the talent teams and all of the internal teams and all of that kind of stuff before they got to my boss. And so I always wanted to try and be a credible source of information to them. I never wanted people to feel like I was just an obstacle in their way of getting what they needed. And so I started working really hard to cultivate relationships with artists’ managers who would call in with the other executives from the company who are looking for my boss, and positioned myself as someone that they could come to with a question, given the understanding I may know. And if I don’t know, I will get them an answer and I will get it quickly. I never want it to just be the person that answered the phone before they got to my boss. And that paid off really well, going that extra mile, staying the extra late hours, making sure that I knew exactly who everybody was right from the beginning. And that is super hard when you’re an assistant is trying to learn really fast, who all of the contacts are that call and who are the high stakes phone calls that always need to get patched through your boss, and who do you put on the roll calls to do for later, getting all of that sorted so that as you transition into being their assistant, it seems like super seamless. That goes a really long way.
But yeah, so our team was pretty small. And then about a year in, one of the people on our team decided to move over to artist management. And so a role opened up and I had only been at the company for a year. So in no stretch of my imagination did I think, “Oh man, I’m going to go for this role.” But literally the same day that I found out, my boss came to me and said, “Hey, this person’s leaving. I want you to step up into the role.” Which to me was just like, “Oh my gosh,” that is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me and the biggest ode to working hard. I can’t believe he wants me to do this. And that’s obviously tough for him because now he’s going to have to find an assistant, so he must really believe in my ability to get this done.
And I think one of the interesting things in music is you usually go from being an assistant to a coordinator, and then you might work with somebody else on projects, and then you become into more of a manager role. And so I was jumping straight from an assistant to a manager role where I would have my own roster of clients. And so that, it was a pretty big jump and I moved up a lot faster than the peer group that I came into the company with. And that was a little bit isolating because you felt like man, I’m still struggling and I still want to like hang out with all these people, but you’re also now dealing with such different work projects that I think it was a really interesting transition from being an assistant to a manager.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s definitely a big leap. So when you transitioned into this role, how did you fill in the learning gaps that you had and how did you learn to be successful in something that you hadn’t done before?
Doni: Definitely not being afraid to ask for help. I had teammates who were much younger than me and much older than me. And I asked everyone. I mean, there was a lot that I had picked up on from being the assistant in that department. So I had seen the budgets before. I had seen the flights and I had seen kind of examples of the itineraries for the promotion trips and listened in on marketing calls. So there was a lot of stuff that I was broadly aware of. But there’s always stuff, there’s lingo that you don’t know. There’s acronyms and there’s partners that you’re not aware of. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s different strategies for every single artist. And if you haven’t been — like, if the artist has been part of the label for a long time and you were not in on those conversations at the onset, you have to figure out, okay, what is it about this artist that I need to know? So you’re doing a lot of research on your own, which also meant listening to a lot of music, which is always good.
But yeah, I think the fake it till you make it thing is important. I think confidence inspires confidence. If you act you know what you’re doing, people will believe that you know what you’re doing. And if you don’t actually know what you’re doing, you better not be afraid to ask. Because if you do it wrong, everybody’s going to know real quick.
Priscilla: Tell us about the glamorous international travel moments that you had and the artists that you got to work with.
Doni: One of the wonderful things about working on the international team is that you are doing exactly that, working on an international scale. And so as I was starting, I had to take a couple of training trips. So our team, we had promotion managers and marketing directors, which later became one role. And we would actually do all of the planning for those big international trips while we were in Los Angeles. And then we would execute everything in those plans in the markets where all of the plans were taking place. So we would actually be the people that traveled with the artists into market to explain here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s the expected result. Here’s how long it’s going to take. Here’s the snacks that are going to be there, literally everything.
And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work. A lot of the time when you have a big travel party and you have well-known people that are in the spotlight all the time, it becomes pretty difficult to do commercial travel. You get stuffed a lot, and it’s not a super pleasant experience for artists that are traveling through commercial airports. And so I ended up getting to fly on my first private plane on that trip, which was such a pinch me moment. And I think that was the first time that I felt, “Wow, all of this work that I have done in terms of leaving home and moving to LA by myself, and having this really little tiny salary at my first job, and then going over-preparing for the Interscope interview and working really hard as an assistant. Now look at all of this stuff. It’s starting to pay off.” I mean, you really had these full circle moments that are like, wow. This is a result of my hard work and I’m just going to take a moment and breathe it in and experience gratitude for it. It’s so cool. And when you’re doing something that you love, it doesn’t feel like work even when you are working and not sleeping.
So that I think was probably the first most like awesome moment. But of course, as time goes on, there are different cycles for each album. So you’ll have the time period leading up to an album release. Then you have the album release and there’s the time period after. And then the artist goes back, they’ll either go touring to support that album. And then after that, they’ll go back into another writing period before they release another album. So you switch from artists. I worked with Lana Del Rey, which was very fun. I had the opportunity to work with Imagine Dragons and Sting, which was like another pinch me moment of, oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is my life. He is absolutely the most exquisite person. He’s so intelligent and so talented. And it’s such a privilege to get to work with people like Sting and his entire team.
So I think there’s a ton of highs that I can think about. And those are the things that stick out to me, way more than the lows. I think the only lows that I can think about are really just that when you’re traveling abroad and traveling as often as we were to get these trips done, you have to give up a lot of your ability to commit to things in your home area. So I wasn’t able to be around all of my friends in LA that I had finally started to cultivate. I couldn’t commit to going to weddings and I couldn’t commit to being at home around the holidays for the entire period of time. Because if I had to go be with an artist for a promotional activity, that was it. I had to get on the plane and go.
So that got tough at times, but I do think it goes back to choosing a career where you really love the subject of what you do. Because even on those hardest nights when you are staying up, you’re sitting in a hotel room that’s like a little bit less optimal than you might’ve selected for yourself, you’re working on something that is a fun challenge. It’s something that you’ve worked for a long time. And so even if it’s really hard, even if it’s really, “Ugh, I’m missing my cousin’s wedding,” it’s a very cool moment because you’re getting to do the thing that you worked so hard to do.
Priscilla: Doni, thank you so much for being with us today. You have a really refreshing take on what it’s like to forge a career that’s exciting but also work really hard to enjoy the fruits of your labor. So thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.
Doni: It has been such a joy to share my story with you and to all the listeners. It’s a tough industry but it is so worth it. So Priscilla, thank you so much for having me.
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