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.