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Success Talk: Ellyn Canfield
Director of Events for the Mayor's Office of Citywide Events in New York City
Alexis Rai interviews Ellyn Canfield about her career path that led her to be the NYC Powerhouse that she is today and how she cultivates her success on a day-to-day basis.
Ellyn Canfield is an event producer, government hack, and voracious consumer of media. As Director of Events for the Mayor's Office of Citywide Events, Ellyn Canfield coordinates strategy and execution of the City's role in major events. After getting her start in NYC as an intern for then-council member Bill de Blasio, Ellyn spent several years as fundraiser and event producer, including work with Tulsi Gabbard for Congress and City Year NY. She re-joined the de Blasio administration in January 2013 and has since led events strategy through the Office of Special Projects and Community Events and her current role at Citywide Events. Ellyn is a graduate of the NYU Wagner School of Public Service and Oregon State University. Side hustles include anything that allows her to not wear a suit: private event planning and renovating a 100-year-old Catskill farmhouse.
You are the extraordinary Director of Events for the Mayor's Office of New York City. I don't know how serious you take that but it's so huge!
My actual title is long. Director of Events for the Mayor's Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management. It used to just be called "The Office of Big Events" and I want to call it that again because it's such a cool name. I lead a team that coordinates on behalf of the Mayor's office and essentially acts as a representative for the Mayor's office for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the marathon, the fireworks, and hundreds of other events that are very large like music festivals, etc. All these events have amazing, private producers, so we are really working with them to make sure that New York can continue to be a place where amazing, innovative events happen. I am also working on behalf of the city to make sure that the event producers are doing things the way that the city wants them done.
How large is your team?
The team that I manage now is small. It's three people and they each have a portfolio of about 100 events. We go far and wide in what we do. We sit within a slightly larger team of about 20 people. Part of our office also issues the permits for all the street events.
It seems like there are a lot of departments that involved in making these extravagant events happen in the city and New York is known for being over the top with everything that we do. It sounds like you probably deal with some of the most intricate and interesting details of events that seem like they may be easy to produce. I am sure it takes a lot of work.
These events are known and broadcasted to the world. A lot of planning goes into them and people work all year long. People are planning the Macy's parade all year long. All those events have huge teams. It's really fun getting to work with so many different teams of people.
I know that you have a very busy schedule. What are three things that you do every day to contribute to your success?
I am flaky about some things like exercise, but without fail, I drink so much water. It's the easiest thing we can do to try to keep ourselves alive and mindful. I drink a lot of water, All day, every day. I practice gratitude which is something that I force myself to do throughout the day. I think it's key to staying sane. The third thing I do every day is to make a list of some type.
I am always making a list of some sort and I now realize that it is one of the things that I do to contribute to my success every day.
Definitely. I am such a list-maker. Sometimes people are like "Wow, you're so organized," and I'm like "Or is it the opposite? Is my memory so bad that I have to come up with all these crazy ways to organize myself?" I trick people into thinking I am super organized. [both laugh]
I have learned in entrepreneurship that it's about organizing systems. Whatever systems work, they help you to organize yourself and your work. That has been the magic of it all.
Yes. I like your question. I think it is important because a lot of advice for women is directed as very prescriptive like "Do these three things, do this and do that..." and I think you are right, it's about figuring out systems that work for you. Whether that is specific schedules or broad things that work to make your life flow. You have to be generous with what you think of those things as. Less about the "7 Principles of Highly Effective People", which I think a lot of them are valid and I do practice a lot of them, but more about honoring your own intuition about what I need. Figuring that out is important.
Thank you for mentioning that. A major part of me highlighting all types of women is to give other women different scopes. Figure it out for you. Every woman that I have interviewed so far has been completely different in so many ways but we are all experiencing our definition of success and it is not what we have been taught in society, necessarily. It is a little bit easier to look around and see different examples for you to take what resonates, leave what doesn't, and shape your own experience. It doesn't matter what industry you are in or what level you are at in your career. If you are succeeding based on your definition, you don't have to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You succeed because you have done it in your own world, not because of society's standards. I think that's important.
If you're setting your own terms for success then you can also set your own terms for what gives you that success. I think it's always good to be challenged by hearing what other people think about their success.
When did you begin working with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray?
I started interning for de Blasio when he was a City Council member almost exactly ten years ago. I was going to grad school at NYU and I wanted to intern for the City Council. At the time, I thought that I was going to do foreign policy work but I decided to do something in local government. I interviewed with three City Council members in New York and was offered all three internships. Shocking. Free labor. [both laugh] I picked the person who had the longest Wikipedia page because I didn't know who any of them were, and it was Bill de Blasio. I feel like it was one of those moments that are pure luck mostly, although I tried to make an informed decision. Much of my career has been me working for him or his wife for the past ten years. I was an intern in his City Council office then I worked on the campaign for a little bit. You find a lot of people, especially in New York, who do both--work on the political campaign and in the government office--which are different experiences. I worked on his campaign in 2009 and then in the public advocates' office as his special assistant for a year, then eventually I was Director of Scheduling, then left and did event planning and fundraising for a few years, and then came back almost exactly four years ago when he won the mayoral election.
What has been your favorite event to work on for the City so far?
For the first two years in administration, I ran the office that did de Blasio's special events. That's the Gracie Mansion events. The past two years, I've been working on the big events. For the Mayor and the First Lady, I helped spur an idea that is still going which is Halloween at Gracie Mansion. It was so much fun to plan. I got to work with crazy actors and do a bunch of creative stuff and we literally turned Gracie Mansion into a haunted house. It was free, open to the public. We brought in the Department of Homeless Services so a lot of kids from shelters got to come. We got costumes donated. It was one of those events that was so much fun at every level and crazy. My favorite event in my current position is the Thanksgiving's Day Parade although it's a long day. It's fun to see the whole parade. I walk along the parade route during the day and it's fun to see people from all over the world who come out early to watch the parade.
You mentioned having children from shelters participate in Halloween at Gracie Mansion. I would imagine that you have been involved with a lot of philanthropic missions while working with the Mayor. Do you have a humanitarian passion that makes your heart melt?
One thing that I love so much about my job is that I get to work with many different types of issue areas. A cool thing about doing the events for Gracie Mansion is Pride Month. Some of the Pride Month events have been my favorite. Our administration's work around LBGT issues has been something that I am extraordinarily proud of. I got to plan three weddings in a day on the day that Marriage Equality federally happened. It's something that both Bill and Chirlane hold near and dear to them and something that we embrace so much as an administration. It's an issue that I care about so much in my personal life so it's always a real honor to work on those issues.
That's cool. I am an advocate for the LBGT community. A lot of my friends are a part of the community. All the exhibitions of love that have been shown toward the LBGT community in the most recent years and the multitude of voices that have come up and been beacons for the community have been so beautiful to witness. It's an awesome time that we live in. That's one of the most beautiful areas of humanity that we have gotten to see grow exponentially during our lifetime.
That's so true. It's important to be involved in it at any level. I have been able to work on issues that I may not have been at the table for being a white woman who is not from New York. I am much more interested in elevating other people’s voices whom I know are on the front lines of work. Getting to do that as a part of my day-to-day with the administration is a really cool thing. People are doing incredible things in the world and if I can be just a little bit of a microphone for that, then I feel good about that.
We are both very lucky to exist in spaces and communities where we are surrounded by so many people doing amazing things and it's almost impossible to not what to do what you can to amplify the impact that they are working to make.
What is your favorite part of your position?
My day to day is so different. That is something that I love about my job. It's never the same and that brings me a lot of happiness.
I love that too. Any given day, anything can happen.
What has been the most memorable or impactful moment in your career so far?
Negotiating for the job that I have right now. At the time, I was hoping to get a different job in the administration and I put a lot of energy into that. I didn't get it and I was disappointed and then had the opportunity to get this job. It was tumultuous and I had to realign what I wanted and realize that I was holding on to this job that I had wanted in a way that did not serve me well at all. I wasn't using that energy to work on getting the job that I ended up with which is a job that I really love. I also had to do some salary negotiation around that time and for the first time, I felt like I was able to really ask for what was fair compensation for the work that I was doing in the role that I had. I was really proud of myself for doing that. It is a hard lesson to learn and to feel like you did it well feels really good.
Absolutely. Congratulations on coming out on top of that.
Thank you. You know, I am making millions now. JUST KIDDING. [both laugh]
I don't doubt it in your near future.
The post-government career, bring it on!
Or it could go a way that we may not see right now but we are building all the while.
I'll take it.
What has been the greatest challenge that you have encountered so far?
Early in my career, I really grinded. I worked eighty to one hundred hours a week and was paid a really low wage for any job in New York. I was really stressed out and I was working so much. I worked to it being detrimental to my health. Not much is worth that. It took me a while to figure out how to hustle instead of grind. There are times when you do have to grind, I still have those crazy weeks, but I had to figure out how to do the work that I wanted to do and not be completely burnt out at the age of 24, which is what was happening.
I try to remind myself often to work smarter not harder.
It is. We exist in high-level performance jobs and we have a lot to do that must get done which can result in a burn-out if you don't go about it in a wise way.
What was your dream career as a young girl?
This is so cheesy. I wanted to be the President of the United States.
No, that's so appropriate. [both laughing]
I wrote all over my bedroom walls when I was little, "Ellyn Canfield First Female U.S. President in 2036". How sad? I didn't think we were going to have female President before then? I hope that we are going to have a female President before then.
Or a rapper. [both laughing] I had a name for a rap group as well, which I saw as a career.
Can you please share the name for your rap group?
Yes. It's just my initials which isn't very good. E.C.M.C. which could be cool...
Wait, that is super cute. It's like you were born with the perfect rap name so why not use it? [both laughing]
I would love to see a female President before 2036, however, if you happen to be the first one, I am here for it. I see it for you so don't give up on that dream yet. You are right in line for it. You are still working in government.
What is the greatest advice that you have received from another woman?
When I worked at a non-profit called City Year, the Executive Director was a woman named Erica Hamilton. She was an amazing, strong woman who came from the banking world to non-profit so she wasn't timid in the way she approached things. She would always say "don't ask, don't get" which is so basic but it has applied to so many areas of my life. Any time that I am disappointed, either in my career, with a project that I am working on, with what I am trying to achieve at work, or even in my personal life, I realize I haven't asked for the thing that I want of the person that can make a change in that area. It has stuck with me. For women, especially, we have fear about asking for what we want and what we need or advocating strongly for other people as well.
That's so powerful. I feel like that has been an undertone on a few things that I have been dealing with recently. A part of my realization has been "You cannot expect others to show up in a clear space until you have become clear about what you expect". Once you understand exactly what you want, you can ask for it and have a better chance of getting it.
It's a challenge when you realize that maybe you haven't articulated what you want and maybe it's because you don't know what you want. That's a different meditation. [both laughing] A part of "don't ask, don't get" is you must know what you want. If I am negotiating something on behalf of City Hall, I need to be clear of what the objectives are. Doing that work is just as powerful as getting what you want.
More powerful because it's the vehicle which will get you to it. It took me a while to shape my company the way that really felt true. Not that it didn't feel kind of true before but I knew that there were things that needed to be defined a little more for me to get the results that I was looking for. It took a series of "What do you want? What's your end goal? What's your purpose? Who are you trying to be at the end of this? What story do you want to tell for yourself?" because that is all it is at the end of the day. We decide when we are children that we are going to be this "thing" and then we live through the process of becoming that "thing" and if you're not specific then you go through a void of a process. You're just existing.
Absolutely. It's such a work in progress and it's stressful a little bit. [both laugh] We often externalize frustration when we should internalize it. I think that's a tricky thing to say because telling women to internalize frustration can be problematic. We do it enough.
It's in a smart way though. Like, strategically.
Exactly. Less frustration and more being honest, giving yourself the time. Everything that you went through behind this project took a lot of time and you were willing to go at your own pace.
It's not about keeping the frustration internal but creating a system for yourself to go through those feelings on the inside. What is one thing that you can do to move forward? I recently had a freak out over our e-newsletter and in the middle of the freakout, I said to myself, "you are adding the option of 'fear to fail' into this equation and you need to delete that; you know that it's not true". At that moment, I realized that it wasn't just the e-newsletter but that was the one thing that I allowed to be my target for my frustration.
Yes! That's what happens. At least you know that it's not the e-newsletter. If anything, that is a part of it. Our minds do that, they pick something to go crazy about and then turn it into everything else. [both laughing] I like that, I'm writing that down. "Take the fear of failure out of the equation.
"you are adding the option of 'fear to fail' into this equation and you need to delete that; you know that it's not true".
What advice would you give a young woman looking to grow a career in the government industry?
I think government and politics is a great place for women right now. There is a lot of energy and excitement. There is a real need for more women in government and decision-making positions. My advice would be to do it! If you want to grow, be mindful that this isn't a career where you will go through reviews for promotions. You must keep an eye out for your next opportunities and be mindful of the fact that you will have to be the master of your own career.
That's excellent advice. I completely agree with having to create your own space. That's important for bringing our dreams to life.
What's your next career goal to accomplish?
I want to own a business. I want to be my own boss for a little while. I have a few different ideas and directions that I have been thinking about. I know it's something that I want to do at some point in my career, whether it's what's next or not.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
Yes, I do. At certain points in my life, I've either led a larger team or been in a leadership position. I think we are all leaders. We lead ourselves first and foremost. Whether it's clear-cut ways or not, we end up leading in different areas.
I like to think that I parent myself. I can hear my parent-self telling me stuff. Which is also helping me to prepare for being a parent. [both laughing]
What's your favorite mantra?
Mmmmm. Lately, it's "peace is every step".
Thank you. I'm going to carry that with me.
What's your favorite color?
It's the color I always go to. I always wear all black but I wear red from time to time. It's my go-to for a fun color.
My favorite color is lime green and I never wear it but I have cool stuff in lime green like my scissors and my toothbrush.
What's your theme song/favorite song of the moment?
I don't have a theme song. I am never that cool. I have recently discovered The Alabama Shakes. I am so into them. That song "Hold On", that whole album, very positive.
Thank you so much for interviewing with me. You have been phenomenal.
I am so proud to do it.