Ellyn Canfield is director of events for the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Events, where she is responsible for coordinating strategy and execution of the city’s role in major events. After getting her start in NYC as an intern for then-councilmember 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. We were introduced through a mutual friend when I was writing an article about reasons that millennials should consider government jobs. Ellyn’s quote made the cut and we met up for breakfast at the Toby’s Estate in Williamsburg shortly after. I’ve been candid about my views on the election and the fact that one benefit is that it has inspired more women (and men!) to run for office, go to town halls, sign petitions, and get involved with politics.
How did you end up at The Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management? What was your career path?
The short answer is that I started interning for Bill de Blasio when he was a city councilmember in 2008 and stuck around! I interned while getting my MPA at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, where I had planned on studying foreign policy. However, I feel in love with city politics and government and took advantage of the huge variety of opportunities I was given on what was at that time a very small team around de Blasio. I did social media, constituent work, operations, scheduling, advance – a bit of everything. Eventually, after getting more involved on the fundraising and campaign side of his operation, I left his office to grow my events and fundraising portfolio.
When de Blasio won his mayoral campaign, I jumped at the chance to rejoin is team, this time focusing on events. I started by managing the team that produces mayoral and First Lady special events (from speeches to holiday parties to women’s history month) and then transitioned to my current role a year ago.
What is a workday as Ellyn like? Please walk me through a day!
What I love best about my job is that no two days are the same! A day spent entirely in my cubicle is pretty rare, which is a good fit for me (and my propensity to online shop if I’m sitting down for too long). On any given day I might be leading interagency meetings, attending site visits for upcoming events, meeting with producers of prospective events, working with my team on individual portfolios, and probably stopping by an event in the evening.I’ve spent many hours in freezing cold tents serving as event command centers- it’s not always glamorous!
What are your responsibilities as director of events for the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management?
I lead a team that coordinates strategy and execution of the City’s role in major events – from New Year’s Eve in Times Square to the 4th of July Fireworks. We work to make sure that every event that takes place in the 5 boroughs is one the Mayor is proud to host – that events are safe, sustainable, and smooth. A lot of our work involves communicating between entities- from security, to NYPD to the lead creative teams. We also serve as the first stop for producers who are hoping to bring new events to NYC. In a few instances when the City produces a major event, such as a tickertape parade (Go Mets!), I become the lead event producer and my team drops everything to produce the entire event.
How did you land your role?
My boss, Michael Paul Carey the ED of Citywide Events and Street Permitting, had just started his role when it was announce the Pope would be visiting NYC. He knew my ability to produce events with lean resources and asked me to join his team to lead the Papal visit events and to grow the liaison role of the office, essentially creating my role for me. Anytime someone is willing to create a job just for you, you’ve got to take it! We’ve had lots of adventures, but nothing will compare to the scale of work and the huge honor of working on the Papal visit.
What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
Adaptability is key. When working in government, particularly from a position like the Mayor’s Office, things are always changing. I work with creative people in a political environment to interpret linear government regulations – my end goal is not always clear cut. I’m constantly reevaluating positions, relationships, and priorities to make sure that the end goal of super successful events is met.
What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?
Maniacal attention to detail and a penchant for over-communicating. I think I came out of the womb that way, but I’ve also had a lot of great mentors who’ve helped me hone these skills as well. Also, mad Excel skills.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?
I learned to stop apologizing all the time. Women in particular can easily walk around all day more or less apologize for existing: “I’m sorry” for speaking up in a meeting, for disagreeing, for delivering bad news, for defending an unpopular position. Especially in my job now, I simply can not make everyone happy, and often leave stakeholders disappointed – and that means I’m doing my job. I’ve learned to save my apologies for when they are really necessary (and they certainly are sometimes) and to do my best to otherwise work in a way that is consistent, transparent, and fair.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
That it’s supposed to be hard! Feeling a little gritty and exhausted is a sign to me that I’m doing it right, not that something isn’t a fit or that I’ve got to move on to a new role. I spent a lot of time in college and grad school thinking about the “ideal” job and role and mission and panicking when my first jobs weren’t that. The reality is there are a lot of ways you can do good work, and it’s not always thrilling. I try to keep on grinding, while making sure I take time periodically to look at the overall picture and mission of my career and realigning my next steps.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The amazing Erica Hamilton, ED of City Year NY any my former boss, used to tell me “don’t ask, don’t get” and it’s something I internalized deeply. There are a lot of things that we’d like to see happen – whether for our own careers, for others, or in our personal lives, and we spend a lot of time and energy scheming to make them happen, rather than just ask for them directly from those who have the authority to act. It’s super scary! But immensely rewarding. Ask for the raise! Ask for the coffee with a potential mentor! Ask for a stretch assignment! Ask for extra dressing on the side! Ask for you name to be spelled correctly and your position to be respected! You won’t always get it, but you’ll know you did your part. Erica had to concede I’d learned a bit too well from her when I effectively used this line to request a performance bonus!