As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amaia Stecker.
Amaia Stecker has more than a decade of experience planning a wide variety of events for corporate, nonprofit and social organizations. With more than 13 years in event production and nine on Capitol Hill, she approaches each event holistically with an eye for detail and a passion for making the experience purposeful.
After three years as a staffer in the House of Representatives, Amaia earned her Masters of Arts in Government and her Masters of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University while working full time in the US Senate from 2008 to 2013. Her experiences in the halls of Congress and the corporate boardroom have refined her approach to event planning in a detail-oriented, modern, and innovative way.
In 2015, Amaia founded Pilar & Co., an event planning agency specializing in innovative association and government relations events that achieve a defined purpose. As the Managing Partner, she leads a team with the connections, knowledge and expertise to build a strategic resource development plan, and use a wide variety of tactics to match the mission of the organization to like minded sponsors and donors.
It’s not just about the event, but rather challenging our clients to stretch the limits of their current approach to resource development to better enable them to reach meaningful, measurable goals.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Entrepreneurship is something I grew up with. My grandparents on both sides started their own businesses and my father owned a retail business. The risk and reward that comes with it is something I’ve understood from a very young age and always been comfortable with. As a direct result, I’ve wanted to be my own boss for as long as I can remember. I’m not one to hide from challenges or keep my constructive opinions to myself so entrepreneurship is a natural fit.
After working on Capitol Hill and with associations for multiple years, I found myself excelling in “the other duties as assigned” category of planning events. I had been a scheduler and understood the pain points of members trying to advocate on their Hill Day. This became the niche that I directly could focus on to help everyone have a better experience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A group from a state with a large number of Congressional Districts was laser focused on meeting with as many of their Representatives as possible while in DC.
“We want to meet with EVERYONE!” They said. “Fill the day. ”We’ll sleep on the plane home.”
Then, on the day before the event, I realized that by focusing on reaching their desired meeting goal, which I achieved (naturally), I hadn’t left ANY kind of a break. Not even enough time for them to have lunch! They were booked for back-to-back meetings from 9 AM to 5:15 PM, 11 meetings total.
Nonetheless, they took every meeting and proceeded straight to the canapes after they arrived at the end of day reception at 6 PM. They were troopers, even if they did look a bit worse for wear by then.
My biggest lesson from this: do not always follow the client’s directions. Listen to them and work to fully understand their needs and goals, but then apply your expertise. That’s why you were hired after all. Sometimes the client’s tactical goals (in this case a full day of meetings) aren’t the best for them or the organization at large and they don’t see the bigger picture. I have to imagine the last four meetings might have been a little less effective than they’d hoped.
Every event needs a purpose. Ask, why are we doing this? Evaluate that answer against the larger organizational goals. In this particular example, 11 meetings in one day is damn impressive, but does that have a stronger impact than eight high quality meetings with effective (fed) advocates?
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I was always the kid who asked “Why?” I love to understand things to their core, relating to their true purpose. In all honesty, I’m still that way and I am still asking why to every answer I’m given. I’m obsessed with fully understanding and won’t let go until I have an answer to “Why?”
One day I stumbled upon Priya Parker’s book Why We Gather and IDEO’s Creative Confidence podcast while striving to learn more about design thinking. It was reassuring to find that I wasn’t alone in what I call “the pursuit of why.” I think many forget that events serve the organization, working to advance the mission and organizations serve their members/customers. Understanding these “whys” helps cut through the noise and distractions, making the actual experience invaluable for everyone.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
To help others get to their mission, vision and purpose. I did this by starting with events. As I stated earlier, events exist to advance the mission and vision (the PURPOSE) of the organization. Successful clients are able to reinforce this approach beyond the event itself, letting it take on a broader definition than “people gathering in a shared space for a specific set of time.”
They are able to understand that the weekly staff meeting is a chance to advance the mission; the daily newsletter advances the mission; small decisions by volunteers; sweeping changes implemented by leadership; all of these hinder or advance the purpose of the organization.
As I’ve been able to help clients understand and believe in this mindset, they’ve stopped doing things “because we’ve always done that” and instead started trying new tactics. Some have even begun the seemingly revolutionary process (for government organizations and association at least) of reevaluating the language of their mission and vision to make it reflective of current times and current needs of their members.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Ultimately the challenge begins and ends with me. I can make a big deal of a situation and let it run the show or I can take charge of what I can control and execute. I have a mantra to remind myself in the heat of the moment, “This is not the hardest thing you’ve ever done.” It’s oddly reassuring and helps me refocus.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Everyone has their own challenges. I think the most important thing to recognize, despite our external category labels (i.e. working parents, DINKS, Single, Grandparents, etc) that we’re all going to experience this pandemic in our own unique ways. By understanding others are having their unique experience that is very real to them, and having empathy for that experience, you’re able to address the situation in a way that is effective for all parties involved.
I definitely had a lack of motivation during the early spring that led to me spending most of my time consumed with Candy Crush and Days of Our Lives. Without client needs or demands I was quite lost. Fortunately, I rediscovered my personal yoga practice and my love of reading once I ran out of lives in the game.
Physical movement and intellectual stimulation helped me to regain some of my “healthier” interests. Listening to podcasts or taking conference calls while walking outside became a regular part of my routine. I also added in virtual pilates and barre classes to keep my mind engaged and challenged as well as my body. These provided positive aspects to focus on in regard to my complete change in daily routine and focus.
I am a terrible eavesdropper, so I’ve also invested in a pair of noise cancelling headphones so as to quit inserting myself into my husband’s zoom calls. How embarrassing, but despite 30 years of telling myself to stop listening to others’ private conversations, I CANNOT help myself. Not hearing it to begin with has seemed to help some. :)
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As it became more apparent that our society would be fundamentally disrupted by COVID-19 I definitely went through a stages of grief process in March and April. I was angry at the events industry for not having my same realizations at the time and really anything tangentially related. Whether or not that was a logical reaction, it was my experience and acknowledging that I was having this reaction allowed me to process my thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner.
Ultimately, I did enough introspection to realize that I have a much larger passion for supporting women and helping them find the confidence to achieve their goals, whatever they might be. Without this time to process, experience my emotions, and to do what I needed to do, it’s unlikely that I would have made changes that are ultimately going to ensure that I succeed as an entrepreneur and individual in the future.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As a regular yoga practitioner, I’ve relied heavily upon concepts of power and control. There are things I can control and things I cannot. My personal power should always be preserved for those situations and scenarios in which I can actually take legitimate action. Some believe this is synonymous with your personal energy, but I am intentional with “personal power” here because in the practice for ceding power to what we refer to in yoga as the “other”, which is another person, idea or external force that you are letting impact your approach to life and your circumstances.
I know that the coronavirus has instilled fear in all of us, but to varying degrees. Some are pretending it’s not happening, resisting orders to socially distance and wear masks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know of some who haven’t left their house since February. The fear of contracting the virus, or spreading it to someone at high risk, for both parties has taken power over their lives, dictating their behaviors, thoughts, words, emotions, reactions. Their fear or lack thereof is what is in control.
Then there are those muddled in the middle of the pack who are just trying to figure it out one day at a time. Since I cannot control everything, I should not give my personal power to those things by worrying about them. Yes, this is a practice and much easier said than done, but this kind of boundary setting in our mindsets is actually very empowering for decision making, stress management and anxiety reduction.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I’m weary to peer into any crystal balls here. Eight months ago I would have laughed at the idea of a state decreed stay-at-home order. That said, I’ve seen exponential growth in anything virtual that can help people connect. Expect to see more distance based connection points via virtual platforms that allow a broader and more diverse group of people to participate.
Now is the time to innovate and take risks. Necessity is the mother of invention, so look around and identify your new needs, previously unconsidered pain points. That’s where the opportunity lies. I also hope that this innovation acknowledges and addresses places of access, diversity, inclusion and inequity. Serving the underserved, acknowledging those who might not be covered in the mean/median range, allows for ALL to be included.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
First of all, I surely hope it makes some permanent changes! There are so many inexcusable behaviors that hide under the guise of “that’s just how it is.” I would love to see people stay at home if they’re sick (even with the common cold!) The obsession with showing up to work if you’re sick affects the health of those around us more than it gets the job done.
I also see a potential to benefit employees and employers. Flexibility will be paramount; the era of the 9-to-5 shift is on its way out in corporate America. As employees find personally motivating work, productivity and balance will increase. As the world of work changes this will influence other decisions about where to live and the kind of world we want to live in.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I’m excited to be working with other leaders, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Now is a time to take risks and innovate. If outcomes aren’t what you anticipated, then that’s a fountain of information you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
I spent a lot of time reflecting about what I really wanted to do with my life at the beginning of the US outbreak. If I wasn’t going to take this time to pursue those other passions now, then I was never going to do it. I want others to see their power and potential in the same way. It’s been that core belief that I’m really exploring and am excited about sharing what I’ve learned through new services and consulting.
Through the quarantine period, I’ve discovered my passion now lies with empowering women to be the best version of themselves. Not everyone wants to, or can, be the CEO yet that is the direction women are constantly pushed to be in through societal messages to lean in, get a seat at the table, keep work/life balance in perfect harmony, have it all, etc.
But what if not every woman wants to do it all? We need more strong female voices in this world, that is a fact, but I don’t believe we need them to all be of a leader or CEO. We need to hear women speak with confidence at all levels of the traditional company structure, not just the top.
I believe the focus should be on the level of confidence they have in their position, thoughts and opinions, no matter their level of professional development as long as they are being true to their authentic selves. Teaching companies how to cultivate that culture is just one part of how I’ll be contributing to its creation.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Find your risk comfort level and get right up to the line. Keep growing and stretching that risk muscle. You will be better as a person and your contribution will be felt in our society as a whole. That’s worth doing the work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
During our stay-at-home orders I finally started reading again, borrowing a copy of Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. Towards the beginning of the book she references finding solace in a sign that states “We can do hard things”, a phrase that continued to pop up throughout the rest of the book.
This really hit home for me since I had my mantra of “this is not the hardest thing you’ve ever done.” I can struggle with anxiety spirals, where I doubt all my decisions, feel like a fraud, and know that the worst will happen; or other moments of “analysis paralysis” where a decision just needs to be made.
Getting myself out of the loop requires a hard stop, and remembering that I’ve done far more important, far more difficult (mentally, emotionally and physically) things allows for a feeling of permanence and grounding. I am able to ask myself if the situation is really what I think, or if I am giving it too much credibility and power. Since I’ve already done the hardest thing I will ever do, I’ve created a backstop to move forward, putting the circumstances in their correct perspective.
I also love that it doesn’t glorify the positive. I am uncomfortable with what I consider to be almost an addiction to being positive, that things must always at a minimum be “good”, or that we can force our way through it with a better attitude. You have to experience the negative to understand the positive; dark is paired with light; yin and yang; the power of opposites, whatever you want to call it. “We can do hard things” respects and empowers that idea, accepting challenges, difficult times, painful emotions/experiences for their contribution to your whole life.
Lastly, I find it to be very empowering. Not just because it ends the feedback loop, but because it places the action and interpretation within, and provides basic instructions. You can do hard things. You don’t have to do them perfectly, or need someone/something else to do them. There are no presumptions of what or how it will be done or what your definition of hard is.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am always on LinkedIn and would love to connect. That is the main hub where you can learn about all the work I’m doing both for my events business and the newest consulting offerings. https://www.linkedin.com/in/astecker/