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A Day in the Life: Director of Strategic Events Lauren Liles

Written by Molly Forman on Dec 18, 2020

Related content: Higher Education, 2U HQ

This story is a part of our ‘A Day in the Life’ series that highlights the career journeys of 2U employees across the world.

Detail-oriented. Organized. Punctual. These are all critical qualities of a successful event planner and all characteristics commonly used to describe Lauren Liles throughout her life. Pair these attributes with Lauren’s knack for seamlessly producing celebratory experiences for her friends and family, and it’s clear why committing her life to the events industry was a natural fit.

“The whole idea of making the magic happen behind the scenes was intriguing to me,” Lauren said. “People attend events all the time, but no one ever thinks about all the millions of tiny details that actually go into making those events come to life. To spend months (sometimes even years) planning an event, and then to actually be on site seeing it all come together—it's incredibly fulfilling.”

With a clear path forward, Lauren pursued her passion and majored in Hospitality & Tourism Management at James Madison University. While at first she thought she’d explore events within the hotel industry, she quickly realized working many nights and weekends wasn’t in the cards for her. So when a professor shared a job opportunity with a reputable association, she jumped on it.

After 16 years experience in association events, Lauren was ready for a new challenge, but she didn’t want to take a leap into just anything. She wanted to be sure that her next role was with a company that was the right fit for her and aligned with her personal values, and she found that match with 2U. But everything didn’t quite go as planned.

A week into her position as director of strategic events, Lauren learned that she would need to work remotely for an undetermined amount of time. The pandemic was spreading, and 2U’s offices were shuttering their doors to keep employees safe. Not only was Lauren uprooted from HQ—she also was tasked with what can essentially be described as a brand new role: director of strategic virtual events.

How did Lauren handle the complex transition from producing in-person events to creating virtual experiences? What has she learned along the way? Learn the answers to these questions and more in our Q&A with Lauren below.

Why did you join 2U? What is it about the company that sparked your interest?

I had a friend and former colleague who worked for 2U, so when I saw the job posted, I immediately reached out to her for the inside scoop. She had such great things to say about the company, and I really trust her opinion, so I decided to go for it.

When I came in for my first interview it was around lunchtime, so the lobby area was packed with 2Utes eating together, talking, having fun, and I could just feel such great energy. People genuinely seemed to be happy and enjoying each other’s company, and that was exactly the kind of culture I wanted to be a part of. The beautiful office and promise of free snacks didn’t hurt either!

How would you describe your role as a director of strategic events?

I see my role as looking at the bigger picture—rather than each individual event—and asking myself and my team how our events can help support or enhance the culture of the company. Much of my time is spent thinking about what 2Utes need and how we can provide it through events in a fun and engaging way.

You were hired right before the pandemic spread. What was originally supposed to be a year of in-person events became a year of virtual events. What was it like to make that transition to virtual events, especially for a company whose culture is so relationship-focused?

It was not easy. Approximately 99.9% of my experience is with in-person events, so I found myself at a new company having to navigate a completely new area of expertise. Initially, everything kind of just got put on hold since no one knew how long the pandemic would last, and everyone assumed we’d be back to normal working conditions soon. But at some point, the reality set in, and we realized everything we had planned would have to pivot. Luckily, I have an amazing team, and we have all been able to navigate this new normal together.

At a time when we all can't be together in person, I actually think that virtual events are helping to strengthen our relationship-focused culture at 2U. While we may see our colleagues daily on Zoom meetings, virtual events give 2Utes the opportunity to continue to foster those relationships in a more fun and laid back setting and take some of the stress out of what has been a trying year.

What were some of the greatest challenges endured and greatest successes accomplished while navigating virtual events? Looking back at 2020, what lessons did you learn about hosting virtual events that could be beneficial for the broader event industry to hear?

I think one of the greatest successes has been learning that virtual events can actually help bring more people together than in-person events. 2U is a global company with employees spread out all over the world. Previously, in-person events had been held separately across various offices, with limited opportunities for remote employees to engage. With virtual events, you can host one event for the entire company. Everyone can attend the same event regardless of if they normally work out of HQ or the Cape Town office—and everyone is remote, so the experience is the same for every 2Ute. We’ve been able to create opportunities for employees to connect with colleagues they might not normally work with or would have never had the chance to meet if we were in the office having events based on location.

On the flip side, the greatest challenge has been competing for everyone’s time. People are burnt out and on Zoom ALL day, so if we’re going to ask 2Utes to stare at a screen for even longer, it really has to be worth it.

Looking back at the virtual events you hosted in 2020, which stands out to you most?

We hosted several large-scale events virtually in 2020, but last week’s virtual No Back Row Awards was hands down the most successful event my team hosted this year (and honestly, I think it is one of the most fulfilling events I’ve had a hand in planning throughout my entire career). It has been such a tough year for everyone, and to see how excited 2Utes were to recognize their colleagues and how appreciative the winners were—it was really heartwarming and inspiring. I literally did not stop grinning for the entire 45 minutes. It was such a feel-good moment and one we all needed. The work that goes into events is not glamorous, it can be stressful and tedious, but then you have a moment like that and it makes it all worth it. If I’ve helped people feel good, then I’ve done my job.

As you’re still under your one-year mark at 2U, what advice do you have for any newcomers?

Hang in there! I only had one week in the office before we shut down, and that was tough. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the newcomers who haven’t been in one of our offices. It’s a lot harder to meet new people and really feel like you’re a part of the team when you’re working from home, but I finally feel like I’m getting into my 2U groove and starting to meet new people and make connections (virtually, of course) and I feel really proud to be part of a company that cares so much about its employees.

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