On internships, mentorships, and mine

I chose this bracelet to be my mantra, for every woman who thinks she can't be everything she dreamed of.

I chose this bracelet to be my mantra, for every woman who thinks she can’t be everything she dreamed of.

Tonight I spoke to the Buffalo Niagara Chapter of the New York State Women, Inc.  about internship programs: Getting one, using one, making the most of interns and all they can do. It was a beautiful, inspiring experience, speaking to a roomful of women professionals and a few guest students about how to use their own expertise as a teaching tool. It reminded me of something: None of us is an island, and no one of us, women especially, got where we are alone.

Last night, my former boss and mentor Kathy Hochul won the lieutenant governor race in New York state. As I watched results roll in, I thought about how she helped me rise to where I am today, and how very much she taught me along the way.

Summer 2007. Grease-stained khaki pants, white (well, technically) shirt, chef’s apron. Perpetually greasy hands, as I bused tables at a local fish joint. One sultry evening, a familiar face sat down in my section: The dean of my college’s journalism school at St. Bonaventure University.

“Lizz Schumer,” he said, as I cleared his fish fry. “Do you have an internship lined up yet for this summer?” I shook my head. “Kathy Hochul at the Erie County Clerk’s office is looking for one. I’ll put your name in,” he said.

A few weeks later, I shimmied into a pair of black pants and a white (no, really) shirt and started on what I didn’t yet know would be my first real career trajectory. That first summer, I mostly filed papers and worked on the annual report, a 50-page behemoth that office puts out detailing the real estate transactions and monies brought in, that year. It was dry. It was boring. It was exactly what I needed. My first real boyfriend had dumped me that June, and I reeled from the shock. He was the love of my life, or so I thought at the time. The head chef (read: fryer) at the restaurant offered to kill him for me as I sniffled into the salad bar. Kathy Hochul did one better: She distracted me with piles of paperwork, the exact kind of office labor I needed to blot out the angsty teen thoughts darkening my mind.

Summer 2009. Freshly graduated, my head was full of grandiose ideas about where my career was headed and my lap was full of 2-year-old. Unable to find a job fresh out from under my mortarboard, I got a gig nannying a boisterous toddler who, to quote his mother, “Was now out of his biting stage, but when he throws something, duck or block.” I numbed my job insecurities with endless reruns of Disney’s “Cars” and “Bob the Builder” as I applied to internships and jobs I, six months out of college, had begun to feel were far, far out of reach. That August, one of my great aunts died and Kathy Hochul, who had once worked with her son, saw my parents at the funeral. “What’s Lizz doing now?” she asked. That following Monday, I pulled on a suit and sat in her office, my resume quaking in my hands.

At first, it was back to paper-pushing for me. Kathy didn’t need a journalist, but her receptionist did need an assistant, and since she was running for re-election, a little campaign work couldn’t hurt either. So it was back to the annual report for me. Until one Friday evening, I had just poured a glass of wine when Kathy’s number came up on my phone.

“Do you want to go to Albany with me tomorrow morning?” Her assistant had contracted bronchitis, and there was a big clerk’s protest going on in the capital. “I need a right-hand man,” she said. “Do you want it?”

Did I ever. I stayed up all night pulling together news clippings and webpages covering the issue, packing all of my most professional clothes (which wasn’t much) into a suitcase and praying I didn’t screw up. Six hours later, I was on the phone with three news channels while we careened toward the capitol, setting up my very first press conference for that evening at 10. The next morning, Kathy and I woke at the same time; I could barely make her out from my twin bed, two feet away. “What’s the news saying about us?” she asked. “I just woke up,” wasn’t the answer she wanted, and I knew better than to give it to her. That weekend was a whirlwind of writing last-minute press releases, talking to reporters and mostly running, running around after a powerhouse woman who didn’t want to hear no for an answer; not from the governor and especially not from her receptionist-turned-assistant.

We were sitting in the governor’s office, waiting for an audience when she casually mentioned she had a media assistant job opening. Did I want it? “It’s a lot of work,” she said. “Long hours. And I’ll be expecting a lot of you.”

I took it, and learned more in the year I spent as her media assistant than I would have in ten years anywhere else. Kathy expected, no, demanded her staff work with the same passion and drive that she did. I wrote columns, press releases and speeches she’d meticulously pick apart, teaching me her own voice, her own words, from her L-shaped mahogany desk in the office we were all working around the clock to keep her in. After spending my days creating press packages, arranging and running press conferences and brainstorming new promotion materials, I spent most evenings working on the campaign website, coordinating volunteers for our many weekend events and designing logos for her posters, T-shirts and lawn signs. I didn’t sleep much, that year. But I didn’t wallow, either. Kathy taught me that anything worth having is worth working for, that “I can’t,” isn’t good enough unless I had gone to the ends of the earth trying. She was tough, but she was fair. She was honest, sometimes blunt, but she cared for her staff, and her staff repaid her in kind. Everyone wanted Kathy to like them, because once she liked you, you had an ally for life.

Fall 2011. I had returned to the states from a failed semester at a London graduate school, depressed and doubting my skills as a writer, a journalist and a person. I’d gotten a scholarship to the University of East London to study for a master’s degree in creative writing, but once I got there, realized the program wasn’t at all what I’d expected. My four months in London read like a film noir: Rainy walks through winding cobblestoned streets, questioning my place in the city where everyone spotted me as an outsider, solitary flat white coffees in cafes where I scrawled my insecurities in a moleskine notebook and writing belabored poetry in classes that felt more like coffeehouse workshops that graduate school. London sucked me dry, and by the time I made it back to the U.S., I had as much faith in myself as I did in the school I’d left, and I had fled that place with the most expensive plane ticket I’ve ever seen.

But Kathy Hochul didn’t see me that way. Not long after I returned, she was tapped to run for Congress, and almost before I knew what hit me, I was sitting at her kitchen table with a legal pad between us. “We’re gonna win this,” she said, a gleam in her eye I recognized. “And I want you to help me.” Soon, we were on conference calls with potential campaign managers and her house filled with campaign workers, binders of potential donors covering every inch of her dining room table. Kathy saw potential in me I’d lost somewhere over the Atlantic, the potential to be part of something bigger than myself. And even if I did spend most of the time on that campaign entering donation figures, I was part of something that mattered. Something other than the bleak insides of my own head.

Before she managed to win that seat, I applied for and received an offer to work at a newspaper in a nearby town. It was my dream job, and I was terrified to tell Kathy I had to leave the campaign before it was over. I remember rehearsing my speech in her upstairs bedroom, the bedroom that became her office once her house became HQ. “Kathy, I have something to tell you,” I started. “You got another job,” she finished, a smile breaking across her face. She hugged me tightly, before I could squeak out what the job was. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. “I knew you could do it.”

I haven’t worked for Kathy since, but as editor in chief of a newspaper in my hometown, her hometown, I’ve seen her on the trail, from time to time. And whenever our paths have crossed, I can count on a smile and a hug, because Kathy is more than my former boss. She’s one of the women who challenged me to rise above the place I thought I deserved. Because she believes in women. Because she believed in me.

And as I spoke about internships, about mentorships tonight, I couldn’t help but remember all of the times Kathy helped me rise to the occasion. I didn’t always like it, like the time she told me my tweedy work pants looked too much like jeans, or the countless times we stayed after hours to perfect a media alert she vetoed, again and again. I wasn’t always grateful for her guidance, because we don’t see these impacts until they change our trajectories. But my career path would never have gotten me where I am without her, and so many of the strategies I use with my own employees are straight out of her playbook.

So thanks, Kathy Hochul, for being the best first boss a girl could want. I owe so much to everything you’ve done.

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