#GirlsRock: An interview with Special Events and Volunteer Manager Emily Portal 🎫

stormtrooper phone may 22 necessity my desk

Emily Portal just needed more power.

Or, power at all. She was on the way to an event and her laptop charger konked out. I hooked her up with a universal power supply. She didn’t miss a beat. The event was a smash. All part of a day’s work as special events and volunteer manager.

She’s a Gator and a go-getter; career development is important to her.

She grew up a writer, so this was a good interview. She’s lived the kind of “up late, up early” schedule I know way too well. She’s one of those rare #GirlsRock interviews from right here in Charlotte, so if you’re from here, you’ll get the regional references.

I hope you’ll identify, as I did, with her emphasis on self-care in the midst of taking care of business in the best way we can.

Give a warm welcome to Emily today for #GirlsRock. I’m excited to have her in, and she also wrote her own kickass captions to some kickass photos. Major props. I love that hers is a story of optimism and possibility.

EP emily portal gum wall
You are looking at me + an entire wall filled with old gum. A true Seattle treasure.

Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d grow up to be?

EP emily portal headshotEmily: When I was young I thought I would be some type of journalist, maybe a newspaper columnist. I had grown up a writer, working on the high school newspaper while writing part-time for a magazine publication in my hometown of Tampa (paid in movie preview tickets!) But when I got to college at the University of Florida in 2007 (Go Gators!) I was intimidated by the Journalism College and the thought of taking the reporting class and having to acquire “real” interviews in a new city was way too daunting of a task.

An advisor shared information about the Recreation & Tourism College, specifically the Events Management track which sounded unique and was immediately intrigued.

Eli: What was it about that school that immediately appealed to you?

Emily: What was it about Florida? I was an extremely studious and extra-curricular-activity obsessed high school student. I was the type who was always looking towards being done with high school and getting into college. I had gone to elementary school in Charlotte but moved to Tampa a month before fourth grade ended. As funny as it sounds, I was also always looking towards moving back to North Carolina. I was rejected from Chapel Hill out of state so I wanted to go to the very best school in Florida if I was going to stick around and go in-state.

I promise I am not biased just because I am an alumna. The University of Florida is simply the best! Go GATORS!

Eli: I get it! Did the Recreation & Tourism shift also feel like such a great fit for you?

Emily: Yes, the recreation and tourism college was different than most of the programs offered. The second half of senior year you stopped taking classes and you worked a full-time 40 hours/week internship. Having that experience was really helpful in building a resume and finding a real job! I don’t know what it’s like on campus now but I would say that either I wasn’t seeking it out or it wasn’t offered, career development is really difficult to find in a big collegiate setting. I was really lucky that I ended up finding a job out of school.

The stars aligned and I was offered a job in the fundraising office of Levine Children’s Hospital here in Charlotte.

Eli: Nice! What was that first job like?

Emily: That job was so unique. My role was to manage our Children’s Miracle Network relationships. I would travel as far east as Rockingham as far north as Salisbury and south into Pageland and Cheraw. I would visit Walmart, Rite Aid, and Food Lion locations, etc. and talk with the employees there about their at-the-register fundraising campaigns. I had the opportunity to meet so many interesting and passionate people. I was also trained on providing the tours of the children’s hospital and would take a preschool class, to a collegiate sorority, a Rotary Club floor by floor to see the impact they were making by their grassroots fundraising.

People say each day is different at their job. But truly each day was so wildly different. You would be up early for a 5K, melting in the sun at a golf tournament, speaking to an elementary school class, appearing on Charlotte Today, and staffing a table during third shift at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry. It was a lot of work and a lot of nights and weekends but perfect for someone right of out college who is ready to jump in.

EP emily portal london
Can’t take a trip to London without taking a photo in the iconic red phone box!

Eli: Sounds like the perfect training grounds for something great! What happened next for you?

Emily: After a little more than three years there I moved on to a position as an IT recruiter for a staffing agency. This was the first time I had worked for a for-profit organization and let alone a true sales job! I found out the hard way my professional strengths did not involve meeting any type of quota. I think the office enjoyed my positive attitude but no one was surprised when I said I found a new job as the Special Events and Volunteer Manager at Charlotte Ballet. That was July of 2015 and have been here ever since!

Eli: How important was it for you to work a job that wasn’t for you, to possibly show you what kind of job would be a better fit?

EP emily portal chihuly glass
Renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is a true genius with his work showcased in Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle.

Emily: Admitting that the grass isn’t always greener is the hardest part! Every job has its pros and cons. Just because I couldn’t cut it as a recruiter doesn’t mean that others don’t thrive with sales goals; in the same way that some people would say “no way” to planning an event with 1,100 in attendance raising $1.5 million. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. It’s so important to not force something just because it’s better in terms of the financial bottom line. Happiness at work is attributed to work/life balance, the people you work with, the purpose of your organization and so much more.

Eli: What’s one way you’ve found to create happiness in your work?

Emily: I think the best way to create happiness at work is to try to not dwell in the negativity. We are in a customer-centric time where it’s difficult to be on the other side of the “customer is always right” mentality. I am always trying to keep my focus on what is important and that’s taking care of yourself as much as it is doing a good job at work. You can drive yourself crazy trying to please everyone. When I first started working I think I took myself too seriously and I know I am trying to take a step back every time I run into a frustrating situation.

I truly find so much more happiness in that!

Eli: How important is happiness when choosing our work?

Emily: Of course, there is a strong correlation to satisfaction at work related to happiness within your work. Work and happiness should go hand in hand although it doesn’t always happen that way. And when you find happiness within the workplace and within what you do- that’s when you need to hold on and not let go!

EP emily portal abby road
Close to 50 years later I’m standing where the Beatles once did. Just casually crossing to the other side of Abbey Road.

Eli: Absolutely! What should I know about you that I haven’t yet asked?

Emily: Hmmm what else is there? Although I work in ballet I love musical theater. I recently saw Dear Evan Hansen when it was in town and I was so truly moved. I am not a good singer by any means but I have a passion for karaoke and there’s nothing I love more than being up there with the mic. For my birthday next month, I am renting one of those karaoke rooms and will be forcing everyone to sing something!

I know it’s been said by many but Charlotte continues to amaze me with how much it has grown. Since I’ve moved to Charlotte in 2011 South End doesn’t look at all what it used to when I lived there. I’m so excited for what’s to come for this city in all areas- arts and culture, sports, retail, restaurants. It’s almost information overload to read all the different things that are to open in the next few months to a year! It gives a whole new meaning to Charlotte’s got a lot!

Eli: As someone who has spent much of his life in Charlotte, I agree! What advice would you give girls about their career path?

Emily: How did you know Career Development is a hot button of mine? Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I would always say that knowing where to begin is the hardest part. Getting your first job seems impossible because your resume does not have previous work experience and you just need a company to take a chance on you. Luckily, I feel as if lately internships have become much more prevalent and a strong way to build your resume and gain contacts in your field.

On a separate note, I would also tell young professionals if you majored in XYZ and get your first role in XYZ and it doesn’t seem to be what you’ve expected after a year and you have guts to pivot – do it! I think so often we feel as if we “stick it out” in the sports marketing, event planning job, hotel management, etc., and we will just get used to working all the nights and weekends. And sometimes we do. But if a really exciting opportunity falls on your lap – don’t get afraid to take it even if it’s something you never pictured yourself doing.

Of course, this advice does not apply to doctors, lawyers, etc. but you get the idea!


portal quote opportunity


  1. ksbeth says:

    I love the idea of being open to all possibilities. I used to work in pr/promotion for entertainment events and I understand the nature of the beast, always an adventure and many times a misadventure )

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      We narrow things so much when we focus on a limited set of outcomes. Misadventures at least make for good stories.

  2. Admitting a job is not the right fit and moving on isn’t easy, it is smart.

    1. Eli Pacheco says:

      It shows a great connection with what you’re meant to do!

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