Can volunteering help your career? Surprising insights from an event professional!

I’ve known Gilbert Estephan for quite a few years. When we first met, I was interviewing him for a job. Not only was he well qualified from an experience perspective (yes I hired him) he also had an engaging personality, and his volunteer experience was particularly noteworthy. A 19-year veteran of the events industry, Gilbert is currently Director of Sponsorships, Corporate Partnerships & Exhibit Sales for the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).


I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gilbert about his extensive volunteer experience and asked him to share his perspective on how it helped shape his career in the events industry.


Why do you love volunteering so much?


It provides me with the opportunity to witness the potential in others and myself, how people push themselves to levels that either I have or they’ve ever reached before. It’s a really good dynamic of inspired people who are working to do something bigger than them – whatever the role is, big or small.  It breaks you out of your comfort zone, reminds you of the values, ethics and morals you have developed throughout your life and put them into practice regularly.  Volunteering helps in many ways – personally, mentally, emotionally, professionally and selflessly.  


What has been your greatest learning in volunteering?


My first volunteer job was stuffing envelopes for a charity. I remember at the time, I felt that perhaps my experience was more valuable if I had been doing something more significant. However I soon realized that despite my original feelings, every job no matter how big or small was an important element of the process.  It wasn’t about stuffing envelopes. It was the content of the letter within it. An outreach letter reaching out to potential donors requesting their support and assistance, engaging them through updates and news about the needs of the charity – without these letters – no one would know about the organization. Any organizer will tell you just how important even the most menial of tasks can be.


Volunteering has provided me with purpose.  Purpose in life; believe in myself and in my abilities.  It has provided me with self-confidence, self-worth and taught me to be selfless. It has also taught me important lessons in behaviour, acceptance, patience and tolerance. It has taught me to be me, to be real and realistic.  It’s about principles over personalities and people joined together and working towards a common goal.


Volunteering is the best teacher that I have ever had.  It’s an experience that can teach you plenty of valuable skills.


Is there anything in your volunteer experiences that you recognize as helping you in your current role?


I find myself now, in my professional career, when seeking employees to hire – I immediately look at their volunteering work, to determine whether they have skills that can transferable into the role. Volunteers have a certain level of work ethic that you can’t find elsewhere.  They are not necessarily motivated by money, but by their sheer will power to make a difference, whether personal or professional.  Job skills can be taught; commitment, dedication, taking initiative and being resourceful cannot unless practiced.


Volunteering in areas of interest is a great way to convince yourself or your future employer that you have what it takes to be the best candidate. Many employers won’t hire a person no matter how much education they have, if they don’t have any relevant experience. Volunteering shows them that you are willing to go the extra mile to learn about the industry, you are resourceful, you take initiative and that you are willing to do whatever it takes.  That to me is the true mark of a committed employee.


What is something surprising you have learned from volunteering?


Anything in life is POSSIBLE if you have the right attitude.


It comes down to belief and desire. Whether you believe it’s possible, whether you believe YOU can do it, and whether you want the dream enough to do whatever it takes.


Many people are able but few are willing. You see, you always have to give something up in order to get something better. Many people are not willing to give anything up – not willing to make any sacrifices. They expect success to just fall on their lap. That’s just not how life works. Not only do you have to be willing to go for it, but also you have to be willing to do whatever it takes.


Willing means that you are open minded. Open minded means you are not judgmental. It means not making any excuses. It means you are open to doing whatever might be required, regardless about how you feel – pushing yourself to action.


Whatever it takes is a level of commitment. Being committed means you have made a decision that you will continue to pursue your goal no matter what the consequences, positive or negative.  Learn from our mistakes, grow and develop. It’s the only way. 


What advice would you give someone who is just getting started in the events business regarding gaining experience through volunteering?


Someone once told me when I was first starting out in my career, that my volunteer experience will play an important role in convincing future employers that I’ve got the skills they’re looking for, and since I did not have any experience when I graduated high school, I knew that I needed to find something that would help me in building my skill set.  Passion wasn’t good enough, I had to walk the talk and prove that I would do whatever it takes to pursue a career of any kind. 


Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! If you’re considering working in the events industry or looking for a new career move within your current role or studies, volunteering can help you get experience in your area of interest and meet people.  Meeting people is key.  These people will help you along the way…


It provides you the opportunity to practice important skills used in the workplace, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, project planning, task management, and organization. You might feel more comfortable stretching your wings at work once you’ve honed these skills in a volunteer position first.  


It offers you the chance to either discover what truly interests you or try out a new career path without making a long-term commitment.  In some areas, you can volunteer directly at an organization that does the kind of work you’re interested in.  For example, volunteering with the Canadian Olympic Association for a summer, helped spark my interest to study Sports Event Marketing at George Brown College, which through ‘happenstance’ having been active in the community in which I lived, led me to working with Mark Tewksbury (Olympic Gold Medallist of the 1992 Barcelona).  This was a catalyst and what jump-started my career in the events industry. 


Working hard and proving yourself not only to the people you report into, but how you carry yourself outside of the office is equally important, it shows your commitment and desire to learn and grow. Good business ethnics, values and morals in everything you do – strengthens your image and your commitment to grow – is how one career leads to another.  The Chartered accountant that was responsible for the financials of Mark’s company was directly connected with Steven Levy, the producer of the One of a Kind Shows.  When my contract came to an end with Tewksbury & Associates, Fred Levy, CA recommended me to Steven Levy to be considered for the role of Exhibitor Sales Manager for the annual Christmas and Spring shows.  I nailed the interview and got the job day one!


Did you ever take a volunteer position to learn or exercise a specific skill?


Yes, I was invited to assist in the Production of the annual fundraiser for the AIDS Committee of Toronto in 2003, and sit on the Steering Committee for Fashion Cares, as Boutique Chair responsible for all retail sales and silent/live auctions component of the event.  It was a huge task, but because of my work with the One of a Kind Shows and the Canadian Gift Shows, I thought it would be a great opportunity to develop my Show Management skills. Since, my previous roles have always been in the Sales role, managing exhibitors, selling and floor plans. I wanted to learn how to produce an event from a kernel of an idea to full execution.  It was one of the biggest challenges that I set out for myself. Was it overwhelming at first?  Yes!  I didn’t know what I got myself into…it was a full time job, on top of my full time paying career!  But I stuck to it, working late nights and weekends to maintain my commitment to the charity and to myself.


The role as Boutique Chair provided me with the opportunity to build a core team of lead committee members to help with various aspects of producing a 10,000 square foot retail space.  It was one of the most rewarding volunteer jobs.  I broke through boundaries and discovered that I had innate abilities to lead and direct.  Anything is possible if you have the right attitude, the right spirit and commitment.


It was the spark that ignited my career path – there was not stopping me now.  I proved to myself that I can do it, nothing could hold me back and that my insecurities would not hold me back from doing what I love most – producing, directing and managing an event. 


This volunteer experience led me to another year with the AIDS Committee, producing their 2004 event Superstar themed event.  My volunteer committee grew from 12 to 35, the support from sponsors and retailers grew exponentially and people gave their time freely to support me in my efforts in creating the ultimate shopping experience Fashion Cares would have ever witnessed. We raised over $250,000 in one night. The greatest accomplishment I have ever achieved for a charity event!


If someone were interested in volunteering, how would you suggest they choose what to do?


Sometimes it’s a passion for something. You have to want to help. Or sometimes an opportunity just presents itself. It’s important to remember that if you’re interested in volunteering, it’s not always about taking on something ongoing or huge. What you’re looking for might be a weekend, or even just a day. I’ve done lots of that.


Spend time researching options and start watching for opportunities. (You’ll often see event volunteer posts right here on EventsWork.) Think about where your passion lies and how you might apply that energy to help. Could be a community or cause related project. If you know of a non-profit center or event you want to volunteer at, you can call them directly and ask for a volunteer coordinator for more information.


It can sometimes take a little digging to find a good fit, but you’ll eventually find something. In the meantime, try opportunities that require less commitment – a day or a weekend or even a few hours. This can help you determine what you’d like to do and exposes you to the volunteer process.


Once you actually find something you’re interested in, if it’s ongoing work, ask for a tour (if possible), talk about the position, and get as many details as possible. If it doesn’t sound like a good fit, don’t do it. Don’t feel bad about walking away from something you’re not confident will work out – find something where you can make a contribution so that it’s good for the organization and for you.


You can always create your own opportunity by approaching a non-profit, charity, or community center with an idea for something new as well. The end result is an opportunity to learn skills you’d otherwise have to pay for, and you get to help a cause you care about or volunteer for an event you always wanted to work at.


Do you still volunteer today?


Yes…I probably always will. Time is a challenge at the moment.I continue to volunteer for various charities, once or twice a year.  My charities of choice are Sick Kids Foundation, AIDS Committee of Toronto and CAMH among others.


A large part of my volunteer time is now focused within the Events industry associations and professional affiliations. I have recently been appointed to the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association of Exposition Management (CAEM) (you’ll find the link on the Resource page of EventsWork) and will be serving as the Co-Chair of the Membership Committee during the 2-year term. Having recently served as the Co-Chair of the 2013 CAEM Annual Convention, held earlier this year in Niagara Falls.

Gilbert Estephan is Director of Sponsorships, Corporate Partnerships & Exhibit Sales for the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). The “Ex” takes place annually at Exhibition Place in Toronto and is Canada’s largest community event!


Volunteer! It's a great way to to grow your experience and skills all while giving back!




Post by Margaret Johnston,

As a career event professional, Margaret brings valuable insight and knowledge to the recruitment, management and development of high-performance teams for the event industry. A strategic and inspiring leader, Margaret has held executive roles for several global event management companies and key roles in the start up and orchestration of many high profile and international events.


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