Irene Espaillat: Why Empathy Is Everything

This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing someone who has been very influential in my life. I have always admired my aunt’s work ethic and character, and getting to learn more about her job and all it entails was interesting and eye-opening.

Irene Espaillat works for Open Society Foundations, a human rights non-profit organization, and it is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world. OSF does an array of work supporting civil society groups around the world, with a main focus on advancing justice, education, public health and independent media. 

Irene is the Executive Administrator at OSF, meaning that the main premise of her job is to bring employees together to function as a unit, primarily through various monthly events and activities. OSF believes that a fun and integrated working environment can only result in increased productivity, so organizing activities within the workplace to de-stress is vital, and this is where Irene comes in.

From cooking classes to bowling parties, Irene coordinates every single event with the preferences of her coworkers in mind, and with nearly 500 employees, it is not an easy task. Irene is also the only employee in her field, meaning that she is the sole person coordinating these events, which she uses to her advantage, “I like being the only person that makes the decisions, this also means I have full creative control. Before this job, I did not think I was a creative person, but I have found my own creativity through planning these events.” Irene has also noticed a change in the environment at OSF thanks to her efforts, “When companies do events for staff they feel appreciated more, so they don’t feel like robots constantly doing work all the time. For example, some staff may be reluctant to attend events at first when they are stuck in a rut with work, but with a little convincing, they end up having a great time. Planning these events helps build a strong relationship with the staff and I like that they have a trustworthy outlook on me.” Having extracurricular activities for staff to do also makes the workplace feel more human-like. These events also help normalize taking time to de-stress in the workplace, which I think is an amazing thing.

While all of the benefits are great, event planning does not come easy, especially when you have to coordinate around hundreds of staff members. Irene has many factors to consider when planning, such as religious holidays, dietary restrictions, demographics, and even current events happening in the world. When planning, she likes to consider 5 different areas to maintain variety: Specialized, Philanthropic, Social, Learning, and Sports. Irene also has a calendar to keep track of dates and every event she holds “This helps me to make sure my events have variety, and I also conduct surveys after every event to get feedback from employees.” This helps her get an idea of things the office does enjoy and what she can improve on.

A main theme I found within Irene’s work is empathy. Making sure every single employee’s needs and preferences are met through these events is not an easy task. In addition, making each event effective for every individual staff member and accepting constructive criticism can be even more difficult. The fact that Irene finds joy through every phase of this process shows how perceptive of a person she is. 

In order to excel at her job, Irene also stresses the importance of self-care. “Self care is very important in this job because when you take care of yourself, you are able to take care of others and cater to their needs. When I do little things for myself, such as getting my nails done or even doing my skin care, I am able to put myself in the shoes of others more efficiently.” I appreciate Irene expressing this because I feel like this perspective can apply to many areas of life.

 I admire Irene’s ability to bring hundreds of people together through her thoughtfulness. Whether it’s a cocktail hour or a Superbowl viewing party, her efforts make people more excited to come to work everyday. These events are the ‘recharge’ that employees need during the day to continue giving their all to the organization, and most importantly, helps them feel more human. The fact that OSF recognizes the benefits of these events and made this job its own position is admirable, and I hope that this becomes normalized across all job industries. Irene is single-handedly making an organization become more united, one event at a time.

IMG Source: Grace Reynoso​