Women at the Helm: Larita Clark, CEO, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority
When Larita Clark began her career at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), owner of Chicago’s McCormick Place, she never imagined she would one day become its CEO. Since accepting her first position there in 1984 as assistant controller, the certified public accountant by trade went on to successfully hold an array of positions at MPEA, including director of finance and administration of McCormick Place, controller of MPEA and then its CFO, responsible for the financial and administrative operations of the massive McCormick Place campus, which includes four buildings: Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, Marriott Marquis Chicago, the Wintrust Arena and an energy center.
“During my time at the authority, I developed a deep understanding of what it takes to keep an organization of this size and complexity operating smoothly,” she says. “Over the years, I have met countless individuals whose passion for the city, state and its events industry shines through their hard work. This industry is all about connecting people, and I love being a part of an industry that brings people together worldwide, benefiting our state, city and community in the process.”
A key player in the MPEA’s strategy to become operationally self-sufficient and deliver incremental tax revenue to the city and state, Clark was appointed CEO of McCormick Place at the beginning of 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the meetings and trade show industry. Despite facing unprecedented challenges, Clark closely monitored city and state safety requirements while simultaneously retaining valued client relationships and managing budgets to preserve as many jobs as possible.
Known for her outstanding leadership credentials, insightful industry expertise and successful track record of attracting some of the largest conventions to Chicago, Clark is tireless in her quest to enable McCormick Place and its multiple venues to return to pre-pandemic business levels. In 2022, the venue hosted more than 200 events and welcomed 1.5 million guests.
TSNN had a chance to spend time with this 30-year convention industry veteran and dynamic leader to get her thoughts about her historic appointment as MPEA’s first Black female CEO, what important lessons she has learned running the MPEA and what she believes the events industry can do to help support more burgeoning women leaders as they blaze a path to the C-suite.
What did your path to CEO entail and what are your biggest takeaways from the experience?
I am truly fortunate to have been promoted through the ranks at MPEA. [When I] accepted the position of assistant controller of McCormick Place, I planned to remain for no more than five years.
During my tenure, I have been fortunate to work with several different CEOs and observe and experience their individual leadership styles. The exposure to a variety of leadership styles was invaluable, and looking back, my personal leadership style has evolved to incorporate those experiences. One of my most important takeaways is that as we grow in our careers, we should take the time to reflect on our experiences and identify the characteristics of others that we want to model and those we want to avoid.
Overall, my path to CEO resulted from hard work, dedication and a commitment to continuous learning and growth, and I feel honored to serve in this role.
During your time working at and overseeing the MPEA, what have been your most important lessons and biggest successes?
My time at MPEA has taught me the importance of strong leadership, adaptability and collaboration in achieving organizational goals. One of the most important lessons I learned was the value of adaptability and responsiveness to changing circumstances. When I was appointed CEO in January 2020, no one knew that in just a few weeks the global industry would shut down — a life-changing moment for everyone.
One accomplishment that I am immensely proud of is the effort our team dedicated to retaining our valued client relationships during the pandemic. The campus team worked diligently on this, and we were able to rebook nearly 70 percent of the event cancellations that occurred due to the pandemic. This was a significant achievement that not only helped maintain financial viability but also helped preserve as many jobs as possible.
While gender and racial diversity in the leadership roles within the events industry is moving in a more equitable direction, what do you see as the biggest challenges of being a woman leader (and a woman of color) at this time in our industry?
As the first African American woman in this position, I am acutely aware that I am a role model for others. I am very proud that we have a diverse campus workforce. For example, about half of our managers are women, and about half are people of color. Despite this, there are still challenges to being a woman, especially a Black woman.
Stereotypes are very real, and I believe women and people of color generally need to work even harder to prove their abilities. The increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is especially important, however, I also believe that sometimes people may assume that diverse leaders are in place because of their diversity, not because of their talents.
To overcome this challenge, I believe it is important for diverse leaders in the events industry to support and mentor each other, advocate for change within their organizations and industries and maintain a strong network of contacts. Ultimately, it will take a collective effort to break down stereotypes and create a more equitable and inclusive workplace for all.
What specific qualities do women bring to executive roles that empower them to excel at their jobs?
Women are just as complex as men, so qualities vary from woman to woman. One quality that I have noticed from working with other women leaders is resilience. For centuries, women have managed to make handling hardships, rejections and failures seem simple. As women, we seem to learn from adversity and mistakes, allowing them to make us stronger.
Additionally, I believe women bring different perspectives and influence to executive roles. Our ability to cultivate interpersonal relationships and listen to the needs of others make us persuasive communicators, a skill that can build businesses and industries to their full potential.
What can the meetings and events industry — and the women in it — do to help create more gender and racial parity in convention center leadership and the industry at large?
As the first African American woman CEO of MPEA, I know all too well how important it is for women, especially women of color, to have a seat at the table and to be heard once seated at the table. By definition, leaders are charged with mentoring and developing people, and I believe the most important thing we can do as leaders is cultivate new leaders. During my career, some of my most impactful mentors were white men. For example, when I was on the cusp of reaching the C-suite, my boss and mentor was a white man. He pushed me extremely hard and challenged me to take on projects that really stretched my perceived abilities. It was not an easy experience, but it positioned me to become the CFO.
The events industry has learned and grown so much from its male leaders over the years. Our greatest opportunity is to be thoughtful and deliberate in making sure we cultivate the next generation of leaders to reflect our broader society. Creating a space to welcome more women and people of color into the events industry can be a significant catalyst for more successful events that help change the world.
What advice would you give to aspiring women leaders in the events industry?
To my fellow women who are looking to follow a leadership path, I heartily recommend that you stick to your convictions, maintain your integrity, remain teachable and continue to work hard. Know that your voice and opinions deserve to be heard, and you will be amazed at just how far your ideas, confidence and perseverance will take you.
Know of a dynamic woman leader in the meetings and events industry who deserves recognition? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.