JENNIFER MCKINNEYSEET Zoo manager sees the ‘bigger picture’Broken sewers, power outages just part of the job Some people joke that their office is a zoo. When Jennifer McKinney-Seet says that, she isn’t kidding.
As special events manager for the Indianapolis Zoo-a position she has held since 1999-McKinney-Seet oversees nearly 40 events a year, including the successful black-tie fund raiser Zoobilation.
But it was her first special event at age 5-a neighborhood talent show that she helped organize-that stuck with her even after she graduated from Ball State University and laid plans to work on a law degree.
“Since I was 8 years old, I planned to be an attorney simply because I loved to argue with my brothers so much,” she said.
The south side native took the LSAT and was accepted into law school but decided to work for a few years as a paralegal to see if it was the right career path. While touring the zoo as part of a committee planning an employee Christmas party for the law firm, she learned of an opening and submitted her resume. She originally was offered a position in the sales department handling weddings but was quickly shifted to the development department to handle special events.
She feels fortunate to have broken into event planning, where she says there’s lots of competition for jobs.
“It’s such a specific field,” McKinney-Seet said. “You need to be really creative, think fast on your feet and be a problem-solver who sees the bigger picture.”
Those specific skills are tested when the unexpected happens at the last minute-like the truck that took out a sewer line the night before Zoobilation one year, disabling all of the zoos’ restrooms. Or a construction crew that cut electrical lines to the facility another year.
“Knowing the number of hours you put in, the labor involved, and the stress of constant deadlines, you really have to love what you do,” she said.
She laughs when people say her job is “glamorous.”
“It’s glamorous until you hit teardown,” she said. “They see the fun part-the culmination of a year or two of planning in one night, but there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes.”
Kim Charles, a development associate with the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, experienced the behind-thescenes work as an intern at the zoo before moving to her new position. Charles says her former boss is “a great teacher,” who has taught her skills that she uses in planning fund-raising and special events for the not-for-profit organization.
“With events, things get very hectic, but she doesn’t get frustrated and holds her calm very well,” Charles said. “If something doesn’t work, she gets creative and figures it out.”
Giving back to the community
In spite of the long hours her job often requires, McKinney-Seet volunteers with numerous organizations, including the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade Bands committee and the Indiana Convention & Visitors Association Rose Award planning committee, and helps with fund raisers for her alma mater, Arsenal Technical High School.
McKinney-Seet knows how important volunteers are because she works for a not-for-profit and understands the challenges they face.
“We are one of only a few zoos in the country that doesn’t receive any type of tax support,” she explained. “Fund-raising events are very important to us.”
Holly Banta, a partner with the Indianapolis-based law firm Woodard Emhardt Moriarty McNett & Henry LLP, has worked with McKinney-Seet on Zoobilation and other special events and says that she brings “an excitement about working on an event to all the committees she works on that’s infectious and gets people motivated to help.”
The newest event that McKinney-Seet is working on is the Indianapolis Prize, an international award that will be given every other year to an individual who has “made significant strides in animal-conservation efforts.” The event will be held at the zoo on Sept. 30.
The $100,000 prize-the largest international monetary award given to an individual in this arena-was funded by the Lilly Endowment. Honorary chairmen are actors Harrison Ford and Jane Alexander and businessman Ted Turner. McKinney-Seet expects the event to get worldwide recognition.
“Michael Crowther, our president, came up with the idea to help make the Indianapolis Zoo world-renowned. He wants to draw the world’s eye to Indianapolis.”
The 33-year-old mother of two boys received the YWCA Professional Business Woman of the Year award last year in recognition of her special-events work both on and off the job.
And although she didn’t become a lawyer, she married one. Her husband Robert plans to run for political office in a few years, and McKinney-Seet intends to be his campaign manager.