Lydia Fenet, Christie’s Auction House SVP, International Director of Strategic Partnerships and Lead Benefit Auctioneer

Editor’s Note: Okay, I’ll admit it.  When I was writing this profile, I kept thinking to myself that this was the epitome of a dream career.  Every bit of Lydia’s path, rising the ranks to the top of Christie’s auction house, is swoon-worthy.  But here’s the caveat—none of this incredible fortune has come without an immensely dedicated and focused amount of hard work. No matter what the task (particularly her memories about her first internship at Christie’s!) Lydia has risen to the occasion.  Not only that, she also recognized and carved out a niche for herself in a company that is historically set in its ways.  I feel like this profile should serve as the template for all aspiring career-women out there—with the reminder that you can have what you want, you’ll just have to work as hard as Lydia did.

Lydia Fenet / Photo Courtesy Forbes

Lydia Fenet / Photo Courtesy Forbes

Lydia Fenet is not your average Southern Belle.

Sure, the Louisiana born beauty has the grace and charm to succeed just about anywhere—but Lydia always had her sights set on what many consider to be the pinnacle of success, New York City, for as long as she can remember.

I was always dreaming of things that I would do when I ‘grew up’. I was on a constant quest to be a little older so that I could have a job, drive, wear makeup....you name it—I was ready for it!
Lydia "Probably plotting my next move, but looking sweet as an angel!" / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia "Probably plotting my next move, but looking sweet as an angel!" / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Her family was well-traveled, her mother was British so much of her childhood was spent overseas in London and Europe.  For middle school, her older brother went to a well-known boys only boarding school in New York City and when he applied to boarding schools for high school, Lydia eagerly did the same.

She was accepted to her first choice, Taft School in Connecticut, which offered an exceptional education, gorgeous campus, and distinct cultural differences from her hometown in Louisiana.

It is amazing that you have no concept of how different you sound until people repeat EVERYTHING you say back to you. Turns out people love to imitate a southern accent and I had a great one to copy.
Lydia with her family circa 1986 / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia with her family circa 1986 / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

In middle school, Lydia had played volleyball and basketball for four years on teams that never won a single game. On her entrance essay to Taft she reflected on these experiences and her ability to shrug off defeat and negativity as a result.  In comparison, Taft was a total departure from this and she found herself playing on fiercely competitive sports teams throughout her four years…and finally winning!  She also developed a great sense of independence, seamlessly transitioning from high school to college at Sewanee, The University of the South in Tennessee.

It felt like I was coming home—my classmates had eaten grits, knew that crawfish was not pronounced crayfish and did not stare at me in shock when I said that I can make a pecan pie.
Taft Lacrosse, 1995 / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Taft Lacrosse, 1995 / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Pursuing her love of reading and writing, she immediately declared a major in history.  Her junior year, she received an incredible opportunity to study at Oxford University in England and spend a month traveling through France, Spain and Italy.  She remembers her art history professor, who used to bring his students to the major art museums in each city and lecture in front of the actual paintings he was teaching.  She loved every second of it and declared a second major in art history.

It was during this time that I read an article in a magazine that talked about the women who worked in auction houses—-their pearls, Hermes scarves, working around amazing art, interfacing with the most powerful people in the world. It all sounded incredibly glamorous and I made up my mind that that was where I was headed after college.
Lydia Onstage at Reverse Rett NYC / PHoto Courtesy Lydia Fenet / Rett Syndrome Research Trust

Lydia Onstage at Reverse Rett NYC / PHoto Courtesy Lydia Fenet / Rett Syndrome Research Trust

Her father had crossed paths with a woman who had worked at Christie’s, and Lydia had reached out to request an internship during the summer of her Junior year of college.  The program was full, but she was persistent, and the auction house made an exception.

I moved to NYC that summer...I faxed, I shredded paper, I cleaned the table where we all ate lunch, I filed, I faxed, did I mention I shredded paper? But I didn’t care. I loved being at Christie’s and figured that I would show them that I would do everything they asked and more...and at the end of the summer they offered me a job.

The catch?  She still had another year of school left.

I stayed in touch with Christie’s the entire year, setting up another internship for when I graduated, this time in the Special Events Department whose team I had admired from afar.

At the end of her internship, there wasn’t enough headcount for a new position, so a heartbroken Lydia had to walk away.

I called my parents sobbing...and in one of their many great parenting moves, they told me that they would pay for me to stay in NYC until I got a job at Christie’s. A month later I was hired.
Onstage with Jon Stewart / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Onstage with Jon Stewart / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Special Events at Christie’s was, as Lydia calls it, an intense and hilarious training ground. She worked six or seven days a week, oftentimes 16 hours a day.

The reality of event planning is that while you spend months planning things in excruciating detail...everything is overturned at the last minute because of cancellations/last minute additions/catering mishaps/fire alarms, etc etc etc. It is an exercise in patience, learning to stay calm when everything around you is falling apart and ensuring that your heels don’t snap when you are moving your 10th table because you didn’t order enough and the tables arrived ten minutes before the guests arrive.
Lydia in action as an auctioneer / photo courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia in action as an auctioneer / photo courtesy Lydia Fenet

During her second year she was given the completely surreal opportunity to try out as an auctioneer.  A role usually dedicated to more senior levels of the company, a series of cancellations left a vacancy and Lydia jumped at the chance to try out.

During my initial tryouts the coach told me that I needed to stop playing a British auctioneer and start using my sense of humor to draw out the bids. At the time I didn’t really understand what she meant. But as I grew more confident on my skills, I realized that using a little southern charm and a well-placed joke could dramatically increase the bidding and also keep the audience engaged.

As the requests for auctions started coming in, Lydia took every opportunity to hone her skill.  She stopped focusing on only the bidders and started focusing on entertaining the entire audience. The end result was increased revenue for the charity and the added bonus that she was having a blast on stage!

My auctioneering has provided me experiences that I could not have dreamed of in a million years. I have taken auctions for The Prince of Monaco, President Bill Clinton, shared the stage with actors like Hugh Jackman and Matt Damon, performed at Madison Square Garden and Lincoln Center—and helped raise millions of dollars for every type of non-profit you can imagine.
Lydia at the Stand Up for Heroes- The Bob Woodruff Foundation / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia at the Stand Up for Heroes- The Bob Woodruff Foundation / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

By this point, Lydia was only 26 but was an instrumental figure at Christie’s, earning the title of a favored auctioneer and Head of Special Events.  

By age 30—and nearly 4,000 events, and 400 auctions later—she was ready for a change.

Lydia onstage at the Stand Up for Heroes—the Bob Woodruff Foundation event / photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia onstage at the Stand Up for Heroes—the Bob Woodruff Foundation event / photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Throughout the almost-decade Lydia had spent at Christie’s, she had noticed that the company was lacking a global platform for partnerships.  Their current approach was to view partnerships as a band-aid solution to budget issues—approaching sponsors on a regional level without any strategy behind giving these sponsors access to the premium brand that is Christie’s. 

Her solution?  Create a global division that would pitch and secure high-profile integrated partnerships.

I wrote a business plan for a new department called Strategic Partnerships and pitched it internally. It took a couple of months but the plan was approved and six years later I am running an international team and am incredibly proud of the partners that we work with globally.
Photoshoot in the galleries at Christie's Auction House / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Photoshoot in the galleries at Christie's Auction House / Photo Courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia currently oversees a global team and recently celebrated her 15th year at Christie’s auction house. But her most important and most satisfying role, she says, is mother to her two beautiful children, Beatrice and Henry.

Lydia with her husband and children, Beatrice and Henry / Photo courtesy Lydia Fenet

Lydia with her husband and children, Beatrice and Henry / Photo courtesy Lydia Fenet

Tell me about some of the craziest auctions you’ve ever been to.

I took an auction in November for the Bob Woodruff Foundation onstage at Madison Square Garden in front of 5000 people. The last fifteen minutes of the auction I was on stage with Bruce Springsteen, Seth Meyer, Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Ray Romano. I am not really sure that I will ever be able to top that one.

What’s the culture like in a high-profile auction or at a high-profile event?  Do you normally see insanely wealthy people bidding on their own or do they hire brokers?  Are you comfortable now schmoozing with the ultra-elite?

At benefit auctions, even the high profile ones, people almost always bid on their own. The events vary—some are huge galas while others are more intimate dinners. I think the skill that I have honed over the years is understanding how to work the room. It is far easier in a smaller setting to bring the audience into the performance. The challenge is keeping a room of 1000+ entertained when only 10 people in the room are bidding. After so many years at Christie’s I can truly say that it doesn’t matter if someone is incredibly wealthy, ultra elite, the biggest celebrity in the world—they are all totally normal people at the core. Once you realize that, you feel comfortable making small talk with anyone.

Do you feel like working at such a high-profile auction house for the entirety of your career has changed you? 

Absolutely. Working at Christie’s has been an amazing journey. In my role as head of events, I met incredible dignitaries, taste makers, world leaders and formidable businessmen and women. In my role as auctioneer, I have met celebrities, ex-presidents and royalty. I credit my parents with giving me a strong sense of self that has allowed me to enjoy the experience while staying true to myself.

You have created a road-map for starting and rising the ranks of a company.  What advice would you give women who are feeling in a rut-- or even just starting out-- about being successful in a corporate environment?

Don’t look to others to tell you that you are doing a good job. When I first took over as head of events, I was completely overwhelmed with the magnitude of the job. My boss sat me down early on and told me that he wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to do it. I listened to his speech, went down to my office and cried my eyes out. It was a pivotal moment for me. After I stopped crying, I started getting angry and all I could think was “Watch me”. I never looked back. I realized that I had to stop listening to people who were doubting me and start acting like I was in control. I also have an incredible poker face. There could be sprinklers raining down water in the middle of an event and I would just tell everyone it was performance art.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

When I think about the common theme that threads through my life the phrase “never give up” sums it up. Things in life aren’t given to you, you have to step up, be present in your own life and seize every opportunity. My father & mother used to say that there will always be someone taller/smarter/funnier /better at something than you in life. You can only be the best that you can be—and you should try to live up to your full potential along the way.

You can follow Lydia on Instagram @lydiafenet

Next week, meet Havin Gavgasi.  She's a Kurdish immigrant that came to the US with dreams of opening her own coffee shop....and she did!  She's up next on DRIVEN for Women.

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