Heather McLaren, BA ’03

Photo of Heather

Not many people get to visit beluga whales every morning on the way to the office; Heather McLaren is one of the lucky ones.

Senior director of guest relations at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, she oversees more than 100 customer service professionals who support Shedd’s guests.

“I am charged with influencing all aspects of the guest experience to create a seamless and satisfying experience for nearly 2 million guests per year,” she said, adding that her responsibilities include continuously improving guest satisfaction, setting and achieving attendance goals, and driving revenue through visits and programming.

A job perk is that she can observe aquatic life any time she likes, from the Wild Reef habitat—home to sharks, rays, guitarfish, and live corals, to the Great Lakes Gallery—where she can touch a sturgeon.

Beluga whales—playful, intelligent, and social animals— have fascinated Heather ever since she first visited Shedd as a little girl. She tries to start each day with a visit to the Beluga habitat as a reminder of why her work is vitally important.

“Shedd’s mission is to spark compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Conserving our blue planet and the animals we share it with takes all of us. We strive to help all guests look nature in the eye, form connections with our amazing animals, and give them tools to take action for the animals after their visit.”

After graduating from Ohio Northern University with a Bachelor of Arts in communication arts—theatre and English, she worked in the theatre world in New York City for a few years before moving to Chicago. When the opportunity arose for her to use her ticketing and guest service skills to advance the mission of Shedd, she “jumped at the chance.”

“I love knowing that my work and my team’s work advances the conservation of aquatic animals and wild places. We don’t have to be researchers or veterinarians to contribute to animal care and conservation. Every ticket we sell and every guest we help connect to nature supports our blue planet and the animals we share it with.”

She strives to be an inspiring leader of her team. She recently co-created an internal, paid internship program. Current team members can spend one day per week for 12 weeks learning the role of another team member, such as animal care or marketing and development.

“I’m proud that we’ve had a significant number of internal promotions each year, and this program has been a big part of that success.”

The individual mentoring she received at ONU prepared her for success, she says, and directly led to every internship and job she received on her path to Shedd Aquarium.

“I could never have predicted this exact career path, but the Freed Center team has always believed in the value of a theatre degree and instilled confidence that the skills we built would serve us well whether we stayed in performing arts or transferred those skills to another industry.”