ELI Virtual Event Profile: Carlee Warner, KPMG

Mentorship programs take many forms, with in-person events frequently topping the list. For the last two years, the KPMG San Francisco office has hosted an annual mentoring event in conjunction with The Financial Women of San Francisco (FWSF) to highlight rising finance stars.

In prior years, participating companies nominated a trailblazing woman professional. The nominees served as roundtable facilitators and mentors during the in-person event, connecting with other attendees and leading discussions on important topics. With the nomination process and leadership participation, the format was extremely successful: KPMG and FWSF achieved 100 percent attendance.

Following this successful in-person format wasn’t an option for this year’s annual event. KPMG Events & Meetings Associate Director Carlee Warner shared how the firm successfully transitioned to a new, entirely virtual format.

Developing the Event Plan

When the discussion began about moving to a virtual format, Carlee explained there was a slight hesitation. “We wondered if attendees might be too fatigued – since they likely spend a significant amount of time on camera and engaging over video. Did we want to add to their plate?”

The answer was obvious, said Carlee. “At the end of the day, our mentor partnership program with FWSF makes a difference to those who participate. More than ever, it was important for us to support the community as we had done in the past.”

The KPMG team knew the successful approach wouldn’t work the same in a virtual format. Carlee explained it was important to build a separate event brand. “We began by reaching out to facilitators to understand who would be interested in participating in a new breakout session format in individual virtual rooms, comparable to our in-person dinner,” explained Carlee.

Another critical decision was to focus on a smaller, targeted approach. Carlee explained, “we were cautious with our approach, limiting the number of participants so we could create an environment for meaningful dialog, conversation, and relationship building – the same desirable outcomes from our in-person events.”

Format & Technology Platforms

With the decision to keep the breakout rooms small, KPMG decided to use one of the company-approved platforms, which is also the firm’s primary virtual meeting tool.

At the time, the platform allowed a maximum of nine pictures shown in a breakout room at a time. Carlee explained, “this limit helped us decide on the maximum number of nine total attendees per room – both participants and the facilitator – so everyone would always be able to see each other.”

While this was less than the in-person roundtables of five to six facilitators, with eight to nine participants per table, Carlee said, “We wanted everyone to feel engaged and connected in an intimate format.”

Speaker Prep

Though the chosen facilitators were well-versed in leading roundtable discussions, KPMG provided additional support to ease the transition to virtual.

Pre-event, Carlee hosted a call with all facilitators, reviewing potential discussion topics attendees would be most interested in discussing – including race, women in finance, and new challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“The pre-event call was also a way for the facilitators to share their suggestions for keeping attendee engagement high, such as asking open-ended questions and encouraging all to contribute,” said Carlee.

Agenda & Scheduling

While the in-person event typically ran for three hours, Carlee said that would be too long for an online format. “Many recommendations show 90 minutes is where attendees typically start to drop-off and disengage.”

The team settled on a two-hour event. Carlee explained, “We started the event with a short group kick-off with all attendees in one virtual meeting room, hosted by a KPMG partner who is the former president of FWSF.”

Following the kick-off, groups went into one of four separate breakout rooms for a 45-minute discussion led by the designated facilitator. After the first session, attendees remained in their original breakout rooms, and a new facilitator rotated in for the next discussion. Following the second 45-minute session, the entire group returned to the main room for a recap and closing remarks.

Audience Engagement

With the small breakout discussion format, attendee engagement was high. During the kick-off and closing, attendees were encouraged to use the chat feature to share their voices.

Carlee said, “One effective tactic in the closing session was to ask everyone to share their key takeaway from the event. We received great feedback from an event planning perspective, and at the same time, it was beneficial for attendees to share too.”


The virtual event once again achieved KPMG’s goal of 100 percent attendance and participation. Additionally, all attendees stayed on through the facilitated sessions, with only a small drop-off when the group came back together for the closing session.

Carlee added, “it’s hard to gather other metrics for a mentorship event, so we also rely on anecdotal notes and feedback, which were overwhelmingly positive.”


Carlee acknowledged additional breakout rooms could have been used, but “for our first time virtually, we wanted to focus on a smooth-running event with high attendee participation.”

The next mentorship event is planned for August 2021. Carlee explained she hopes to host in-person since “nothing can replace face-to-face when it comes to relationship building events.”

The virtual program success has KPMG thinking about adopting a hybrid approach for a broader event reach, mixing in-person groups with virtual attendees for roundtable discussions, and bringing both groups together to open and closing sessions.

“While we had questions about how this new format would go, our biggest takeaway isn’t a surprise. People are looking for connections and opportunities to connect and participate, so don’t hesitate in a decision to move to virtual,” said Carlee.

Looking for more insights on how to successfully plan and produce virtual events? Join over 1,700 alumni who have become certified in Virtual Event and Meeting Management.

Interested in having your virtual event profiled by ELI? Share your story with us.