Ross D. Levi ’97 went to law school to change the world. After he helped bring about New York’s historic and groundbreaking advances in LGBT rights, his career took an unexpected turn when he was presented with the opportunity to promote the wonders of the Empire State to the world.

Today, as executive director of tourism at Empire State Development, the state’s chief economic development agency, Levi leads New York’s tourism program, promoting the state’s “I Love New York” campaign as well as an astounding range of tourism options throughout the state—including Broadway shows, ocean beaches, hiking trails, and ski slopes.

“Our primary job is to let folks know that, yes, New York State is New York City, and it’s also so much more,” says Levi, who has helped craft New York’s tourism strategies since 2012, when he was first appointed to Empire State Development by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

New York’s numerous attractions make it an easy sell, but Levi’s job is about a lot more than fun and relaxation. New York is one of the world’s most popular destinations, and given its almost 240 million visitors a year, tourism is the state’s fourth-largest industry. Tourism is responsible for one in 12 jobs across the state and has an economic impact of $105 billion annually. While promoting New York’s already popular attractions, Levi also strives to build the tourism industry and promote different regions of the state by making connections with people of varied interests, including history, culinary arts, and social and political movements.

Before joining the agency, Levi served as the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), New York’s statewide LGBT organization. During his time there, New York legalized same-sex marriage, passed a hate crimes law that included LGBT people, and passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to fire people or refuse them public accommodation because of their sexual orientation.

“Leading New York’s statewide LGBT organization during the years that we achieved marriage equality in New York was an incredible experience,” Levi says. “I’m honored to say that I ended up being a part of every LGBT statewide law passed in New York State.”

He started working for ESPA as an Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellow at Brooklyn Law School. After working in the New York State Senate upon graduation, he became ESPA’s legislative counsel in 2000, and then director of public policy and education, before being named executive director. In those roles, he has served as a lobbyist, helped draft policy papers and legislation, and contributed to amicus briefs related to LGBT rights policy.

A consequence of the legalization of same-sex marriage was the potential surge in the number of people traveling to New York to get married and attend same-sex weddings. Levi highlighted this fact to the Cuomo administration in 2012, suggesting that the state hadn’t yet taken full advantage of this tourism opportunity. That, along with his extensive knowledge of New York State and prior film industry marketing experience, led the governor to appoint him vice president of marketing initiatives for Empire State Development.

Above all else, it was Levi’s involvement with the Sparer program that set him on the path to public service.

“It was my Sparer experience that really led to knowing what I wanted to do, and my ability to go do it,” Levi says. “It was important for me to go to a school that had a strong social consciousness bent, and Brooklyn Law School’s history and strong public interest programs made a big impact.”

— Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips