Many people hit major roadblocks before they succeed.
Famous wedding gown designer Vera Wang wanted to be an ice skater but failed to get into the Olympics. It was then that she decided to go into fashion.
Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, took a trip to Italy and came home with an idea about a chain of intimate cafes. He brought it to the coffee company he worked for at the time, they turned his idea down, and he did it anyway. Now there’s a Starbucks on every street corner.
J.K. Rowling was nearly penniless and raising a child on her own when she wrote the massively popular Harry Potter books. She was rejected by several publishers before finding success. I bet those people are kicking themselves.
Eva Niewiadomski, the mastermind behind Catalyst Ranch, can relate to these stories. Her business is a creative meeting space and event venue in Chicago—and it is extraordinary. Every square inch is covered in color and toys and art and crazy furniture. None of it goes together, yet somehow it all blends into a mass of swirling fun—and it launched because she lost her job. She wanted to create a space where companies, consultants, organizations or really whoever could come and have meetings, events or parties in a creative space, a space that really gets you thinking outside of the box. Catalyst Ranch is one of a kind in this city and, quite possibly, the world.
People with Panache: Eva, where does your story begin? How did you end up starting this vibrant business 13 years ago?
Eva Niewiadomski: I lost my job after 15 years of working at Quaker Oats.
Fourteen years in, we were purchased by Pepsi, and I lasted about one year after the merger. It was especially difficult because we had such a unique bond on the Quaker Oats side. You don’t work somewhere for 15 years because you love your job every single day—but you do stay if you value your colleagues, have a wonderful experience or know you’re working with smart, trustworthy people. For not being a family-owned business, it felt like it because people were supportive. Those very friends and colleagues ended up being the reason I was able to start this business.
“People give you lots of free ideas if you’re willing to listen.”
PWP: Being laid off is such a hard thing to go through. How did your colleagues help you transition to Catalyst Ranch?
EN: Obviously, you don’t succeed on your own. My Quaker friends not only helped me physically paint and move stuff, but they brought me clients. How else would you develop a client base for a concept that no one understood? I created a new category. Creative meeting space didn’t exist back in the day. The fact that I was able to have three meetings booked sight unseen before I even opened my doors—well, that tells you what got it going.
PWP: After being laid off, how did you figure out what you wanted to do?
EN: The day I got laid off, I had that initial shock: What do you mean I’m not good enough, and you don’t see a future for me here? Because when you’re an A student, you’re not used to hearing that—and we were all A students at Quaker.
But something shifted by late that afternoon as I kind of wrapped my head around it. Something solidified and I literally at one moment knew exactly what I was going to do. The whole concept of Catalyst Ranch crystallized that night.
It still felt a little scary, but I walked in the very next day and said: Here’s what I’m doing. People are afraid because they want to tiptoe around you; they heard you lost your job, they don’t know how to approach you. So here I am like: You guys, I have this great idea. I was the first and only person that I know of who came in and said I’m actually starting my own business.
As soon as I started sharing that with people, all I got was positive feedback: “That’s brilliant,” “Wish I’d thought of it,” “You can pull it off,” “You have the skill set,” “I would support you in that.”
They were also saying: How about you include these sorts of people in your target, and do you know about these organizations, or do you know about these focus groups? I just walked around with a notebook and wrote down anything anyone said, every idea. People give you lots of free ideas if you’re willing to listen.
PWP: But why a meeting space venue? How did that all come together in your head?
EN: I got into Quaker in accounting as a CPA. But the reason I wanted to work there so much was because they used to pay 100% for school. I actually wanted to get out of accounting and do something more creative, so I explained why I needed to get an MBA at Kellogg in marketing and international business.
Over time I finally made it into the new products side of the business. In new products, when times were lean and we couldn’t afford a consultant to come in and run our brainstorming sessions, they started training some of us internally to be facilitators. As part of that training, one of the first things they teach you is that your physical environment is critical. You should, if at all possible, avoid being in the same building or in a space that’s too similar to your actual office, because then that way of thinking continues. You want to disorient people; you want them to think in a different way; you want them to make different connections and ideas, bring forth their imagination and divergent opinions. But it’s hard to do.
When I would do those sessions, I would scout out all these crazy locations and drag all this stuff from my home: artwork, colorful stuff and toys… all these things to add life. On top of that, you still have to bring in easels and markers and all that stuff because it’s not an office. And because we’re in the food business and it’s an ideation session, you’re bringing in a ton of stimuli, so you’re going to the grocery store and bringing in your own product or a competitor’s product depending on what you’re working on—shopping carts full of food. Those are the components that come into the equation. It’s hard, but it’s effective.
If there was a consultant coming in, they would try to rent like a funky hotel space, and they would bring a suitcase with toys. That was about all they could do to jazz up the place. Why not provide a space where they don’t have to worry about that? To me that was one opportunity to really partner with meeting planners and make their lives easier. That’s not where their stress should be. They should be able to feel like that part’s taken care of—it’s all going to run smoothly from AV to flipcharts.
PWP: What motivated you to turn this training or theory into your own business?
EN: With this imminent layoff looming, I thought, “I have to figure out what to do, but what can I bring to the party? I can’t consult on anything.” You feel like you don’t have a strength in anything. It was an interesting evolution to realize that maybe the one thing I do know how to do is create these spaces.
I want to show people you can be more productive, and environment makes a difference. When I was at Quaker Oats, it was important to me that my whole cubicle was artwork and color. And people really liked my office, so I started decorating around me. I pitched the idea of an innovation hallway in one of the divisions I was working in to turn dead space into something low-tech but interactive by adding color and ways to communicate and brainstorm.
Later, when I moved divisions, I made a creativity room, a little conference room nothing like our others. This small room had no natural windows, so I took old windows from my condo, did artwork for them so it looked like you were looking out at a fantastical, crazy environment, put little curtains on them, and jazzed up the place. I was shocked at how responsive people were. I had people come and thank me for creating that space. They loved that room. For me it was fun, it was a theory, I thought it would be great to have. And in effect, it became the pilot for Catalyst Ranch without me even realizing it.
PWP: It’s funny how that happens. Both Alysse and I did significant career changes after our first out-of-college jobs, but the work we were doing fed into our next steps, even if it might not have been obvious to the outside world. What about this business are you passionate about growing?
EN: I am not focused on having a million Catalyst Ranches all over the world. That was never part of my business plan. It was always going to be one location, because it’s about quality of life and where you want to spend your time. I felt strongly about improving people’s work lives and hopefully having a positive effect on the employees I bring in. I like to develop people; I want to push people beyond what they think they’re capable of. I also have a lot of passion projects around kids and exposing people to the arts. I do a lot of events and give my space away or donate my staff or some version thereof.
PWP: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
EN: First, obviously, being an entrepreneur is hard, and you have to make sure that what you’re pursuing you have a true passion for. That’s what’s going to keep you going through those hard times. It also applies to people who are not entrepreneurs. I feel like a lot of individuals, especially in their early 40s, early 50s, are in that “what do I want to do now” kind of mid-life crisis. It’s important to make the time to figure out what your passion is, what’s going to give you real enjoyment in life. And just because you find your passion doesn’t mean you have to get a job in it necessarily. You may have a job that you’re okay with that pays the bills and gives you a good living, and you can make time for your passion in your personal life.
Second, it’s really important not to be afraid of numbers. Even with an accounting background, having been a CPA and an auditor, I still make mistakes, and I’ve still been taken advantage of. But I think you’re in a much worse situation when you don’t have those skill sets and you defer everything to an accountant or someone in your office who you’re going to trust with everything. Just be aware and keep an eye out.
Sorry to end on a scary note! But it’s an important and unfortunately realistic truth that we didn’t want to leave out.
We also firmly believe that sharing your idea with the world will actually help bring it to fruition. Share your ideas in the comment section or on our Facebook. And this, right now, is us telling you to watch your calendars: Our next PWP event will be in Chicago, and we hope to have it at Catalyst Ranch!
[Photos by Kate.]
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