Tucked away inside an historic brick building just steps away from the site of the Chicago's infamous 1886 Haymarket riot, Illinois' best conference venue (as voted by readers of Illinois Meetings & Events' magazine) has been hosting meetings and events for the past twelve years. In that time, it's grown from a simple idea to today's layout of two floors packed with eclectic decor designed to inspire and get creative juices flowing. The founder and owner of Catalyst Ranch, Eva Niewiadomski started with the concept that bigger and better ideas are born out of stimulating environments. The initial prototype for the Ranch was born at her previous job as a marketing manager with Quaker Oats. Sensing the need for an area there where creativity could flourish, she transformed some underutilized space into two 'Innovation Hallways' and a Creativity Room. After being let go from Quaker Oats, she quickly got to work realizing her dream of opening a dedicated meeting and events facility. Having worked a number of graphic recording/ideation jobs for meetings at the Ranch, I can attest that the fun ambiance and the attentiveness of the staff puts all attendees immediately at ease and in a creative mood.
I recently spoke with Eva about how Catalyst Ranch came to be, and she agreed to a quick Q & A:
Q: Thank you for sharing some of your insights with us, Eva. The story of how Catalyst Ranch came to be is explained well on your website. I'm wondering where you found the confidence to invest so much of yourself in terms of time and money into a new and unique business? Eva: I wonder about that myself, Dave. I had never thought of myself as being especially brave, especially when it came to spending money. I’ve always been fiscally conservative, stashing away as much as I can into savings. One contributing factor was the severance pay that I received as part of my layoff. Here was a nice reserve of money that someone was handing me to pursue a dream. If not now, then when? It probably wouldn’t happen. But I think more importantly, I believed that the idea was absolutely what Chicago needed. The positive response to my projects at Quaker Oats by my co-workers along with their wholesale enthusiasm for my idea of Catalyst Ranch was probably the biggest motivator. I felt that here was something that I was doing that I was uniquely qualified to do and around which I had a lot of passion. This was work that wouldn’t necessarily feel like work and I could feel like I was doing something positive for society. I get the greatest sense of satisfaction in shifting people’s perceptions of themselves and their capabilities. I believe everyone is creative and imaginative, if only given the right circumstances in which to explore the possibilities.
Q: I get the sense that family is very important to you. Your parents especially seem to have been quite supportive from the outset. How instrumental were they in launching Catalyst Ranch? Eva: My family is very important. There are not that many of us here in the U.S. The extended family is in Poland and New Zealand. When you think about the fact that my parents (neither of whom have ever had a corporate job let alone sat in a meeting) said that they believed in me and would help me in whatever way they could despite not understanding at all what my venture was about, it’s pretty amazing and very empowering. My dad truly was my first employee and worked very hard at refinishing and reupholstering the furniture along with a million other tasks that encompass a build-out, despite the fact that he was already 78 yrs old. He turns 90 this year! The irony for me is that my dad continues to bemoan the fact that they didn’t help me enough since they couldn’t provide financial assistance. He doesn’t understand all the money that he saved me by doing all the labor for free. Without his help I truly wouldn’t have had enough money to furnish the space and definitely wouldn’t have been ready to open in time for my first client booking. Do you know how much furniture it takes to furnish 9,000 sq. ft.?? My mom was great too. She helped where she could and spent a week just polishing all the furniture and scrubbing the place to a shine after we moved everything in. Then there were all my friends and ex co-workers who painted, helped with the move in and provided their ideas, leads and continuing moral support. Definitely wouldn’t have made it past year one without all of them!
Q: In your twelve years there, what's the most unusual event or activity that the space has hosted? Eva: It’s incredibly hard to sort through all the doings here at the Ranch over 12 years but I would have to say that one of my favorites was an event we hosted for the Anti-Cruelty Society called “Paint Your Pet.” Guests brought photos of their pets and artists from Bottle and Bottega supplied canvases, paint, brushes and basic instruction. You can’t imagine the fever of concentration as 50 people sweated over their canvases, creating the most unusual breadth of artistic renditions of their pets. So much untapped talent! And so much laughter and fun! We’ve also hosted meetings where clients constructed some very interesting (and unusual) models and structures, built bicycles for needy kids as part of a team building activity and hit the breakfast buffet in a variety of headgear and boas. We’ve accepted delivery of refrigerators, composters and other top secret prototypes of unusual dimensions. Makes you want to be a fly on the wall to see what they are up to behind those closed doors!
Q: Given the economic problems and layoffs in recent years, there's been an influx of hopeful entrepreneurs of late. What sort of advice would you give to someone looking to launch their own business? Eva: I’ve actually met with a lot of people over the years who were in flux with their careers or just unhappy in their current jobs. What I tell all of them is that whatever you decide to do, you must have a passion for it, validate the need in the market for whatever product or service you want to offer, be comfortable with numbers and running financials (do not defer this to someone else without having a working knowledge of how to do a forecast and a budget and the questions to ask), have enough money to survive the bad times and the fortitude to work harder than you think. There is no way to foresee everything that you will have to deal with once you start your venture. But that’s also the fun of it! There are many rewards to be found in following your own path but you must have at least a small appetite for risk. This is just the start of a very long conversation as there is so much to consider and weigh.
Thanks very much, Eva and continued success with Catalyst Ranch!
Catalyst Ranch is located at 656 W. Randolph, Suite 3W, Chicago, IL 60661 For more information. visit the Catalyst Ranch website at http://www.catalystranch.com
As a side note, the pose in the accompanying illustration was appropriately (very loosely) based on Rembrandt's 'Polish Rider', shown here: