“What is this magical place?!”
That was the reaction of more than one guest at Rebellious Magazine for Women’s recent Feminist Prom as they stepped off the elevator into Catalyst Ranch, the brightly colored brainchild of June’s Rebelle of the Month, Eva Niewiadomski.
From the light fixtures imported from Morocco to the fancifully painted cement floors, Catalyst Ranch is an explosion of color, nostalgia, international inspiration and fun. It is a visual World Café of masks and artwork from around the world, coupled with “OMG, my grandma had that table! furniture” and the practical features of a corporate meeting space, from projectors to dry erase boards.
No detail has been spared, and guests even gush over the bathrooms. (Yes, those are real vintage nighties hanging in the ladies’ room.)
‘Look for the Pinatas’
It all started when Niewiadomski lost her job in new product development after the company she’d been with for 15 years, Quaker, was acquired by PepsiCo, and she was told the company didn’t see a future with her.
“Nothing motivates you to take action in life like finding out you lost your job after 15 years,” she quips. “I did have the early warning signs that I probably wouldn’t be on the org chart for the next few years…When you know the writings on the wall, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘what the heck could I do?’”
For years leading up to her layoff, Niewiadomski was known around the office for her ability to transform the most mundane corporate cubelands into inspiring and functional workspaces of art, drawing from her love of vintage furniture, her travels around the world and a certain way with a needle and thread.
There’s also the time she came across dozens of tiny pinatas in a supply closet and painstakingly hung them from the ceiling of a neighboring department while her colleagues were at lunch.
“They loved it and then everyone knew: ‘Hey, where’s (the) supply chain (department)? Look for the pinatas.’ It added personality.”
From the pinatas, she talked her bosses into allowing her to work her magic on two spaces, first a long corridor she turned from what she called the “Hallway from Hell” into an “Innovation Hallway,” where departments could share what they were working on, pose public questions or challenges, and have conversations via colorful wall hangings and post-it notes.
After the success of the hallway came the “Creativity Room,” a former storage closet she turned into a place where employees could hold brainstorming sessions, problem-solve or just get away from it all.
The Catalysts for Catalyst Ranch
The Creativity Room, and her colleagues’ enthusiastic reaction to it, was the genesis of what would become Catalyst Ranch.
“The reception to that room and how much people loved it kind of started that seed of an idea,” she says. “It threw me how much people loved it.”
“I actually had some individuals who came up and said, ‘Thank you so much for creating this space, it makes me so happy to be able to go in there, especially when I’m having a bad day, and I can’t figure something out. It just makes me happy to be able to go and hang out in there.’”
Her personal apartment was also a place people often admired, saying of her eclectic mix of vintage pieces and items fetched during her travels, “’There’s so many things to catch your eye, and they’re interesting, yet it doesn’t feel like a museum…I can touch it, and every time I come back I see different things.”
“I started to realize that there’s this insight around physical space, and it’s not just me, and not everyone knows how to create it. They don’t understand, necessarily, the merits of it until they’re in it,” she says. “By experiencing it, they will actually accrue, in terms of better ideas or problem solving, in a way they wouldn’t if they used a regular conference room. So that nugget was sitting there.”
And then the ax fell, ironically enough while she was on a long-postponed vacation to Brazil. When she got back, she spent two weeks thinking that she’d be starting a new job. She admits she was excited heading into a meeting with her boss to discuss what she thought was her new position. Instead, she was told that was being let go in two months.
“You don’t like being told you don’t have a place in an organization…no matter how well prepared you are, it is very devastating, especially since I’d worked there for 15 years,” she says. “Later that same evening, and I will never be able to explain it, but something shifted…into the exact idea for Catalyst Ranch.”
“Instead of it being a space for brainstorming, it could be used for any sort of meetings. And where everything’s provided, so you are sort of a partner. And there’s natural light, lots of space to move around, flexibility, already pre-thinking everything … so that the person running the meeting can concentrate on delivering the content.”
When she went in the next day, she says her coworkers were tiptoeing around her, trying to give her space after the layoff. Instead, she was ecstatic, announcing her plan for not only a new business, but an entirely new concept in meeting and event space.
She would establish a creative and “disorienting” work space that’s the polar opposite of an office space. Companies could bring employees to brainstorm, solve problems, set strategic direction, improve communication, hold trainings – the possibilities were and are endless.
“I took a lot of the learnings from how you do new product brainstorming and those same theories really apply. And I took it a step further and really thinking about how do you jump start someone’s brain and get them thinking in a different way?”
“So if you take the premise that you should put them in an environment that’s as different as possible from their regular office environment, and you think about that psychology. And this was a theory that I kind of evolved. It all kind of happened that same night.”
Her coworkers rallied behind her, helping her paint, move furniture and carry out the arduous work of turning 9,000 square feet of raw space into her vision.
“It just really mobilized people: ‘You conquered, you overcame, they said they didn’t want you.'”
That was 14 years ago, and today, Catalyst Ranch hosts everything from corporate strategy sessions to bar and bat mitzvahs to weddings (and Feminist Proms).
An Enterprising Woman of the Year
The space has been turning heads and winning awards along the way: In 2008, Catalyst Ranch was named to Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 fastest growing private companies in Illinois. In 2006, 2012 and 2013, the space won the Most Unique Venue and Best Conference Venue, respectively, in Illinois Meetings & Events Best Of Awards. And in 2014, Catalyst Ranch was awarded Best Place for Small Meetings by Convene Magazine.
Niewiadomski has also recently gotten some personal recognition: She was named a 2016 Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women Magazine, and in April, she was named Member of the Year by the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
While she acknowledges that the recognition has been wonderful, she says it isn’t why she does what she does. It’s the creativity that drives her. And that she turned her employer’s rejection into a magical opportunity. When asked what’s the most Rebellious thing she’s ever done, it’s this spark that she comes back to.
“Maybe it was starting my own business, and not taking what they said about what my potential was to… bring value to the organization. I showed them.”
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