Catherine Smyka joined LaFleur at the beginning of 2018 as the team’s project manager. Previously, she managed accounts and projects at FCB Global in Chicago; before that, she worked as a staff writer and project manager at The Stranger, Seattle’s irreverent alternative newspaper.
Catherine is also an LGBT activist and an accomplished writer and storyteller who has had her essays and stories published by Reader’s Digest and NPR, among others. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009 with a B.A. in communications.
We sat down with Catherine to learn more about her and found out a lot, including her run as a two-time Moth Story Slam champion in Seattle and her hard-earned homemade sushi skills.
LaFleur: I see you’re wearing a sushi shirt. Can I take that to mean you’re a sushi lover?
Catherine Smyka: It is a sushi shirt. [My wife] Courtney and I got matching sushi shirts on a day when we just needed a break from something, and we saw these at H&M. And yes, we love sushi. We even learned how to make our own sushi at home! We love it.
LF: I love sushi, too, but I’ve always found the idea of making it completely intimidating.
CS: You know, we kind of started because sushi is so expensive, and we were like, that’s ridiculous. So about four years ago, we started watching YouTube videos and just figured out how to do it ourselves. It was messy, and it took a hundred years to do it. At first, it didn’t even look like sushi when we were done. But we’ve gotten a lot better, and we probably make it once a week or so now.
LF: Tell me a little bit about how you came to LaFleur and joined us as our project manager.
CS: I had been living in Chicago, and then Courtney got into school here in Michigan, and we were already thinking about moving here anyway because my family lives here. So, we moved, and then I was doing a bit of freelance work and also working remotely at the ad agency I worked at in Chicago.
I actually had a tough time at first finding a job I wanted here — I’ve always been very picky about the places I work. I had my eye out for a place I really believed in, a team I wanted to work with, and a place I could see myself growing and learning with everyone for years to come.
As soon as I interviewed at LaFleur for the first time, I was like, this is clearly that place. Because it has a really interesting mix of people who are very good at their individual jobs, but also who are super passionate about so many other side projects and hobbies. Even when that doesn’t affect the day-to-day work we’re doing, it just affects the way we interact with each other — everyone on the team is so supportive. And people here are so involved in the community, which is such a big thing for me.
LF: Well, we’re glad to have you here. What about your project management role? How did you start getting into PM, and what do you like about it?
CS: I was living in Seattle and working at a newspaper there, The Stranger, and at that time I also started up a magazine called T(OUR), which I ran for a couple of years. It was basically an LGBT arts and literary magazine where people could share their stories and experiences with the queer community.
I started the magazine with a handful of people, and I ran it as the editor-in-chief. And I think the project management thing came about organically somewhere in the middle there — all the places I’ve where I have worked have been organizations that are kind of scrappy, and where you just use the resources you have and get innovative with sharing those resources and coming up with solutions.
So whether it was the newspaper or the magazine or any of the jobs I had before that, the project management side of things was the part I loved the most — just trying to figure out what everyone needs in order to succeed: the timelines, the budgets, and just deciding what we want to do and then backing out and figuring out how to actually get there.
I became an actual project manager when I was working in the newspaper in their marketing department. And between the newspaper and the magazine, I made some great connections and ended up working at an ad agency doing project management and account management, and I’ve been officially doing it since.
LF: Speaking as someone who moved back to Grand Rapids after living in Chicago for a long time, it’s definitely an adjustment. What do you miss most about places like Chicago and Seattle, and what do you miss least?
CS: Well, definitely the thing I miss the least is the traffic.
LF: People who live in mid-sized cities think they deal with traffic, but they don’t. Chicago traffic will suck out your soul.
CS: I would never want to know the number of hours in my life I’ve spent stuck in traffic.
But as for the things I miss the most, I would say in Seattle, it’s being so close to the mountains. And also their literary community because it’s an amazing group of people. Chicago, I would have to say the people and also — this sounds so superficial — just the skyline there was such a comforting and inspiring thing to me. I have part of it tattooed on my side, so I’ll always have it.
LF: What else do you love to do with your time outside of work?
CS: I do some storytelling with The Moth. That’s something I started when I was out in Seattle — I helped start their monthly Story Slams.
LF: That’s so cool. I didn’t know that. We don’t have a local chapter in Grand Rapids yet, do we?
CS: There isn’t a local chapter, but I’ve talked to them about starting one. I’ve been working with them on and off for about six years to help them with some stories and other things.
LF: And have you told stories on-stage at Moth events?
CS: Yeah, I have. I was telling stories with them up until I moved here. It depends on the theme of the night, but I’ve told stories about crazy things that happened with my family, relationships, some crazy job situations.
LF: Did you ever win a Story Slam?
CS: I did win a couple times, yeah.
LF: Wow, okay. So, you had your stories broadcast. What were the stories?
CS: They both happened to be stories about coming out to people, which is not a thing that I’m always going to get up on stage and talk about. But one was about me coming out to my grandma, which was a lot of fun, and the other was about me telling my dad that I was gay. And both in very different scenarios.
LF: Well, now I know we have a Story Slam champion in our midst. I had no idea. Anything else you want people to know about you?
CS: Just how cool the people here are.
LF: Hopefully they know already.