When Catherine Stewart ’01 entered Shipley in tenth grade, she had some fairly strong notions. “I wanted to do things my way,” she laughs, remembering her younger self. “I was a good student, but a bit of a free spirit.” And that worked for a while.
Until she took Chemistry.
“Chemistry was hard for me,” she admits, her voice grave with weight of the challenge.
But before we examine the hours that Catherine spent in the Chemistry trenches with beloved teacher Lura Coleman Wampler ’56, we must appreciate Catherine’s other teachers, the Shipley teachers who had the sometimes thankless job of un-indulging Catherine, of directing her free spirit without crushing it, and of releasing her academic potential while providing her the skills to succeed when raw intellect failed. It was these teachers who earned their stripes in the moment, and later, the deep and lasting gratitude of Catherine.
In Catherine’s Trig class, she quickly met her match in Mrs. Graff. “At first, I didn’t always do the assignments,” says Catherine of her approach to class. “My thinking was: if you knew the material and were performing well on tests, why did you have to do the homework?” There was a philosophical tussle and Catherine came out on the bottom. At Shipley, it seemed, one had to do one’s work. “If we didn’t do our homework, we wouldn’t pass, regardless of our test results. We also had to use graph paper for our homework and line up the calculations in the boxes, and show every step.” In retrospect, she feels that attention to detail and commitment to process helped her when she faced more complex challenges.
Back to the Trenches
Chemistry was Catherine’s toughest challenge at Shipley. Mrs. Wampler was no pushover when it came to process. “She was also very structured in the way she taught,” admits Catherine, who at first struggled in the class. Fortunately, Mrs. Wampler was invested in her students’ success.
“I went to almost all of her office hours,” says Catherine. “And Mrs. Wampler stayed late every time I came. She knew I was committed, and she was committed, too. She was not teaching because it was a job. She was teaching because she wanted us to learn both as students and as human beings.”
Catherine recently saw Mrs. Wampler at a 10-year reunion. “Mrs. Wampler has a special place in my heart, even though her class was one of the more difficult challenges in my childhood.”
The Inspiration of Ms. Long and Mrs. King
Shipley wasn’t all lessons in discipline and rigor. Not by a long shot. While Mrs. Graff and Mrs. Wampler taught process, Ms. Long, Shipley’s Geometry teacher, gave Catherine the latitude she craved to be creative in her projects. “She gave us extra credit assignments that were fun and intellectually challenging, such as a report on the significance of the golden ratio. I didn’t know I liked math until I had her for a teacher.”
When it came to English, Mrs. King helped her students find their voice in writing. “I had always loved reading; Mrs. King taught me how to write. She also assigned us foundational works of the western canon and helped us trace their influence in subsequent authors’ works. Not only did her class inspire me to major in English in college, it also inspired the topic of my thesis.”
Catherine went on to study at Yale. “I found Yale easier than Shipley -- Shipley prepared me well,” she says. Catherine graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English, then ventured across the Atlantic to complete her master’s degree in psychology at Cambridge. All was well.
And then life got tough.
I figured it wouldn’t take long to find a job in New York,” she says. Not so. Time ticked on and her savings dwindled. “I was considering getting a job at Starbucks to pay rent.”
“I had degrees in English and Psychology, and had used my summers for research fellowships instead of practical internships,” says Catherine. “My first year at McKinsey was painful.”
She reflects, and after a moment, shares, “I knew about hard work from my experiences in Chemistry and Trig. If I had always had it easy,” she says, “I very well may have given up.”
While at McKinsey, Catherine was exposed to the publishing industry’s shift from print to digital books. “I knew publishing was where I wanted to go next.” She received an offer from Random House and worked on the firm’s transition to eBooks. “I helped create the model that forecasted our company’s P&L in various scenarios and evaluated what actions we should take,” she recalls. “I learned so much during my time at Random House.”
From Facebook to Automattic
Catherine’s move from Random House to Facebook was a natural one. “I decided it would be a good experience to work for a company in tech,” she says. “Facebook hired me to work on strategy. I worked on initiatives to increase revenue from small to midsize businesses, and eventually revenue growth across the board,” she explains. “I wasn’t planning to leave,” she says.
And then she got the call from the CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. “At first I said that it wasn’t the right time.” But after about four months, her love of publishing and her excitement for a new challenge in a burgeoning company compelled her to make the switch, and a good move it was.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great jobs,” Catherine says of her career thus far, “but Automattic may be my favorite.” Every day, she gets to bring all of her previous experience to bear. “I work on a broad range of topics on the business side,” she explains, “and I get to work closely with and learn from Matt, our CEO.”
She Doesn’t Forget
Catherine’s doing well, and she hasn’t forgotten the teachers back at Shipley who helped shape her. “I had teachers who inspired me,” she says. “I think about them often. I’m grateful to them, and they should know that.”