Cat Martin ’07 embodies the Academy at the Lakes experience. Starting out at Academy as a shy, reserved middle school student from another country, she took advantage of the opportunities that Academy had to offer and blossomed into an enthusiastic and highly successful student, graduate, and businesswoman.
COMING TO AMERICA
Cat and her family made the move from Toronto, Ontario to Tampa prior to the start of the 2002 school year. She toured the campus with Academy at the Lakes Founder Richard Wendlek that summer as an 11-year-old rising 7th Grader. She was initially captivated by two things: the small size of the school and the sense of community she felt while on the tour.
“When you’re 11 years old and you’re moving from Canada to Florida that’s a pretty big change,” said Cat. “Everything is daunting and different, but when I came to Academy and toured it was small, comfortable, unintimidating, and the one thing that gave me a safe feeling throughout the move.”
During the tour they ran into then Admissions Director, now Upper Division Director, Robert Sullivan. Mr. Wendlek introduced Mr. Sullivan to Cat saying, “This is Mr. Sullivan, but all the kids call him Sully.”
That became a defining moment for Cat.
“It really stuck out to me. You have this kind of intimidating looking guy and the kids are comfortable calling him Sully, and the fact that he was comfortable with that as well stood out to me as a sign of a great sense of community.”
BIG THINGS IN SMALL PACKAGES
When asked to describe what her experience at Academy was like when the school was much younger, Cat answered with “small.”
When she began 9th Grade at Academy, the high school didn’t yet have its own building. Cat and her classmates were often taking classes in the church down the street. What are now the science labs used to be the locker rooms she used for P.E.; the field behind the gym housed an outdoor basketball court where teams practiced and morning meeting was held; the parking lot was a small one-lane dirt road that went around a giant tree; and the gym was just a dream.
“I ask my friends in Canada to guess how many people were in my graduating class. When you’re asked that question, it’s always either really big or really small, so I give them a hint and say, ‘it’s small.’ The smallest number anyone has ever guessed is 50, and I just laugh and say that it wasn’t even half that. My graduating class was 17, and people are like, ‘and that’s a high school?!’ But then I go on to tell them that we had every single sport you could imagine, every club, etc. We had all the same opportunities, it was just small.”
Cat invites current Academy students to take advantage of these opportunities by getting involved in absolutely everything they can.
“Try different sports and different extracurriculars to figure out what things you like and don’t like. The more you can get involved in and do, the better. What’s great about Academy is that they don’t just allow it, they encourage it.”
Cat certainly took her own advice during her time at Academy. She was in all the school musicals, played every sport the school offered at the time, sang in the choir, worked on the yearbook, and participated in the National Honor Society and Beta Club.
With so many opportunities at Academy, most students get involved in a ton of things. In turn, that forces students to learn how to juggle many different things simultaneously. Time management is key in high school and beyond – especially beyond – and Academy creates a wonderful foundation for such skills.
“Developing time management skills was big. I was dealing with a lot of different things on my plate, between academics, sports every day after school, rehearsals for the play, or whatever it might be.”
Cat also reminds students to not be afraid to fail. “You learn so much from failing, and there’s no safer place to fail than at Academy. The faster that you can try things, fail, learn, and grow from them, the better off you’ll be.”
When it came time to choose a college, Cat was torn between Chicago and Canada. What initially drew her to Canada was the idea of doing something international.
“Canada is very similar to the U.S., but it’s still different. It’s a different culture, and there’s definitely an international element to it.”
In the end, she chose to attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Queen’s has a strong and prestigious business program, and when Cat finally visited the beautiful campus and quaint college town, she couldn’t pass it up.
She received a Bachelor of Commerce, which is similar to a business degree in the U.S. She studied Marketing and International Business, with a minor in Film & Media Studies. Cat knew she wanted to go into business, but she also wanted to explore her creative side.
CONTINUING LIFE IN CANADA
TELUS Mobility, which is like Verizon or AT&T in the U.S., was present at the annual Career Launch recruiting event at Queen’s University. The company intrigued Cat, and as she went through the interview process she realized that the culture in the company was exactly what she was looking for.
“I originally had no interest in going into telecommunications, but now I couldn’t imagine a different industry.”
Today, Cat is a Project Manager at TELUS. She has already worked on two big portfolios. The first was their accessories portfolio.
“I worked on the accessories portfolio for about three years. Basically, I was the buyer for all mobile accessories, meaning cases, headphones, smartwatches, car connectivity, etc. Anything that connects to your smartphone was my domain. I was the buyer working with all the external vendors like Apple, Samsung, Beats by Dre, Fitbit, etc. to pick the products. I was managing a $60 million portfolio when I was just 22 years old. [I’m really happy to have found that] particular role during my rotations.”
Recently, she has moved on to TELUS’s pricing portfolio.
“Now, with the pricing portfolio, I manage all of our pricing throughout the company. That includes our rate plans, device pricing, what should be included in a plan and how we price it in the market, etc.”
Eventually, Cat wants to manage teams. She loves the tech space, and would like to come back to the U.S. to do some business here. She also wants to work abroad.
Additionally, Cat is doing a little bit of school on the side by taking Chinese classes at the community college.
“When I was at Academy, I was interested in taking Chinese, and luckily the school was open to that interest. Head of School Mr. Heller told me, ‘You have to find at least five people who would be interested, and if you can do that then sure, we’ll make it happen.’ So, I found five people who wanted to take Chinese and they started the program. I’m glad to have started taking it again [after college].”
CLOSE TO HOME
Though she’s 1,300 miles away, Cat can find the comforts of Academy in her House – her House system at TELUS that is. She’s implemented her own House system, similar to the one at Academy, within her 120-person team at TELUS. Funny enough, her team has about the same number of people the Upper Division had when Cat attended Academy.
“TELUS is a very big company, and my team of 120 people is considered pretty big even within TELUS. The team members all work in different areas of the organization fulfilling different roles, so we found that we had a hard time bringing everybody together and connecting with each other.”
The idea to implement a House system was spawned by a desire to split up the large team into smaller groups through random selection to encourage cross-functional teamwork.
“When I first pitched the idea, everyone chuckled a bit and went straight for the Harry Potter analogy. I actually pitched it as a joke, but they ended up being pretty receptive to it.”
Cat shared her experience in the Academy House system with her coworkers, and they began to seriously consider the idea. She was worried at first that people would find it silly, but her colleagues quickly proved her wrong.
“Everyone understands that we’re a big team and that it would make sense to implement such a system to increase collaborative efficiency. It helped to have the first House Day, which was a tremendous success, almost immediately after implementing the system. People loved it. They had so much fun just getting out of the office. Right away, they were able to see how the system was going to work, and how it really does create a fun work environment.”
When you have a smaller group of people, you’re usually able to get to know your peers better. So, they took the team of 120 people and split them up randomly into 4 different Houses.
House decisions were made in a little sorting hat type of ceremony (to continue playing on the Harry Potter analogy). They made sure that directors, specialists, etc. were divided up between the Houses.
After the ceremony, the new Housemates met with each other to come up with House names and flag designs.
The Houses: #Heroes (black), Knights of the Mobility Roundtable (pink or red, “depending on who you ask”), Think-tank (green), and Purple People Eaters (purple).
Cat, a member of Academy’s Osprey House, was placed in #Heroes.
Following the branding of the Houses, the team immediately held their first House competition: Trivia. This got people in the competitive mindset and exemplified the purpose of the Houses and yearly point system.
“The Houses have helped the team to get to know each other, which, in turn, fosters collaboration and teamwork. It helps break down barriers in a comfortable atmosphere among a smaller group of people. The competitions throughout the year help everyone learn about what it means to work as a team by bringing together different ways of thinking and different skillsets, and utilizing them in a group effort.”
The first annual TELUS House Day was held last June. While similar to House Day at Academy, their activities were more geared toward a combination of both physical and mental abilities, rather than mostly physical. This allowed everyone to participate and feel comfortable in doing so.
“We’d have a tree-legged race, and then a riddle solving competition, or a water balloon toss, and then charades or a competition to build structures using marshmallows and sticks. It works the same way [as House Day at Academy] in that everyone participates in different activities throughout the day trying to gain points for their House, and the House with the most points as the end of the day wins.”
Many of the office-friendly games were a success.
“We had a table full of riddles that you had to solve. The teams began to realize that they’d have to use the different ways that everyone thinks and cooperatively work together to have a higher chance at solving the riddles and earning points.”
The teamwork, pride, and camaraderie that Cat’s House system has already helped build at TELUS is impressive.
“We hang our flags up at the office. They’re always a point of conversation. Then just last week, Think-tank did a House lunch. It’s definitely helped to break down walls. People are hanging out with colleagues they might never have talked to otherwise.”
It’s possible that Cat is pioneering a brand new business tactic.
“The idea clearly came from Academy. I had a unique experience in school with the House system, so I was able to witness how great it could be first-hand. I just thought it would fun, and that it would be nice for everyone to have a new group of colleagues they could get to know and relate to in some way. I don’t think any other companies are doing this yet.”
Cat doesn’t think a House system would only work in large companies like TELUS. In fact, she thinks it would probably work better in smaller companies.
“I don’t think this is for everybody. It depends on the type of people and the type of culture already within the company. One of the four pillars of TELUS is Spirited Teamwork (the others being Initiate Opportunity, Passion for Growth, and Courage to Innovate), so it was natural that TELUS employees would be receptive to the idea of the House system, and show tremendous results in practice.”
Cat’s young system has a long way to go before it’s at the level of Academy’s. Walking around the Academy at the Lakes campus you’ll see the House colors represented everywhere.
“It would be great if we can get to that point here at TELUS. We’re in the process of implementing a system that recognizes people throughout the year, so at some point the House system will become more important on a day-to-day basis. We want it to be an ongoing thing throughout the year, not just one or two big annual events.”
LOOKING AT THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
“When I started at Academy I was shy, reserved, timid, unsure, introverted, and so on. The person I am today, thanks to Academy, is the opposite. I’m confident, passionate, enthusiastic, resilient, strong, outgoing, and sharp.”
Academy allowed Cat to find her passions and grow into the person she wanted to be. She believes that the school is only getting better at fostering this sort of growth in its students eight years later.
“I follow the school on Facebook, and I see all the students with their athletic accomplishments, science fair accomplishments, musical accomplishments, etc. All the things that the school and its students are doing is amazing and awesome to see.”
Cat believes that consistent growth and new facilities help to improve what’s been an already thriving system at Academy.
“Even just seeing the campus infrastructure change is really cool. I’m jealous; I wish that I was able to experience everything that’s now on the campus – especially the gym.”
Whatever the school is doing, Cat advises to “just keep doing it.”
“More facilities, more opportunities, more clubs, more sports teams, etc. Just more variety and selection. I mean, from the time that I graduated to now it’s like tenfold the opportunities, so I can’t imagine what else is out there for the school, but I do know they’ll continue to improve.”
Cat wants to see Academy unchanging with its constant and consistent sense of community and “smallness” that one feels on campus. As the school grows, it should be in terms of facilities and opportunities, but not in terms of culture. After all, it was the culture that originally attracted Cat and her family to the school.
“Keeping the small culture is key. Just more of the same.”