A passion for forming connections

October 26, 2009
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Ordinarily, Luisa Schumacher lives by the words spoken by Tom Hanks in the movie "A League of Their Own": "There's no crying in baseball."

Schumacher, executive director of the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, said things were different when she was presented with the Young Professional Award at the 20th annual ATHENA awards luncheon held Sept. 24 at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids. It was the second year the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce presented the Young Professional award.

"It was so surprising and flattering and cool. It was really cool," she said.

Schumacher said she broke her resolve not to cry. "I cried a lot," she said.

While the award may have been a surprise, it was well deserved. The 28-year-old Michigan State University graduate grew up in East Lansing and attended MSU's James Madison College. The school has a student population of about 1,200 and offers four majors in the area of public affairs.

"It was the greatest experience ever," Schumacher said of her years spent there.

"It was a place where I felt I finally fit in. I was a total student council person. I belonged to all of these clubs in high school, which was cool. I had a lot of really wonderful friends. But when I got to James Madison, I was around lots of people who were like that. I got to study something I was actually interested in."

She chose social relations as her major.

"My major was around the concept of systems change in both the public and private sector. So, how could systems change from a social interaction level in corporate America, how could it happen in government, and how could it happen on a grassroots level.

"It provided a really broad scope on how to make an impact, and it required all kinds of experiences."

In 2000, at the age of 19, Schumacher's major led her to an internship with NATO and the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. During her internship, she studied European security and missile defense.

"It taught a lot about social impact of major policy and war policy," she said. "When I went, the crisis in the Balkans was just wrapping up, and enough time had passed where they were able to collect data on the social impact of war in Kosovo and Sarajevo — very cool stuff. I got the fever for social change."

Also starting in 2000, Schumacher worked as an intern and public relations assistant at Kolt & Serkaian Communications, a political public relations firm in Okemos. In 2002, Schumacher was made campaign manager for Dianne Byrum, who was running for state representative, organizing fundraisers and raising more than $150,000 for the campaign. Later that year, she was made deputy finance director for the Michigan House Democratic Caucus.

At the age of 22 — the same year she graduated from MSU — Schumacher was promoted to finance director and developed a $2 million fundraising plan for congressional candidate Christine Jennings in Sarasota, Fla.

Luisa Schumacher
West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology
Position: Executive Director
Age: 28
Birthplace: East Lansing
Residence: Grand Rapids
Community/Business Involvement: Multicultural Association of Professionals, Economic Club of Grand Rapids, United Way Next Generation Community Philanthropy Group, United Way Public Policy Committee, Grand Rapids Millennial Committee.
Biggest Career Break: Working at Kolt & Serkaian Communications, a political public relations firm, at the age of 19.

"There's nothing zanier than putting a 22-year-old in a job that's seven days a week with all kinds of personalities … and giving a kid like that exposure," she said.

"It was a really valuable experience — and wild."

The candidate lost the election, and Schumacher found herself burned out and longing to return to Michigan. She landed in Grand Rapids because of a friend she had made during the NATO internship program.

"I met a girl who was a senior and she was from Grand Rapids, and I had never been there before. We met on the first day of this (internship) experience. When she graduated, she moved back to G.R. and I started coming here," said Schumacher.

"That friend of mine that I met in Brussels, her husband worked really closely with Goodwill, and she said, 'Luisa, there's a position open (at Goodwill) that you should apply for.'"

She did apply and got the job at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids as marketing and communications director in 2004.

In her new position, Schumacher was responsible for financial growth and improvement of mission-based programs. Schumacher also worked to strengthen the Goodwill brand, as well as being a spokesperson to the community on behalf of the organization.

"I love Goodwill, and I finally realized what it was to be in love with your job," she said.

"While I was passionate politically, it's so easy to get discouraged, because sometimes you see ugly behaviors that you didn't imagine. At Goodwill, it was such a happy place, where people don't really give up hope."

Schumacher thoroughly enjoyed her time at Goodwill and is still close with her "Goodwill family," but in the winter of 2007, she was recruited to work for Metro Health Hospital.

"I was recruited for a job at Metro Health to head up corporate and community relations. I had never worked in a corporate setting before, and although hospitals are nonprofits, it gives a good taste of a corporate environment," she said.

"I helped to manage some relationships in the business and nonprofit world. Hospitals are required to demonstrate a community benefit, and so I was a part of connecting the hospital's efforts to community projects.

"One of those projects was to sit on the health care advisory committee here at the West Michigan Center of Arts and Technology."

Although it hadn't been long since Schumacher had joined Metro Health, when she heard of the opening for executive director at WMCAT, she saw it as an opportunity too good to pass up.

"I never had any intentions of leaving Metro Health — great job, great people — but when this position came open, I said, 'You know, yes, I may have spent a year at Metro Health, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to come and work here,'" she said.

"As soon as the job was posted, I over-nighted my résumé to the board president to his house.

"It took a long time to lobby. I really had to market myself in a major way. I had friends from my professional experiences call and say, 'Hi, I'm calling to make an unsolicited recommendation for Luisa Schumacher.' I wanted to be here badly."

Schumacher was drawn to WMCAT because of its small size and its young age. WMCAT is a nonprofit organization that offers job training and placement to unemployed adults and encourages high school students to stay in school through after-school arts programs.

She recognized the organization's needs and believed she could be part of the solution.

"It was ready for a clear direction," she said. "I knew I could help form that: help re-engage the board of directors, bring in people from the community. It was basically a hidden gem.

"I was really interested in helping to dig this organization's roots into the ground and then also branch out to potential funders, other nonprofit partners, potential school districts and, you know, spread the love."

Schumacher took over as executive director in 2008, and though she likes a challenge, it has been a tough year.

The organization is working to diversify its programs and connect with schools outside the Grand Rapids Public School system. Still, it has been difficult to bring in new people to become involved with the organization.

The WMCAT site, at 98 E. Fulton St. in downtown Grand Rapids, signed up as a venue to host multiple ArtPrize artists — a move that helped bring people into the building who did not know about WMCAT's mission.

"Other than these wonderful donors, no one really knew about (WMCAT). It's been a lot of work to bring new people into the organization," she said.

"ArtPrize was a great opportunity for us. Our mailing list jumped from 300 to 3,000 — so I'm glad we got on the bandwagon early for that one!"

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