SHARING OUR STORIES IN 2022: WOMEN'S CONNECTIONS
We are very happy to share our March CONNECTIONS story where Gina Catanzarita describes the ways in which her ability to make connections to other people has made a difference in her life. Her ability to reach out and connect so well has helped her develop a successful career in corporate Human Relations while making her lifelong friendships and widening her world in ways she could never have imagined forty years ago. Gina is a woman who brings both her very good mind and her very good heart to every interaction she has with others. We really appreciate her sharing her very positive and encouraging story. We hope that you, too, will enjoy this opportunity to learn about her experience and to benefit from her wisdom.
Gina Catanzarita grew up in Witherbee, NY, a small, once booming mining town. She was the eldest of 6 brothers and sisters. Not really into athletics, she had a passion for their school’s skits and songs program. Each year, students from various grades would get together and put together skits and sing songs for their annual show. In her senior year, she participated in Junior Miss, a pageant for young women in their Senior year. Gina received the “Spirit of Junior Miss” award – an award voted on by her peers for an individual who was a team player, helped others, and represented a caring, kind attitude towards others. She also received an award in the Creative and Performing Arts category for singing a song in sign language that she learned while working 3 years at a summer camp for intellectually/physically disabled campers of all ages. In 1980, she continued her education at Hudson Valley Community College, Troy NY and received an associate degree in Marketing. She worked a short time in Albany as a receptionist but wanted to be closer to home. She then moved to VT and spent the next 39 years working for Engelberth Construction, most of those years in Human Resources. Her husband, Tom, joined her a year later to work for the same company as a craftsperson/Foreman. In 1988, President election day, her daughter Chelsea was born. Chelsea married her college sweetheart Josh and now Gina and Tom are the proud grandparents of 3 grandchildren, 4-year-old twins Jack and Willa and 5-month-old Wren. Since taking a break from the working world, they have been helping with their care with the many challenges of daycare and covid shutdowns. In her spare time, Gina likes to just hang by her pool, read/surf the internet, collect inspirational and funny quotes and save lots of Pinterest items to make some day. She’s pondering what’s next, enjoys being creative and hopes to put all of her purchased and collected craft items to some use.
About 40 years ago and right out of college, I moved to VT to start a work career. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my marketing degree. I didn’t have any real great aspirations other than I wanted to be a secretary. I went to college because my friends were, and my dad insisted. I would see my dad a few times a year as he was a mine inspector and worked out of state. My mom remarried when I was about 5 and I would come to have 5 other siblings in the house, with me being the oldest. I didn’t have a lot of consistent encouragement growing up, or someone helping me to see the bigger picture. It didn’t come easy with so many kids running around and trying to raise a family during some tough times. I was a country bumpkin (verified a few years later when I went to Texas for training and was called that by a very tall Texan while looking lost at the airport). Fortunately, through a very supportive family connection, I was offered a job at a VT construction company in an admin role at one of their jobsites. Shortly thereafter, I was promoted to the main office receptionist position, then into HR – which became a career I really loved. I still remember what the owner (another great mentor of mine) said jokingly when he asked me about the HR position. He said, “You use to bartend right?”, “Yes”, I replied. “So do you want to do HR?”. Yes, yes, I do.
It’s been a whirlwind and life-long learning journey and I just recently “retired” after 39 years with them. When I first arrived, I was the youngest in the company and upon leaving last year – I think I was considered “Mom” to most. I was shy but had to learn right away how to build trust and relationships as I was working mostly with men. To my benefit, I grew up with a neighborhood mostly of boys, so I did have a little experience with that. It was also a huge help that I started in the field and had already formed those connections when I was eventually promoted into the office. They were some of my biggest supporters (there always seems to be a “we” vs “they” mindset in a white/blue collar environment) and I think they appreciated the fact I would always tell them like it is and make sure their concerns/suggestions were brought back to management. My husband Tom also worked in the field and he, by association, became the go to person for inquiries, etc. that he would pass on. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention he was my greatest supporter. We didn’t always agree on work issues, but he always had my back and cheered me through the many years there. My friendship with our crews continues to be strong even after some moved on. No one can put a price on the value of having friendships in the construction industry! It’s like a huge extended family with priceless talent and expertise. In the picture below, Tom is standing right behind me (to the left). Thank you, Tom Cat!
I was fortunate to work for a company that didn’t micro-manage. When I moved into the HR role, I was hungry to learn more and thrilled I was offered this opportunity! I was passionate about bringing in programs and benefits that would make us the best, both personally and professionally. Given that, I was able to venture outside the 4 corners of my office and get involved in other organizations including tech programs, high school advisory boards, chamber committees, corporate wellness, business associations and the United Way just to name a few.
About 13 years ago, I was at a regional HR convention. I was feeling a bit unchallenged at work (hey, it had been about 27 years of HR!) and was looking for a new challenge. I had the opportunity to talk with someone that I considered a HR Mentor. She was very involved in the National HR Association (SHRM) and on a local and state level too. She connected me to our local Burlington, VT chapter, Vermont Human Resource Association (VTHRA) and I was soon appointed Secretary of the Board! It was the beginning of a sweet relationship that I still cherish and stay connected to despite “taking a break from the working world”. After being in that role for a few years, I moved onto VP and then eventually President for 4 years. I’m currently Editor of their bi-monthly newsletter. (photo below: Me and Past/Future VTHRA Presidents)
When asked if I was interested in being VTHRA President – I thought – I can’t do that! I’m not qualified, I can’t oversee and be responsible for such a multi-faced organization consisting of only volunteers. However, as the time approached somewhere inside, I heard “Step Up! You can do this” and I also received encouragement from my HR friends. In this role, I was able to travel to conferences all over the US, update and enhance our organization (both VTHRA and my employer) in various ways and met many new friends, some now HR celebrities from all over.
These experiences opened my world!
My experience in all these areas not only helped me make our workplace a better place, but I learned so much about apprenticeships, the education system, how to keep our employees happy and healthy, the lifelong implications of someone/families in poverty, crimes in relationship to mental illness, corporate wellness and just how valuable and challenging a career in HR can be. The icing on that cake was the people I met and the connections I made. It didn’t matter if it was the governor (I’ve met at least 4 in person), business owner or someone sharing their personal story of poverty, they each broadened my perception of local and national issues. They offered perspectives I couldn’t otherwise get from sitting in my office, hanging with the same old pals, or watching a webcast. Living in a small but connected state like Vermont has given me opportunities I am quite sure I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in New York.
Given the world we are in right now, I feel so much compassion and understanding for the various challenges we face as a state, nation, and world. This has given me more insight and the ability to possibly enlighten others from the various personal stories and experiences I’ve been privy to. I’m proud to say I don’t get all my perspective from Fox news, CNN or Facebook!
In 2018, I received the HR Professional of the Year. It was the most heartfelt recognition and honor for my many years and accomplishments in HR and having been involved with SHRM, and our state and local chapter. I mention this not to brag, but what it really means. I NEVER would have this if I hadn’t ventured out, contributed to our profession, and made new connections.
I’m humbled that my daughter has also followed in my footpath and has been involved with SHRM/VTHRA since she started in HR. Being in her early 30’s she’s already accomplished what has taken me many years and she’s a full-time mom to 4-year-old twins and a 5-month-old baby! I know she’s going to hit her career right out of the park. I’m so proud of her. Our love for HR, and passion to get creative teamed us together as Chairpersons of the VT SHRM annual conference with about 300 attendees consisting of HR professionals and business vendors. We oversaw recruiting vendors to vendor placement and set up from start to finish. What great friendships we made. Everyone was always surprised it was a mother/daughter team. I had this position on my own for a few years (thanks to another great mentor who was looking to pass the reigns), then pulled Chelsea in. She now runs the show and has brought a whole new energy to the process. The best team example was about 4 years ago when she was pregnant with the twins. We headed off to Rutland, VT to the conference (about 1.5 hours from home), late because after a preventative checkup they wanted a further exam at the hospital. All was well and we were on our way. Not long after reaching Rutland, the doctor called to check on her and told her to return home immediately, she was two weeks away from the due date and needed to be closer to home! Luckily, because I was well versed in the process and the people, I was able to take over for the 2 days there. The understanding, compassion and concern the vendors had for her well-being, just helped validate the care and friendship we had built over the years.
As I reflect, my college degree was helpful but didn’t exactly get me to where I’m at. My ambition and passion to learn, the many mentors and getting out of my comfort zone prevailed. All have allowed me to grow personally and professionally.
I encourage you to put yourself out there…. get out of your comfort zone. First, find an organization that values you! Volunteer and get involved with whatever floats your boat. It’s amazing how one thing leads to another and before you know it – you’ve learned more, had more opportunities, contributed more, and made more friends! It’s all a win-win in my book and the best advice I can give for someone that has stepped back from the working world with gratitude and is ready for the next chapter. (Hey, I have lots of connections to reach out to if I get bored)!
I currently have the greatest gift of spending time with my grandchildren, Willa, Jack and Wren. Daycare has been a challenge these last few years so Tom and I stepped up and have been pitching in. What a joy!
In closing, I was always under the notion that it’s all about who you know. While that’s true, it’s also just as important as who knows you.
Thank you to my dear friend Carol Bokan for encouraging me to write this for her and her granddaughter’s blog. I met and worked with Carol on the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce Workforce Development Committee. She’s also retired and is now my chair yoga teacher. Thank you for being part of my journey Carol. Namaste.