In the years immediately before and after her birth, women’s rights were challenging and transforming our culture. The signs of the times were plastered onto slogans (You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby) and played out in courthouses, boardrooms, and on televisions across America.
And in a suburb outside Atlanta, Catherine Wright, director of Marketing and Communications for Harris Corporation, was being raised by a strong, single mother – an educator and champion of hard work, smart choices and fierce love – who taught Wright the values she hopes she is imparting onto her own children today.
“I want my children (son Ethan, 12, and daughter Ana Cate, 9), to understand problem solving and to have a sense of engagement in the world around them; to participate in their communities – and help those who are less fortunate however they can,” she said.
Problem solving is something that is innate to Wright. She comes by it naturally (both her parents were gifted in math) and her curiosity in how things work helped her overcome a penchant for shyness that has blossomed into a thoughtful contributor and key collaborator for complex and high profile projects at Harris.
Small Town Girl
Her story has all the makings of a classic American period piece. Good-looking All-American girl from the suburbs is dedicated to faith, school and a few outside interests: dancing and music, among them. She graduates valedictorian of her small high school (300 in graduating class) and opts to attend the state school due to family finances.
That state school happened to be Georgia Tech, which is consistently ranked among the top public universities for engineering in the U.S. and internationally. And, it historically graduates more women engineers than other universities.
Big Time Education
After moving past her resentment at not being able to go away to an engineering college in a more exciting locale, she embraced the freedom that living on her own for the first time afforded. “It’s when you truly start to figure yourself out, learn to problem-solve every day, and engage with new people,” she said.
Wright opted into the Aerospace Engineering tract at a time when the space industry was in a downward spiral. She remembers classmates abandoning the field in droves and encouraging her to do the same. However, “I don’t like to be told what I can and cannot do,” Wright said with a mischievous smile spreading across her face, “so, I dug my heels in and stayed with it.” She studied and worked hard, finishing the demanding program with most of the same students she enrolled with, including her husband, Doug Wright, who she met her freshman year. The two will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in May.
She accepted a position with Harris in 1996 and started with the Aerospace Systems Division, which rolled up into Government Communications Systems Division (GCSD) a short time later. Soon after beginning her new job designing satellite antennas, she was asked to lead a team of engineers and technicians in testing protocols for products they were developing.
More and more as her career progressed, she found herself in leadership roles and relished the opportunity to bring together collaborators who could help her figure out the complex challenges that come with deploying satellite equipment in space.
MBA, Mrs. Wright
Wright opened another door to challenge when she decided to enroll in the MBA program at the University of Florida in Gainesville when her children were practically still babies at home (5 and 2). She attended one weekend a month for 29 months and honed other skills such as marketing and corporate communications.
She was able to apply real time working situations with her learning when a big opportunity arose: Wright was asked to serve as Integration Lead for Terrestrial Network Integration for the Harris CapRock Communication organization. In that role, she was responsible for integrating the core longhaul networks, regional networks, and network services from four distinct entities – CapRock Communications, Core180, Harris Maritime Communication Services, and Schlumberger Global Connectivity Services.
After completing her degree, Wright went back to GCSD and was working on market research when the opportunity to join the marketing department was presented. She stepped in and took off, working with customers and the Harris business development teams on comprehensive marketing campaigns.
When Harris decided in 2015 to purchase Exelis, a global aerospace, defense, information, and services company, again opportunity knocked. “Sandi Lee, the VP of Global Communication for Harris asked me to join the corporate team at a very challenging time. We had just finalized the purchase of Exelis, and we had to develop the messaging for our clients, our employees, and the market,” she said.
The purchase positioned Harris as one of the top 10 defense contractors in the U.S. and Wright as the head of the communications division that would shape the story of how it happened. Wright admits to being both “very nervous and really excited” at the opportunity.
Her current work includes oversight of the Global Innovation Center, corporate strategic tradeshows, advertising, and was lead for the redesign of the Harris external website, www.harris.com.
Speaking Clearly, and Carefully
Even after 40 years of progressive movement forward for women since her birth, and progressively challenging roles in a predominantly male workplace, Wright still is mindful of how she uses communications platforms. Watching others throughout her career, “I paid attention to how things were expressed and what worked, and I have adjusted along the way,” she said. The small town girl in the big corporate world still believes in the power and promise of words: “I believe in ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and try to invite – not order – participation,’” she said. This attention to detail is, perhaps, what makes Wright so good at her job. But it’s her mentors that she credits with her passion for life… and work.
- Mom Emilie Martin: family, work, adventure, travel
- Grandmom Doris Schleicher: free spirit, adventure, daring – traveling into her early 90s, going on whitewater rafting and horseback rides with an oxygen tank! Nothing stopped her!
- Dan Pearson, former COO Harris: So sharp, but very relatable, walked the production floor every day and spoke to anyone – at their level. He was completely transparent and very inclusive.
Beyond mentors, Wright credits “the love and support” of “my amazing husband Doug, and the awesome friends, “who have stuck by my side through all the changes and challenges.”
Wright finds time to pay forward the support and encouragement she has received throughout her career in roles with nonprofit organizations such as the United Way, where she served as a member of the Emerging Leader Steering Committee (which focused on active engagement of professionals to contribute time, talent, and treasure to the needy); and the Brevard Family Partnership.
Every new day offers something for Wright to be grateful for: from a discovery that her daughter has a love for a new type of math, to a new work equation to ruminate and collaborate over, to finding effective ways to communicate ideas that will resonate across more than 20,000 employees, Wright is really at a new beginning in her career at Harris.
Who knows what door will next open to challenge her?