Catherine '71, '76 and Norm '70, '76 Schmitt
For this alumni couple, service is a way of lifeby Liz Cezat, special writer
Powered by MBAs from the University of Detroit, Catherine (Cathy) ’71, ’76 and Norm Schmitt ’70, ’76 carved out successful careers: she, at a major health care insurance company, and he, as an entrepreneur.
The couple met at U of D in a statistics class as undergraduates during the summer semester; they were married by the end of the year.
Now young retirees, they are giving back to UDM in ways that support students, alumni and faculty. Most recently, the Schmitts organized a week-long community outreach in May preceding UDM President Antoine Garibaldi’s inauguration. This initiative enabled alumni and students and their families to get involved with eight local nonprofit (food, shelter and youth-focused organizations). One group of alumni helped residents at a homeless shelter (SOS) work on their resumes and draw upon their skills to find work—the first step in getting an apartment or home. Another group (adults and children) made pottery bowls for Gleaners’ annual dinner in which donors purchase an empty bowl and have it filled with soup as a symbol of alleviating hunger.
Last year, Cathy was executive-in-residence for the College of Business Administration. In that role, she helped students secure internships and employment, and connected students to other alumni who could mentor or assist them.
“The combination of students’ traits and the opportunities presented to them by UDM and the companies they have relationships with—through internships, recruitment, and knowing UDM alumni in executive positions—gives students a tremendous advantage. UDM is a great place for mentoring. Alumni are very willing to support students, and UDM has different forums to help them launch their careers,” said Cathy, who is also a member of the alumni board.
As a math major, Cathy gravitates towards numbers and data. In her role as an executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, she analyzed data to develop strategies for better access to health care insurance and progressed to vice president of a government division, managing health care for the elderly. It was a role that she believed in. She notes that earning an MBA taught her valuable business skills and helped her see opportunities.
Norm credits UDM with giving him the tools to become a successful entrepreneur. He started two companies. The first company sold sump pumps and centrifugal pumps for wholesale and retail. He sold it in 1989. His next company made digital display coin boxes for vending machines. It was purchased by its largest customer in 2006.
In 2007, the couple launched a social enterprise to raise money for Gleaners by selling fresh baked bread at Eastern Market on Saturdays from April through December. They purchase bread at a discount from an upscale specialty bakery in Pontiac early in the morning and sell it at retail prices at Eastern Market. Proceeds benefit Gleaners and provide for 1,000 meals weekly. Cathy is a board member of Gleaners, while Norm sits on the board of COTS, an organization that offers shelter and supportive resources. (See Mitch Albom’s Heart of Detroit series for more about the Schmitt’s bread story.)
Cathy notes that all nonprofit need the business skills that board members possess. The Schmitts advise on governance, review financial, and serve as unpaid consultants to the executive team and staff—bringing new ideas and improving business practices to fulfill the nonprofit’ mission.
The couple watches trends and legislation to see how it impacts food and shelter. They synthesize a diverse array of information to provide feedback and input into how the trends will impact the nonprofit’ budget and strategic plans.
The Schmitts encourage other UDM alumni to support the University in both traditional ways (financial contributions), through volunteer efforts and business engagement. One example they cite is to host an event with youth and business leaders at the University to expose them to the education that UDM provides.
Norm and Cathy are willing to talk to alumni looking for ideas. “Donors want to do more than write a check, they want to be part of the vision and be involved.”