Jeanne Straw, Tech & Manufacturing Sector Pioneer, Retiring from Catalyst Connection

by Todd Miller

After 34 years of helping Pittsburgh’s technology and manufacturing communities grow, Jeanne Straw is retiring from Catalyst Connection on December 31 as senior vice president of administration.

As second in command under President and CEO Petra Mitchell, Straw has been responsible for compliance, government grant reporting, tax, finance, human resources and operations. She will use her well-deserved leisure to spend more time with her five grandchildren and re-kindle interests in golf, painting and photography, allowing her “inner artist” to emerge.

Straw returned to Pittsburgh in 1982 after graduating from the University of Maryland with a B.S. in Accounting. She began her career with Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) as an auditor of manufacturers and not-for-profit organizations.

When the Pittsburgh High Technology Council (PHTC) secured its first significant government contract, PHTC’s founder, president and CEO, encouraged her to apply for a position to manage that contract. As Straw recalls, “The CEO said he hired me over other candidates because I was so enthusiastic about the mission.” 

Her initial responsibilities included launching the Technology Development and Education Corporation, recipient of the $2 million grant focused on assisting small- and medium-sized manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania. That organization evolved into Catalyst Connection.

At the beginning of her tenure, Straw lived in McKeesport and one of her colleagues lived in Homestead. They proudly called themselves the Mon Valley Girls and took pride in trying to revive manufacturing in their respective hometowns.

In those early years, Straw and others on the Council’s management team focused on multiple organizations (up to 12 at a time) to align efforts for obtaining grants. She helped streamline efforts to maintain compliance and increase the number of manufacturers benefitting from those efficiencies.

Sources of Pride

While Straw has many professional accomplishments to her credit, she is most proud of three things: Helping small- and medium-sized manufacturers adopt best practices; taking on award-winning leadership roles in federal and state programs; and supporting the launch of the Mill 19 project.

In that capacity, she takes special pride in the interest that noteworthy individuals and organizations have shown in this site, including President Biden, Michael Keaton, Russell Crowe and the recent Global Manufacturing and Industrialization Summit.

Mill 19 holds a special place in Straw’s heart. “My dad worked here, and I have had, and still have, family members working for U.S. Steel. I support what the site represents: a revolution to combine the best and brightest in our university community with our metals manufacturing community.”

As for mentors who helped her along the way, Straw says that “so many good people have helped Catalyst Connection to succeed.”

What the Future Holds

Straw credits people as the reason for manufacturing’s comeback. “Whether ‘servant leaders’ of manufacturers, volunteer board members more interested in collaboration than competing, ‘employers of choice’ focusing on workers or ‘we make it here’ campaigns focusing on students, people have come together for the common good.”

She also believes exchanges among thought leaders in the university and manufacturing communities are helping businesspeople think differently and academicians see the practical application of their research. Straw foresees the benefit of those interactions being that we can imagine the future rather than fall victim to it, as in earlier times.

To help ensure a strong manufacturing base, Straw encourages young people to “find the joy of making things. It’s a great feeling to walk into a plant and see and touch and make something special.”

She also encourages experienced workers who want to transition to manufacturing careers to think about combining technology in a tactile environment to solve challenges related to supply chain stability, and worker health and safety, to name a few.

As Straw begins a new chapter in her life, she will miss working with her administrative team, as well as the senior managers and board members who share her passion for strengthening the region’s manufacturing base.

She will also miss working at “this beautiful re-creation of a steel mill [Mill 19], seeing mist in the highlands, busy railroad tracks, geese and deer in the fields, and students and children biking and walking through history being made.”

Although Straw will soon leave Catalyst Connection, her contributions to the organization are likely to have a positive effect on southwestern Pennsylvania’s manufacturing sector for many years to come.