How One Phoenix Artist Forged a Creative Corporate Career

Jason KeilMay 15, 2019
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Photography by Diana Elizabeth

Phoenix artist Tania Katan crafts an unlikely corporate career based on creativity.

Several years ago, Tania Katan saw a job listing for someone who was “creative” and a “dynamic speaker,” two descriptors that suit the extrovert perfectly. The ad clearly stated: “No phone calls please.”

The Phoenix author saw an opportunity in that instruction, so she drove to Los Angeles and delivered her résumé personally. When she knocked on the door of the office, no one knew what to do with her. She ended up speaking to three people that day only to not get the job.

Katan, who described herself as “a Jewish lesbian with a filthy mouth and very few morals” in a 2010 essay for The Huffington Post, often sports a crisp blazer over a vintage T-shirt. She resembles Joan Jett, if the rocker were a corporate executive. Katan has no regrets about what many would see as wasting an entire day traveling to apply for a job she wouldn’t get. Her bold gesture was revealing for both sides, she says.

“By the time I had the opportunity to meet with someone and have a conversation, I realized this would not be a good fit for anyone involved,” Katan says. “I realized it is just as important for us to show who we are so that we can find out who the organization is so we can determine if they are a good fit.”

This anecdote illustrates the creative disruption that the Arizona State University graduate, longtime Valley arts impresario and activist has applied throughout her eclectic career. Many of these stories have been compiled into her latest book, Creative Trespassing: How to Put the Spark and Joy Back into Your Work and Life, released in February.

Drawing from her peculiar childhood, her varied arts career, two bouts of breast cancer and her title as “Brand Evangelist” at the Scottsdale software company Axosoft (see sidebar), Katan has crafted 21 steps for those who feel stifled in their jobs to find inventive and artistic ways to break free of corporate conformity.

In one of the book’s memorable anecdotes, Katan tells of how she and her gambler father crashed a corporate picnic and took part in the festivities. She mines these personal stories as effective steps to disrupt soul-sucking business culture.

Katan has been beta-testing her career ideas and sharing her results in TED Talks and corporate seminars for the last several years. On her book tour, she looked for ways to shake up what can be a mundane promotional exercise. The bespectacled author kicked off the tour at an eyeglasses store in Los Angeles.

“I’m trying to sneak creativity with the book into spaces that aren’t necessarily selling books,” Katan says.

It seemed natural to Katan to write a book that would help people improve their careers. Katan, who is the partner of local artist Angela Ellsworth, stepped into this role as a corporate guru through a series of happy accidents as well as being open to opportunities outside of her chosen field as a performer.

Katan signs books at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe; Photo by Luis Castillo
Katan signs books at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe; Photo by Luis Castillo

“When I was thinking about the themes of this book, one is redefining success,” Katan says. “Maybe we can make creativity a new metric of success.”

Sara Stamas, director of marketing at Axosoft and co-creator of #ItWasNeverADress (see sidebar), says it was Katan’s energy, creativity and gregarious nature that made her the perfect choice for Brand Evangelist, aka a cheerleader of the company for potential customers.

By drawing a cape on the women’s restroom symbol, Katan instantly captured the values of the company. It transcended the technology industry to anticipate the cultural shift in the gender conversation that would come years later.

“We brought Tania on because we felt there was synergy with her and Axosoft’s creative spirit,” Stamas says.

Katan has spoken at companies like Expedia, Humana and Cisco. She also counsels employers on ways to create safe spaces for people to share ideas. Attendees came up to her after presentations to ask how they could sneak creativity into the workplace, and she realized there was a gap between what people would do in their own time and what they did during the workweek.

“I’ve personally experienced the value of accessing my creative skills in a workplace with rigid expectations,” Katan says. “The value is immense; not just for me, but also for the mission and vision of the company.”

As she started to share her ideas with executives, it was clear this line of thinking was not new – it just hadn’t been verbalized and implemented. Companies often say they are looking for “rock stars” to shake things up and that they will embrace their uniqueness. In her book, Katan makes a plea to hiring managers to put their money where their language is and find the people who will embrace these new ideas.

“If you really want people who are thinking outside of the box, get outside the box and go to where these people are,” Katan says. “Go to concerts and find out who the lead singer is. Go to plays and find out who the playwright is. Go to dances and find out who the choreographer is. Invite the person back to your office and have a conversation about innovation, and it might lead to creating a position for this person.”

Katan’s creativity extends to her personal life. When talking about her cancer journey, she frames it as “endured,” not survived. She says it played a role in her mission of helping others find meaning in the mundane and that it gave her new perspective.

“Dying isn’t a scary thing if you are actually living,” Katan says. “My response to having endured cancer is to live in the face of death.”

How Tania Katan Has Creatively Trespassed

My One-Night Stand With Cancer
Katan revisited the subject of this humorous and poignant memoir of enduring her second breast cancer treatment in her critically acclaimed one-woman show Saving Tania’s Privates.

Lit Lounge and Arm Wrestling for Art
These two programs turned a little gallery room inside SMoCA into a place where participants told their deepest secrets to approximately 100 people, or twisted some arms to score artwork, respectively.

Katan created an empowering viral social media campaign for Axosoft that gave a voice to women who were largely silent in their industry. It has led to the creation of a scholarship for women in technology to level up their careers.

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