By Dan Ferrisi, Editor in Chief, Commercial Integrator
As commercial AV has matured, it has become increasingly clear that ours is an industry not of technology, per se, but of people. At our best, commercial AV professionals are committed to creating experiences that tell compelling stories and leave indelible memories. In that way, the technologies we create, spec and integrate are mere tools to create genuine human experiences. That “people-first” ethos might be revelatory to some whose minds are aswirl with specs, speeds and feeds, but it’s an approach that Cory Schaeffer embraced from the outset of her career. As director, alliances and ecosystem for Q-SYS, Schaeffer decided earlier this year to retire from the industry she loves — and on which she leaves an enduring imprint — over the summer.
Schaeffer’s announcement sparked an outpouring of love and gratitude from her commercial AV peers, as well as an alliance between AVNation, rAVe [PUBS] and Commercial Integrator to celebrate her remarkable career and legacy. This tribute is just one outgrowth of what we’ve dubbed the Cory Schaeffer Appreciation Society.
Exploring the ‘Why’
Many of us in the #AVTweeps community were surprised to hear of Schaeffer’s retirement plans, given that she’s only 57. So, our first question was a simple one: Why now? The answer lies in the global pandemic that disrupted our lives and reordered our priorities. “COVID-19 was pivotal in me making this decision,” she begins.
Schaeffer explains that, prior to the pandemic, she felt like she was on a treadmill, her “all in” approach driving her sometimes to put in 14-hours days, including travel. Indeed, both husband Tim Schaeffer (senior vice president with Allen & Heath USA) and she have spent a lifetime crisscrossing the globe, working long hours to serve their respective companies and support their three kids. “Just crazy busy,” Schaeffer puts it pithily. In fact, Tim Schaeffer was traveling right as COVID-19 lockdowns began, causing real worry about whether he’d even be able to fly home. Like everyone else, the Schaeffers had no conception of the odyssey that would follow, expecting pandemic accommodations to last only a few months. Regardless, COVID-19 brought about something that hadn’t ever happened before: Cory and Tim Schaeffer were together, at home, for an extended period.
Schaeffer admits her own uncertainty at the outset. “Since 1998, I’ve had this busy life,” she recalls thinking. “I had never been home this long ever in my life. And I had never been together with my husband this long.” Any doubts, however, washed away almost immediately. “It was wonderful,” Schaeffer beams. “I do adore him!” Very quickly, they both realized, they wanted more of exactly that life. But, as vaccines started rolling out and the economy picked up steam, it became clear that their schedules would soon pick up again. Around that time, in the autumn of 2021, Schaeffer lost a very close friend, age 60, to COVID-19. The memorial service was not only a time for grief and reminiscences but also, for Schaeffer, a time to reflect. She thought long and hard about her beautiful family — in particular, her mind filled with thoughts of her four grandchildren, all age 5 and under, and her parents, whom she hadn’t seen for 18 months.
That very evening, Schaeffer came home and said, “Tim, things are picking back up again. We’re going to get right back to that crazy life. And I just don’t want to.” It was a pivotal moment for her…a moment of uncommon clarity. “I’m sad she’s gone,” Schaeffer explains of her friend, “but she kind of gave me a gift.” That gift was a reminder of the preciousness of time — in particular, time spent with loved ones. So, after extensive consultations with financial advisors, the Schaeffers decided to step back and rededicate themselves to family life. Although Tim Schaeffer is not officially retiring, he’s relieving himself of day-to-day responsibilities and taking on a strategic role. As for Schaeffer, who is dispositionally unable to do anything at half speed, she’s ready to go “all in” on being a grandmother, bringing her little ones to tee-ball practice and being there for every precious moment.
Time That She’s Earned
Given everything Schaeffer has given to the AV community, no one could begrudge her the choice she’s made. She has spent, quite literally, decades contributing to our industry. Schaeffer is, after all, a co-founder of Listen Technologies, the assistive-listening leader whose products have democratized experiences across vertical markets by including hard-of-hearing people. We turn to that chapter of her career next, focusing on her role in founding the company.
“It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” Schaeffer admits without shame. The stakes were high: To get the company off the ground, she pulled everything from her 401(k) and took out a home-equity loan. “I had three young children, a husband and a home that I felt I was putting on the line,” she says, emotion present in her voice. In a career marked by her boldness, Schaeffer’s decision to co-found Listen Technologies was the biggest chance she ever took. But putting everything on the line just gave her more incentive not to fail. “When you think it must succeed, you do everything you need to do to make it succeed,” she reasons. “I had to make it work.”
And, of course, Schaeffer’s fellow co-founders and she did make it work. She gives a substantial share of credit to Tim Schaeffer, who encouraged her every step of the way, steeling her spine by pointing out how rare of an opportunity this was. She also notes that Listen Technologies benefited from having a strong group of partners on whom she could lean. “These were people that I knew and trusted,” she smiles. So, it’s no surprise that Schaeffer invested 18 years of her career in the company, contributing incalculably to its lasting success. But, Schaeffer admits candidly, those years, while vastly rewarding, presented a mix of excitement and headaches. Her portfolio of responsibilities at Listen Technologies was broad, encompassing inventory management, human resources, banking matters, etc. — in short, all the challenges attendant to entrepreneurial business. Thus, for Schaeffer, by 2015, it was time for something new.
Following a brief stint at HARMAN International, Schaeffer found in Q-SYS, the home where she could close out her career. Joining the company in October 2015 as director – system solutions, she found an organization equally committed to her own passions: community, partnership, equity, inclusion and innovation. In April 2020, she was promoted to her current role, where she builds alliances and nurtures Q-SYS Ecosystem partners to amplify the Q-SYS business and brand. Her arrival at Q-SYS was a coming full circle of sorts. Schaeffer began her career heavily involved in video teleconferencing (VTC), which eventually morphed into today’s unified communications. And Q-SYS, of course, is a leader that sits at the vanguard of those categories today. So, in her mind, Q-SYS represents the perfect capstone to a 34-year career.
Mentors Who Paved the Way
Although Schaeffer is peerlessly capable and immensely talented, she’s the first to acknowledge that mentors ordered her steps throughout her multi-decade career. She cites several, starting with Ron Camden of Biamp, whom she describes as “Unlike any other person I’ve met.” Their first encounter was at an InfoComm, where Schaeffer was taken with Camden’s infectious laugh and willingness to bounce ideas off her. “He asked me, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’” she recalls, adding that he really meant it. He proved that sincerity when Schaeffer asked for his assistance getting her foot in the door with a tough account. Camden’s help blossomed into a regular cadence of Schaeffer and him connecting, dialoguing and talking about business. His authenticity in wanting to be helpful left a lasting impression on Schaeffer. “After meeting Ron,” she remarks, “I wanted to be that for everybody else.” And, indeed, she became exactly that.
Next, Schaeffer mentions Dave Bright, former president of Kramer Electronics USA, as a seminal influence in her life. They initially came together at an AVIXA (then InfoComm International) event. That very night, Schaeffer asked Bright if he would be her mentor. In relating the story, she makes clear that, in seeking a mentor, she wasn’t looking for a cheerleader who would withhold criticism. Recalling that night, Schaeffer remembers herself saying, “I want someone who will really invest and guide me, but, most importantly, call me on shit. I’m not looking for someone to make me feel good. I’m looking for someone to guide me.” Bright’s acceptance of the mentor role empowered Schaeffer to grow into her best self, and their mutual affection remains strong to this day. With a chuckle, she mentions that Bright still calls her “kiddo” as a term of endearment.
Schaeffer hastens to add that Marc Bertrand (formerly of Tannoy and now CEO at Adamson Systems Engineering) modeled how to carry yourself as a leader within the commercial AV industry. Much like Schaeffer, Bertrand grew his way through the industry, learning all the way, but always retained his humility. Just because you work for a world-class brand, she explains, you oughtn’t to carry yourself like you’re “a big deal.” Bertrand taught her that. And Mark Valenti, who rose to prominence as president and CEO of The Sextant Group (now NV5) was instrumental in teaching Schaeffer on how to be effective as an InfoComm International board member. He conveyed to her, she says, the importance of focusing on the betterment of the industry, rather than your own company’s interest.
Clearly, numerous men in the AV industry played an indispensable role in helping Schaeffer to empower herself. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that she’s loath to engage in “male-bashing” when the topic turns to the essentialness of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in commercial AV circles. “Men did not inhibit me at all,” Schaeffer declares. “They helped me.” Indeed, she adds, as she ascended the ladder of influence, she sought to “…channel that inner Ron Camden in me,” asking the next generation, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” And, much like Camden, Schaeffer always asked that question with earnestness and sincerity.
We could spill pages of ink recounting the numerous ways Schaeffer has helped #AVTweeps, but it’s worth devoting special focus to her efforts to bring women — especially diverse women — into our ranks. Thus, we now turn to the AVIXA Women’s Council, of which she has been an active member and a steadfast supporter for years. Working in close partnership with Brandy Alvarado-Miranda — a woman she also counts as a mentor and a personal confidante — Schaeffer co-founded the first local AVIXA Women’s Council group, located in southern California. Her motivation, she says, was to seize the energy and power of the annual Women’s Council Breakfasts at InfoComm and recapture it throughout the year. “Why aren’t we doing this more often?” Schaeffer said she asked herself. And so, Schaeffer laid the groundwork for that first local group, whose meetings would be at least quarterly.
Schaeffer hastens to add that Alvarado-Miranda played an equally significant role in getting that local group off the ground. “Brandy is so kind and generous,” she says, “and she does so much for our industry.” And the fruits of that labor are visible for all to see: There are now 60-something Women’s Council groups worldwide — a fact that, if you ask Schaeffer, was “…mostly driven by Brandy.” But it’s evident that Schaeffer, too, takes immense pride in what her fellow AV women and she have created. She beams when she reports that the Women’s Council is the largest of the councils, by far; the most active of the councils, by far; and is the council that brings in the most sponsorship dollars, by far. “I have two daughters,” Schaeffer says, “and I have two granddaughters. The story I’d like to tell them is, ‘I created change — significant change.’”
Advisor and Counselor
Apart from her Council efforts, one of Schaeffer’s most powerful ways of effecting change is to take young AV professionals under her wing and occupy the same advisor/counselor role that so many mentors played for her. As a mentor, Schaeffer has focused on nurturing young women. “Certainly, there are a lot of men who helped me grow in my career,” she acknowledges. “But I think, with women, we tend to more self-critical…to be a little more insecure.” Observing that, Schaeffer made a consequential decision. “I wanted to be a woman who helped other women and helped pull women up,” she declares. She also has sought, over the years, to push back against the idea that commercial AV is a zero-sum game, where one woman’s success must come at the expense of another, an idea she scoffs at as “ridiculous.” In Schaeffer’s view, women’s success — both individually and collectively — is welcome and worth celebrating.
Harking back to her request for Dave Bright to be her mentor, Schaeffer makes clear that being a good counselor is “…not to be warm and fuzzy always.” It’s equally important, she says, to be open and honest. “Sometimes,” Schaeffer observes, “in order to help, you have to let them hear things they don’t want to hear.” She offers an example: a highly accomplished young woman with three degrees who wanted to secure a position where she’d be paid for each degree she’d earned. “If they hire me to serve in a role, they’re really getting a three-fer,” Schaeffer recalls the woman as having said. Responding, Schaeffer tried to offer an alternative view, pushing back on the woman’s perspective. “I don’t view it as confrontation,” she explains of this kind of pushback. “I view it as having a good, healthy interaction and dialogue.” And forthrightness, Schaeffer adds, is key to the ultimate enterprise — namely, to help people.
Building a Legacy
Asked about her greatest accomplishments and her burgeoning legacy, Schaeffer unsurprisingly points to what she’s tried to do for others. “Being an advocate for and building awareness of women in the industry — that’s what I want to be known for,” she states unhesitatingly. But, despite all her accomplishments, Schaeffer has mixed feelings about commercial AV’s success in diversifying during her multi-decade career. When she began in 1988, she says, women composed about 6% of our industry. “Now, I’m leaving,” Schaeffer reflects, “and I think our numbers are 14%.” This marks an improvement, of course, but, for her, it’s also a missed opportunity. The U.S. broadly is 51% female, and it should be our mission, Schaeffer believes, to remove all exogenous factors preventing our AV community from looking like the society within which it exists.
On an auspicious note, however, Schaeffer sees now, more than ever before, greater awareness of the essentialness of diversifying commercial AV. Thus, she says hopefully, the arc might soon bend more meaningfully. To facilitate that bending of the arc, Schaeffer makes herself available to companies that want to populate their ranks with talented women. “I spread [the opportunities] to the AVIXA Women’s Council groups,” she explains. “I reach out to my tribe of women.” She underscores that #AVTweeps who want to welcome diverse candidates to their talent pools must break their reflexive habit of soliciting applicants via the same old resources. “If we keep looking in the same places we’ve always looked,” Schaeffer warns, “then we’re never going to get there.” This requires intentionality; it also requires a commitment to genuine diversity, rather than mere tokenism.
‘How You Made Them Feel’
At the conclusion of our interview, Schaeffer shares a Maya Angelou quote that has been a personal and professional lodestar: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That quote thrums with resonance as Schaeffer writes the final few pages of her commercial AV career. “I want my legacy to be that people remember how they felt when they interacted with me,” she says earnestly, her voice again tinging with emotion. “It’s about how we make each other feel — feel welcomed, feel included, feel like we can contribute, feel like we’re seen, feel like we’re valued — in everything we do.”
It’s widely accepted that technology innovation characterizes commercial AV, but our industry is marked equally by personal growth and reinvention among we who work within it. Schaeffer knows that people will only push beyond their comfort zone when they feel supported…when they feel like it’s safe to do so. A big part of her legacy — both as she wishes it and as it indeed is — is emboldening young women to push past the boundaries of comfort and achieve beyond their wildest imaginings. And, honestly, it’s hard to think of something better for which to be remembered.
Although Schaeffer is ready to relinquish her frequent-flier status and stow her luggage for a while, trading in the hustle and bustle of being an industry leader for being an ever-present wife, mother and grandmother, she makes clear that her days helping aspiring AV professionals are far from over. “I want to create an environment in this industry where anyone — from entry level to CEO — feels comfortable reaching out to me if there’s something I can do to help them,” Schaeffer concludes, irrepressible in her desire to serve. “If there’s anything I can do to help them, I absolutely will.”
Schaeffer frames the decision always to help others as a perfect parallel of the reasoning underpinning her decision to retire: “If you can,” she smiles, “why wouldn’t you?”