After spending two decades in financial services leading global multibillion-dollar businesses, Cate Luzio saw firsthand the disproportionate number of women, especially women of color, ascending to the company’s most senior ranks. It was clear to Luzio that the problem was a lack of investment and development of talent in the female pipeline rather than a lack of talent itself. While she didn’t realize it at the time, this observation would later inspire Luzio’s own career trajectory.
She left the financial services industry in 2018 unsure of what she would do next, but within a few months she had written a business plan to launch Luminary, a membership-based career and personal growth platform and collaboration hub that addresses systemic challenges impacting women across all industries and sectors.
After navigating Luminary through an 80% revenue drop during the pandemic and coming out the other side with a profitable business, Luzio has renewed energy for her mission to help women see a path toward advancement. She wants to arm them with the tools, resources, and community to propel them to the top — regardless of where they are in their professional journey.
Amy Shoenthal: How did you come up with the idea for Luminary?
Cate Luzio: I could see we needed to invest earlier and more often in women, which is what led to me starting Luminary. When I decided I was going to make the exit from banking, nothing existed. There was no way I could create Luminary if I was still doing my job. It was actually my boyfriend who said why don’t you start a company, and I responded by saying I couldn’t because I didn’t have any ideas. Just about a month later, I wrote the business plan for Luminary. People assume I had been thinking about this and planning for years. That’s not true.
In 2018, I launched and self-funded Luminary. My vision was that it should be the ultimate career advocate, uplifting and upskilling women through all phases of their professional journey — in the workforce, entrepreneurship, and in transition. We have delivered on that mission because we now provide a vast ecosystem of expert-led thought leadership programs, as well as in-person and virtual workshops and events. We have an intersectional community of intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs, corporations, and organizations.
Shoenthal: Was it scary to go off on your own, self fund and create a totally new business that didn’t have much precedent?
Luzio: I actually wasn’t prepared for it emotionally. When you're so Type-A and you have this structure in place at a corporate job, then you make the leap, it can be scary and even depressing. Once you’re in it, it’s so emotionally tiring and so hard. Most founders won’t say this.
I left a stable, lucrative career to do this, and 14 months in we hit a pandemic. The emotional journey of running your own company is hard. I share that sentiment with the entrepreneurs who are part of the Luminary community.
Shoenthal: What got you through that period?
Luzio: I get through it because I have an incredible amount of capacity to just keep moving forward. I did that for almost 20 years in a heavily male dominated industry. I don’t look at things as failures. I look at them as falling down, getting back up, moving forward. I tap into my community for support. It doesn’t matter who they are, as long as they know me, I can check my biases with them. There’s no way I could have emotionally survived the past two years without them. I have my personal network plus the Luminary community which I tap into just as much as any other member.
I also run a monthly series called Whisper Network that I started back in my banking days where we talk about all the shit we deal with but can’t talk about openly. Whether you’re a banker or a startup or a founder, the truth is, we’re still not talking enough. We’re not sharing the challenges, the barriers. It’s hard. As successful as your business might be, it can still feel so difficult and exhausting and overwhelming every single day.
There were a lot of people in the beginning pushing me to fundraise. I didn’t get any press at first because I had no investors. I stuck to my vision, but you’d be a perfect person if you didn’t let the naysayers get under your skin.
I didn’t create this community to sell it to someone. Yes, I can profit from the business, and yes, I recognize that I have the privilege to use my own money and I’m very vocal about that as well. But I always wonder, what is the worst that can happen? Maybe it doesn’t work and I go get an additional job where I put all these new skills that I’ve learned through this experience to work. Those naysayers, though, they pick apart your confidence.
Shoenthal: Were you ever worried this was going to fail?
Luzio: Some days I question, is this too hard? We were 14 months old when the pandemic hit. There were many times, especially last Spring, where I was moving through uncharted territory. Even in times of crisis during my former life, like during the financial crisis, there was a safety net. There was no net this time. But that helped me become a better leader.
When your back is against a wall, you either come out swinging or you give up. And I was never going to give up. I needed my community to be there for each other for the worst moment of our generation. If I shut down during that time then I would be going against everything I stood for in building this company. That’s the reason that overnight I moved everything online. That’s the reason we acquired a company, hired people, because at the heart of what we’re doing, we have a mission.
Am I a for-profit company? Yes. Do I want to make money? Yes. But I can make money while advancing women in the workforce, women in transition and women in startups.
Shoenthal: How do you feel about the fates of some of the other women-centered/location based organizations that Luminary is compared against such as The Wing or The Riveter?
Luzio: First and foremost, it’s devastating when a women-founded company goes out of business because we need more women founders.
Second, it’s really hard for people to think outside the box. People always go to the competitor in the market - so everyone wants to categorize us alongside Chief, The Wing, The Riveter. But why can’t I be different, or why can’t I co-exist? There are millions of women. We’ve built relationships with Female Founder Collective, Ellevate, The Cru - in my mind collaboration is the ultimate success model. That’s where you can really bring communities together for real success and impact.
One thing that sets me apart is that a lot of those organizations raised a lot of money. For Luminary, I didn’t raise money for two main reasons - one, I wanted to control my own destiny and the destiny of my company. Two, I wanted to grow sustainably and profitably, not for the sake of growth. I also wanted to do it without taking on debt.
So when you rewind back to March 2020 when everything had to change, I had no one telling me I couldn’t move to an online-only model within 24 hours. I had no one telling me you shouldn’t have taken on commercial leases. I had no debt. I had liquidity, and I knew I would need that. I always knew there would be some type of recession. Since the day we launched, we had both individual memberships and corporate memberships. Where you get critical mass and scale is the corporate members. That’s the biggest differentiator in this model. I now have close to 50 corporate members.
Another thing that sets us apart in terms of corporate memberships is that we target rising leaders. Once you’re senior enough, you get access to something like Chief. But the middle is desolate. The middle is so large because you could be five years into your career or 20 years in, and you might not yet be at a senior level yet — and that’s ok. I had been surrounded by those women everywhere I worked, and I knew we had to invest at that level.
When the pandemic hit, of course I lost individual members for various reasons, but there was no way I could lose the corporate members. We didn’t lose one single corporate member during the pandemic, which is a testament to those organizations as well. In fact, we brought on almost 20 more. Having Heidrick & Struggles and JP Morgan as our first corporate partners early on gave us the credibility to go seek out other corporate partners.
Shoenthal: How do corporate partnerships work?
Luzio: We want to understand the challenges companies are facing and what challenges women at those companies are facing. We want to democratize access to women of all levels. There’s a component of co-created programming both for their employees and for the broader Luminary community, for clients and prospects of that organization, and then coaching for women which comes at a very different price point than if they were hiring executive coaches for all their women.
We start by asking, how do you support and invest in your pipeline? This will remain valuable in that the opportunities for women are going to have to increase, not decrease. How are these companies helping bring women back? Where is the “on” ramp? How are they adjusting knowing most people will never go back to the office five days a week?
Shoenthal: What was your biggest turning point in building Luminary?
Luzio: During Covid, we lost 80% of our revenue. That was from members leaving, members pausing, all of our event revenue. We have a big space and we relied heavily on running private and corporate events. People didn’t know what was going to happen. A lot of them left New York. We also had small business owners whose revenue dried up. They were struggling. We understood all that.
In order to survive we had to create new revenue opportunities. We went to our corporate partners, and had those partners underwrite programming opportunities. We now have more than 500 members, and we’re bringing on an additional 150 women. We want to make sure we’re always asking the question, how can we support more women in times of crisis?
We came back and soldiered on with community and impact in mind. We stayed focused, launched a digital membership, created a members-only platform/portal, acquired a company called Declare. We launched a Fellowship program with three partners, including Unilever, UBS and Verizon. We launched partnerships with Bolster and Handel Group. We announced a collaboration with Walmart. Now we’re completely profitable.
Shoenthal: What are you most excited about right now?
Luzio: How we can help women recover from the She-cession, get women more jobs, and keep those still in the workforce tethered to their roles. Just this week, we announced the establishment of the Indeed Luminary Fellowship, which will deliver the necessary tools, critical resources, and support to on-ramp women back into the workforce. Through the partnership, we’ll provide 150 selected Fellowship recipients access to ongoing education, incremental support for job placement, coaching and mentoring, leadership training, content and community, professional networks, guidance, and exposure.
Everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive. The effects of the pandemic are denying too many women what they need to get ahead. Since our doors opened, Luminary has been committed to connecting women with the resources they need to build skills, networks and careers so they can support their households and contribute to their communities. This is our next step in that process.