When you walk into the offices of Cynthia Kay and Company Media Production, you're immediately greeted by a wall of well-deserved accolades and mementos of work spanning across 35 years, from small local businesses and nonprofits to Fortune Global 500 companies. However, President and CEO Cynthia Kay knows that a job well done is about so much more than just the recognition you might receive afterward.
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Kay graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in applied voice and a minor in piano, initially thinking of being a singer and a double major in tv and radio. Kay eventually gravitated towards television and, through persistence, landed her first job at WKZO (now WWMT) where she stayed for five years while earning a master's in communications. After moving to WZZM and then freelancing for a time, Kay knew she was ready to do her own thing.
"I wanted something different; I wanted to have more control over the decisions that were made," Kay said. "And honestly, I wanted to be the boss."
So that's exactly what she did.
Since CK and CO was incorporated on September 10, 1987, Kay and her talented team have viewed their clients as partners, telling their stories while building immense trust and strong relationships along the way. Over the years, word of mouth and strategic marketing grew Kay's business from the local level to a truly global scale. From video production and animation to editing and communications consulting—and every simple or complex step that falls in between—Kay and her team have it handled. Stepping on planes each week to work on-location happens just as often as trying something completely new for a client.
"The thing that has kept us relevant through the years is that we've not been afraid to do different things," Kay said, noting that building her team has been her greatest professional accomplishment. "People often say 'it's all about the people' but few people really mean it. I'm proud that everyone here cares about each other while being different from one another. We're also operationally efficient and though we're small, we operate like a big business."
Kay, who describes herself as an energetic people person, credits her family and Greek heritage for instilling in her a strong work ethic that was built while growing up and working at her family's own business, a cleaners. She specifically notes her father's influence.
"From watching him, I knew what it was like to run a small business, so I knew what I was getting into setting out on my own," Kay explained. "Like him, I'm not very good at sitting. I'm impatient—in a good way. When I do something, I do it with purpose. I'm all in. I think I'm pretty darned optimistic about things. I tend not to be someone who sees the downside. But I am extremely practical and realistic, especially when it comes to business, which I think is somewhat unusual in the creative field."
Through all the success, Kay, like anyone, has been faced with failure or letdown in the past. Yet she doesn't let it discourage her. In fact, she's thankful for the lessons any perceived missteps bestowed upon her. She encourages people—no matter their level of experience or knowledge—to remain curious.
"You know, I've been doing this for 35 years and there's still stuff I don't know ... and I'm really proud of that, because it means I've still got something I can learn," Kay said, emphasizing how important communication is in all forms. "I've always thought communication is not valued as much as it should be. It's so important. If you want people to feel valued, you have to make them feel heard."
Telling stories of all kinds remains a top priority for Kay, recalling a recent project CK and CO did for the Clark Foundation which chronicled the experiences of Pastor Betty Smith, who lives with dementia.
"She let us follow her for months and watch what's happening to her with her dementia," Kay said. "She decided to do this because she wants to help and educate other people, and I got really close to her over time. I wish I had a resource like this for my own family when we faced this. I told her it was like my honor that she let us into her life to be able to do that for others.
"So when someone asks 'What do you love about what you do?' ... you know what? I love talking to the guy on the factory floor, and I love talking to Pastor Betty Smith."
Having run eight half marathons in the past, Kay is passionate about leading an active lifestyle, spending time with friends and family and a good glass of wine, traveling, golfing and reading. She's also written two books of her own (with her newest to be published by Career Press soon) and has a strong history of advocating on behalf of small businesses, including testifying in front of Congress, lending her expertise to other aspiring small business owners, and serving at one time as Board Chair of both the Small Business Association of Michigan and the National Small Business Association.
"The small business community is this amazing group of people who are so willing to share," Kay said, citing her own reasoning for staying so involved. "I am where I am today because a lot of people helped me and shared their own resources and knowledge."
At this phase of her career, in addition to continuing to help small businesses (including serving on the Michigan Celebrates Small Business Board), Kay hopes to do more speaking, consulting and writing.
"You get to a certain age, and everyone starts to ask, 'When are you going to retire?'" Kay said. "I always tell them, 'I still have things to do.'"
Kay finds incredible joy in directing her church's choir and reflects upon a lesson that her mother—who was her first vocal teacher—taught her when she was young: No matter what you're doing, being part of a team matters.
"You don't always have to be the star. Being in the chorus is just as important as the leading role."
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor of West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Apr/May '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.
Photo Courtesy of Kelly Braman Photography.