Innovator Q and A: Caterina Rizzi

At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid at my job, it has to be creative. 

Montreal, 2013 — As a friend, Caterina personifies one of the things I love about Montreal – a “latin” anglo who speaks the languages of French and Arts. A West Island girl with an eye for nice things and an appetite for novelty, Caterina recently transitioned from the retail industry to the app/start up world by founding Breather,  along with her equally ridiculously talented friend Julien Smith.

Breather will allow people like you and me to unlock carefully crafted creative living rooms and working spaces anywhere in the world through our smartphones. Oh, and it raised $1.5 million seed funding within its first year and just won the 2013 Canadian Innovation Exchange Award.

Caterina is also the Creative Director for the SWAP Team, a North-American non-profit social enterprise that organizes clothing swaps for charity.

Here’s her take on my questions she was kind enough to answer over a Sunday tea on Park Avenue.

1. Age, name & occupation

Caterina Rizzi Co-Founder, 34, Head of Product & Experience at Breather

2. What was your dream job as a kid?

I am an only child, my mother kept everything, and early drawings showed I was doing colour theory without even knowing it as a kid, and for a brief time I wanted to be a vet too. I used to write bio profiles for myself, like the ones you’d read on the back of a book. Dream jobs varied, but it was always artistic. When I started working I said “I  make things pretty” and now I say “I curate things”. It was never a decision, I was born like this. I was able to explore all this thanks to my mother’s support.

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever.

3. Where do you get your support or motivation from?

Half of the people tell us “this is the dumbest idea I’ve heard” and they come back a week later saying we had the best idea ever. Part of the excitement for me with Breather is that I just really wanted to work with Julien (co-founder) because we work so well together. Everybody at Breather has +10 years of experience, and while part of my work is similar to a retail launching operation which I what I used to do, everything else about Breather is new for me, making it that much more interesting.

4. What sparked your motivation or need to start your own thing?

I’ve been told for years that I should have my own company, but I didn’t want to . All I really want to do is paint or prototype but I have this leader personality that I can’t hide from. So I embraced  it – I never planned to own a company – it’s been a year and I’m still surprised.

At my previous jobs, I would look at the wasted potential, see untapped areas of improvement, and I would feel limited. At the end of the day, regardless of how much I get paid, it has to be creative.

This is also what got me involved in SWAP Team as creative director for the past 19 months. Everybody wants to be there and works real hard, all on a non-profit basis – it’s a great cause and that’s what boosts me. Money has never influenced me and it has never dictated my choices. I need uncharted territories, to figure it out for myself, I need to try something new. And as for Breather, we have an amazing team and it makes going to work really enjoyable.

5. What were you the most excited about when you started off?

I loved the idea of creating something from scratch – I LOVE prototyping, researching, traveling, taking things in, building mood boards.

Now I also get excited about creating and making. I love making something so it is exactly what I need – I create experiences, not just copy an idea or an object and hope that it will translate into the expected simulation. Breather is about inspiring and creating the right space, you need it to be truthful.

6. What did you wish you knew before starting all this?

We made a lot of good choices – maybe we were lucky, but you still need to pace your energy, a little at a time. Julien changed the concept 2 months in and I told him “do you realize we’ve changed everything and we barely started?” – but he was definitely right. Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. We keep thinking we haven’t done anything so we need to stop and smell the roses to take it in and acknowledge how things are going.

Now we have to slow down, pat ourselves on the back, especially now that we have a team we want to keep engaged. 

7. Describe a day in your life as you’d like it to be in 3 years.

I’ve actually written this out – I read this book about changing your life the way you want it to be, the author asking you to write down your ideal day. For me, it would be one third of the day working on a thing I’m passionate about, the 2nd third about revenue making and the 3rd one about cooking and reading. I’m not a couch potato, on the contrary I’m quite active, even if I won the lottery I’d still keep busy and help people, you need to keep you mind sharp aaaand I need a lot of stimulation!

8. What would you like to know about other innovators who answer this survey?

I would like to know what their process is – where do they get their inspiration, how did you get to that ? How did the great idea came about? I read about Steve Wozniak in the book “Quiet: the power of introverts” and how he would arrive early at work to work on his idea and transform it into something real.

9. What would be the one thing you’d like your eulogy to say? 

I would like to hear people say that I was kind to others, that I liked to help people. I hope I’m accurately portrayed – that they remember the good things about me. You want to be remembered well, hopefully my family and the people I know will have some good memories and that I did indeed have a positive impact on them.

2020 update

In 2013, Breather had just celebrated their one year anniversary, the launch of their app and their new Mil-End office space, complete with Caterina’s prototyping room. While Caterina left Breather in 2017 to pursue new ventures, by then Breather had raised over $70M, and as of 2020, continues its expansions across North American and European Cities. 

How do you feel once your startup succeeds ?

Caterina reflects on her Breather experience, and the entrepreneurial posture :

Co-concevoir un projet immobilier communautaire

En 2008, un petit ilot à la croisée de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, St-Raymond et Westmount, le nouveau CUSM de McGill était au coeur des préoccupations. Il représentait une opportunité de revitalisation qui risquait aussi de bouleverser le tissu social et urbain existant.

Comment initier et faciliter un dialogue sur l’avenir du quartier?

C’est ce quoi à le Processus de Design Communautaire instigué par l’association Montreal Urban Community Sustainment (MUCS) a travaillé pendant près de 18 mois. En collaboration avec Complexe de Santé de la Reine Victoria à proximité de l’Hopital de l’Université McGill (CUSM), le processus a impliqué une dizaine d’organismes et d’acteurs communautaires.

Nous avons débuté par le recensement et la qualification des besoins à l’échelle du quartier. Ensuite nous avons organisés des ateliers multidisciplinaires pour créer un cahier des charges et modèle financier durable visant le développement d’un immeuble multi-usage pour tous les habitants du quartier.


Complexe de santé Reine Élizabeth et MUCS


Monter un programme financier et architectural pour un immeuble à vocation mixte desservant les résidents organismes communautaire de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce


Orchestrer le processus de design intégré pour impliquer résidents, organismes et professionnels du design dans la conception du programme

Modélisation produite des collégiens initiés à Sketchup dans le cadre des consultations menées lors du projet.

Stratégies Appliquées

  • Ateliers de conception intégrée incluant des représentants communautaires, résidents, ingénieurs et architectes pour définir les orientations du programme fonctionnel et technique de l’immeuble
  • Coopération avec un architecte-promoteur pour le développement d’un montage financier abordable et durable
  • Séances d’information-consultation pour valider chaque étape du processus et récolter le feedback nécessaire à l’approbation des partis impliqués

Briser les silos professionnels dès l’université

Les formations académiques et professionnelles permettent d’approfondir et de perfectionner ses intérêts, mais il ne faut pas perdre de vue le contexte de pratique.

Comment sortir de son silo pour améliorer la qualité d’un projet?


Faculté d’aménagement, Université de Montréal


Familiariser les élèves au Baccalauréat en aménagement du paysage avec les autres disciplines pour faciliter l’interaction avec les confrères, clients et usagers


Sensibiliser les élèves aux différents valeurs et priorités de chaque parti avec lequel le paysagiste interagit dans son travail

Stratégie Appliquées

  • Organiser série des travaux pratiques où les élèves présentent et défendent le même projet auprès des différents auditoires (résidents, professionnels de l’industrie, service d’urbanisme)
  • Corpus de lectures et réflexion critique sur la réception et l’acceptabilité sociale des projets d’aménagement urbains et paysagers



Conseil du bâtiment durable du Canada-Section Québec pour le sommet Écocité 2011


Sensibiliser les professionnels et académiciens de toutes les disciplines touchant le développement durable à la conception intégrée à travers une charrette


Former les facilitateurs à la méthodologie de conception intégrée pour les aider à diriger une charrette multidisciplinaire (génie, architecture, travail social, psychologie, urbanisme)

Stratégies Appliquées

  • Former les facilitateurs à l’analyse et à l’élaboration de diagnostic de groupe comme base de la réflexion
  • Aider les facilitateurs à intégrer toutes les dimensions du site à l’étude lors de la charrette (démographie, faisabilité technique et politique, viabilité économique, acceptabilité sociale, etc)

Comment activement impliquer des résidents dans l’avenir de leur quartier ?

L’étude du terrain d’intervention ou de réflexion ne peut se faire sans consultation, et si possible,  participation des partis impliqués, pour poser les bases d’une entente et d’une collaboration heureuse pour tous. L’acceptabilité sociale commence par la compréhension de chacun et, surtout, de ses intérêts.

Rapport sur St-Raymond, commandité par le Conseil communautaire de Notre-Dame-de-Grâce et financé par CURA-ARUC

Identifier les opportunités de bonification de la capacité résidentielle du quartier St-Raymond, notamment pour améliorer la desserte du quartier (commerces et transports en commun)

Relevé de terrain et repérage des lots permettant la densification du quartier

Stratégie Appliquées

  • Complémenter l’étude du terrain et la consultation publique par des ateliers de visionnement:
  • un atelier de conception où les résidents ont pu se familiariser avec la notion de densité, et s’informer sur ses inconvénients et avantages
  • un atelier-formation avec les jeunes du quartier permettant de s’initier au design assisté par ordinateur et de représenter leur vision pour revitaliser le quartier