University News

UW-Whitewater alum embraced unexpected path to a worldwide stage

April 17, 2023

Written by Kristine Zaballos | Photos submitted

Growing up, Michael Domitrz always wanted to be on stage.

The desire to be an actor led the Whitewater native to attend college at Loyola University in Chicago, a city with ample opportunities to see world-class theater. He was flourishing as an undergraduate when, one day in 1989, a phone call came that would change the course of his life, causing him to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and pursue an entirely different academic path.

Domitrz, who went on to earn a BBA in business in 1993 and launch a speaking career that would garner a worldwide audience, will serve as commencement speaker for UW-Whitewater’s spring 2023 commencement ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 13, sharing the inspiring story of how that call became first a call to action and then, over time — a true calling.

The call was one that no one wishes to receive.

“My mother called to tell me that my older sister Cheri had been raped.”

Anguished and wanting to support his sister, Domitrz soon moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to her, their parents and their sister Rita, as Cheri’s attacker stood trial.

When Domitrz — whose name rhymes with “Amish” — arrived home, he faced challenges. In addition to the aftermath of the sexual assault, there was the matter of finding a new direction, after he concluded that a life on stage would never support the family he wanted to have. That decision led him to pursue a business degree at UW-Whitewater in the college where his father, Joseph Domitrz, had a prominent role as dean.

“I really struggled to find a path. It was hard to focus on academics with all that was going on — suddenly my grades were dropping and I was the dean’s kid,” he said. “But I never had a professor treat me with disappointment; I always felt compassionate empathy along the journey when I was struggling.”

He dove into campus life by joining the swim and dive team led by his mom, Joan Domitrz, who was the UW-Whitewater men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach. A spark for creating conversations about sexual assault was ignited when the swim team was mandated to hear a guest speaker, Joseph Weinberg, talk about sexual assault.

“While listening to him, I realized I could do something about what happened to my sister by speaking out. I reached out to Joseph and he invited me to come to Madison for a day to learn from him. I left with pages upon pages on sexual assault — myths, laws, consent, and much more. Soon, I created my own talk to present in classrooms.”


A campus incubator

As Domitrz developed his presentation, he leaned into his business coursework.

“Every business class became ‘How do I use this to build my business?’”

He took a class with Marcia James on creating marketing and promotional materials and applied everything he learned to creating a promotional pamphlet for his first program: SAY: Sexual Assault & You! Fortunately, he quickly realized that was not an effective title.


Trifold brochure.

One side of an early trifold brochure Domitrz created in marketing class on campus to promote his speaking business.


He reached out to professors on campus and to local elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in the area.

“Anyone who would let him come to speak, I was going to speak at. I would miss courses at times to make it happen. Thankfully, my professors understood because I was pursuing my passion — the whole reason you go to business school.”

A former teacher of his at Whitewater High School agreed to let him present to her students, and when he was done told him that this should be his life’s work. Faculty invited him to their classes. One would sit down with him after each presentation and share his and the students’ feedback.

“He helped me realize the more interactive I was, the more students engaged. That feedback would define my approach for the rest of my career.”

Domitrz also became involved with the entrepreneurship program in the business school, which gave him the opportunity to see Michael Dell speak in Dallas. By 1992, he was recognized as "One of the Top 10 Collegiate Entrepreneurs in the USA" by the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs and would travel to Russia with other students, including classmate Eric Zimdars. Zimdars, who also earned a BBA from UW-Whitewater, was one of the first people to ever help Domitrz build his business. He would also meet and marry Domitrz’s sister Cheri, who would earn her teaching degree on campus.

As he developed his business, Domitrz made another life-changing connection. He met a fellow student, Karen Kleckner, out dancing, only to find that she already knew him — he had come to give his presentation to her class. Karen, who earned a B.S. in speech–public relations with a minor in professional business marketing in 1992, would go on to not only be his wife and mother of their four sons — Anthony, Bryan, Steven, and Matthew — but a full partner in the business they would develop over the subsequent three decades.


Domitrz and his wife stand in front of a waterfall.

Karen and Mike Domitrz, who met at UW-Whitewater, have built a life, a family and a business together.


Expanding the stage

Domitrz got a business loan after graduation, but soon recognized he couldn’t make enough money doing it full time. He briefly worked in a traditional business role and soon developed a DJ business and coached high school swimming and diving part time — in 1998 he was named Wisconsin Division I High School Men’s Coach of the Year — continuing to speak about sexual assault and consent on the side.

While discomfort in discussing sexual assault was a significant hurdle to his business early on, by 2002 things had shifted. He received encouragement that his message was what the world was looking for and decided — with Karen’s support — to sell his DJ business and return full-time to the stage.

“We had a young family and no cash reserves,” said Domitrz. “I had a newspaper route to survive. But Karen met me doing this and knew it was where I wanted to be. Even when the creditors were calling, she never wanted me to walk away.”

The Domitrzes founded The Date Safe Project, which would later become the Center for Respect, in 2003. His sister Rita Hookstead, who received her BBA and MBA from UW-Whitewater, worked in client relations, customer service, sales and marketing for the center for more than 17 years. His parents were also supportive throughout, as were his sisters Cheri and Vicki.

“We grew closer through the process, and I got to see her strength,” said Domitrz. “I don’t use the word victim in my work, because survivors have survived, and there is strength and courage in every survivor.”


Domitrz speaks on stage.

Domitrz spoke to students at Episcopal High School in March 2023.


Initially focused on high schools, the business soon took off among universities. He appeared at hundreds, including Stanford and Princeton, honing his presentation along the way. In 2005 the U.S. military, looking to universities to see what they were doing to address sexual assault and consent, asked if he could adapt the program for them.

“I integrated conversations about married life into the content,” he said. “Five years later the Navy asked if they could send me on tour.”

He has spoken on more than 100 military installations across the globe, from Greenland Thule Air Force Base in Greenland to Djibouti, Bahrain, Kuwait, Korea, Singapore, Japan and throughout Europe. He’s received commendations from military units and commands across the U.S. military, including from Special Forces. He was a guest speaker at the Pentagon.

“I was also flown out on a helicopter to the aircraft carrier in the middle of the Persian Gulf to speak to over 2,000 sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson while it was running missions in the Persian Gulf.”


The “Can I Kiss You?” guy

Domitrz wearing a shirt that says Can I Kiss You.

Known for a frank and engaging presentation on consent that includes the question “Can I kiss you?” Domitrz became the “Can I Kiss You?” guy — and a widely sought-after subject matter expert. His presentations increasingly focused on action, including the role that bystanders can play, in an effort to shift the focus to what people can do to prevent sexual assault.

“The audience knows what the right answers are. It’s getting them to shift their behaviors and more proactively care for each other. When that happens, it fills my soul.”

He was a featured guest expert on Dateline NBC’s “My Kid Would Never Do That” in 2016 and an Emmy Award-winning episode of Protect Our Children: Sexting & Sextortion vs. Safe Dating. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and multiple other news outlets. He is the author of “Can I Kiss You: A Thought-Provoking Look at Relationships, Intimacy & Sexual Assault” and the editor and creator of “Voices of Courage: Inspiration from Survivors of Sexual Assault,” which features his sister’s story.

As he honed his craft, he received professional accolades as well. He earned the designation of Certified Speaking Professional in 2008 and received a Council of Peers Award for Excellence. More recently, he was inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame in 2022.


Domitrz poses with his two sisters.

Domitrz with sisters Cheri Zimdars, center, and Rita Hookstead after being inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame in 2022.


Domitrz and his wife are based in southeastern Wisconsin, and their growing family now includes two grandchildren. He continues to travel nationally and internationally, spreading his message.

And now, he is back on that stage as commencement speaker.

“It’s an honor when it’s your alma mater,” said Domitrz. “A lot of wonderful things came into my life — academically, socially — because of UW-Whitewater. I am so grateful.”

“When you have people supporting your journey on campus it makes all the difference.”