This interview is the eleventh in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Keisha Smith, BS, MEd, PhD, Director of Products and Publications, The Data Center
Committed to excellence. Impact and outcome-driven. Community-focused.
What are some of your career highlights?
Some of the highlights are the impacts I have been able to make in my community based on the type of career I chose. I chose a career in nonprofits specifically because I wanted my life every day to feel like it has some meaning. I worked in corporate for a while before transitioning to nonprofits. My time in corporate solidified my desire to have a life with some meaning, and for me that’s the highlight. Every single day I get to go to a job where I am making a difference to someone somewhere in my larger community. (Keisha Smith pictured at right.)
My role as director of the Parent Information Center at the Urban League comes to mind because it was a job where I had direct contact with the people I was trying to impact. I had direct contact with the community, parents, kids, and schools. It may be a little selfish to say this, but I could get the immediate feedback on how people benefited from the work that I did, and that was important to me. Having on-the-ground experience and working for an organization that specifically focused on building and empowering the African American community has always been rewarding.
My current job at The Data Center is a bit different. As a data intermediary, I don’t get to experience those direct touches from the community I am serving, but what I like most is that we are empowering people through fact-based information. It’s almost like a web where we are at the center (or certainly a touchpoint in that web), and the information we provide gets disseminated to leaders and organizations, allowing them to do their work and directly impact the community. The reach from The Data Center is more like a diffusion of impact versus impact that is a result of direct contact.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Hmmm…a headline for my leadership journey…“unpredictable.” (Laughter.) Maybe a better word would be serendipitous: unpredictable, but certainly in a really good way — the people I have come in contact with, the work that I get to do, how my leadership positions and skills have evolved, and how I can see the transfer of many of my leadership skills from the private to public sector, all of which I wouldn’t have been able to understand how it would all come together at that time. I can certainly see it now. Many of my life experiences have shaped my ability to lead in the sector that I’m in.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
My favorite types of challenges are to create something from nothing, whether that is to create a brand-new training program from scratch, or to develop an information booklet to help solve a problem, or to grow a department from its beginning stages all the way to fully functional and thriving. It’s a range, but to summarize it’s to create something from nothing that addresses issues or solves problems.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
The most influential book I have ever read is The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. It’s my life bible, and the one book that I go back to over and over again after first reading it 15-20 years ago. In order to be a good leader, you have to be humble and empathetic, which is what I got out of the book…how to not take things personally, to treat people with dignity and respect and, honestly, how to take the ego out of leadership.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
Working in the advocacy and policy space it certainly is a place where people’s actions are driven by their values. There was one instance where my boss and I had different perspectives on a certain issue. I was asked to speak publicly at a legislative meeting in support of a policy that I supported overall, but what my boss wanted me to say was not in line with my value system. We disagreed which caused much tension. It was a tough call since I didn’t want to tell my boss no, but at same time I wasn’t going to compromise values. I had to figure out a way to still speak, but in a way that felt comfortable to me. I believe in being honest and transparent. I told my boss what I was comfortable saying and supporting, and that I couldn’t make the statement that she wanted me to make. I proposed an alternative statement, and it all worked out fine.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
I don’t know if this is quite the same, but it brings up the same type of feeling. I was in a meeting at City Hall with the boss of my direct boss. He’s a Black man and he invited his mentor, an older Black man, to the meeting also. I was invited to attend but was not clear on my role in the meeting. I figured I’d been invited given my knowledge in the education space and possibly even my credentials.
During the presentation, I didn’t take the lead. After the presentation, I joined in with others weighing in on the conversation and shared my observations. As the three of us returned from the meeting, the older mentor said something to the effect that when he was younger and attended meetings like this, he would just sit down and listen. Basically, the way he said it told me that I shouldn’t be speaking. To this day, I’m not sure what his reason or motivation was, but the message was that I was out of my place. Whatever the reason, it didn’t feel like good advice. It was the first time I felt like someone was telling me to be silent — especially coming from a man trying to silence me. From that moment on, it was a reality that if I have something to say and it’s of value, then I don’t care if it makes anyone uncomfortable, I will say it.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Well, first you have to be committed to self-care. I go to yoga classes and I exercise regularly. I’m learning that getting enough sleep is the most important aspect of self-care, and the hardest for me to commit to.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
To truly commit to supporting Black women in authentic, unconditional ways. I have to say that my experiences with women have been mostly negative. I think it’s shaped by women in one’s family, and I haven’t had the best woman-to-woman relationships in my family. Over time my experiences with other Black women have also been much more competitive and adversarial. There seems to always be some ulterior motive.
However, I recently had an experience that was different. I might be working on a project with another Black woman and we had to submit a joint proposal. So far, it has been such a pleasant experience: we met and agreed on splitting the proposal; we each did our part and there was no sort of ambiguity about the work, the rates, or who would get paid for what. I had to thank her for such a positive experience, and when I say positive, I mean it was full of integrity. I did not feel like she was trying to take advantage of me or give me half of the information or hoard knowledge. I would hope there are many more of those interactions with Black women. I hope we are more likely to pull each other up as we take on more leadership roles rather than competing with each other.
The other point is not to let others define who you are, what you can do, and your self-worth. Don’t let people put you in a box, whether it’s from a professional perspective where you are pegged with only a certain skill set or only able to work with certain people. Don’t let anyone else set your professional boundaries.
Be open to developing personal connections — not just for the sake of networking, but to really develop personally.