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Living Legends: Barb Smoot

Barb Smoot, President & CEO of Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), on diversity, history makers, and her definition of leadership.

February 10, 2021

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community.

Barb Smoot, President & CEO of Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), gives her thoughts on leadership.

According to Barb Smoot, leadership is often defined too narrowly. The President & CEO of Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD) contends that, when we stop to think about the actions anyone can take to make an impact on the world, “everybody can be a leader.”

Calvin Cooper, Co-Founder and CEO of Rhove, sat down with Barb to ask about her illustrious business career and what Black History Month means to her. Here are the highlights, condensed for clarity:

Barb Smoot, Interviewed by Calvin Cooper

I noticed that your LinkedIn says you’re a “business strategy resuscitator, renovator, and rejuvenator.” That sounds pretty intense! Tell me about it. 

In my corporate career, I tended to get assignments that were either startups or something was broken—“can you fix it?” or “can you rejuvenate a line of business?” 

My career (at WELD) started with a small nonprofit organization here in Columbus with flat revenue growth and flat membership growth. So all of my career has been focused on opportunities like that. And I didn’t really latch onto the fact that’s what I was doing until I had a conversation with someone who was doing an executive analysis of me. That individual pointed out, wow, there’s a common thread here in terms of what you’ve been doing. And that more or less became how I describe myself.

Why do you find yourself running towards the most challenging opportunities?

I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. The thing is this: I like to lift weights, and you can’t build muscle unless you tear it down. And you can’t build muscle if you’re too afraid to lift heavy weights and diversify what you’re doing for strength training.

I feel the same way when it comes to business and business opportunity. Those are the things that I derive a lot of satisfaction from and I enjoy being able to give back to those who need it the most. Who wants to go run a business that is already thriving, successful, and making a ton of money? Why not take on something that’s going to help people who need it, and drive revenue to communities that need it. 

Talk to us about your process. How do you go about turning around a challenged business?

I learned an approach in my financial services career: the Outside-In approach. I speak to a large number of individuals one on one, asking the tough questions and asking for honest feedback about what they know about the organization, and the brand—what it’s doing well, what it needs to address. I believe in market research and data. I believe in the importance of having a strong value proposition. And I strongly believe that no person can do it by herself. It’s through partnerships and community and building those relationships.

You’ve said before that there are no excuses for the lack of Black leadership in C-suites and company boards. Why do you think representation is still a challenge for so many businesses?

There have been so many business cases that attest to the importance of having a diverse leadership team. I don’t care where you look, all the statistics will show that when you have more women and people of color at the leadership table, those organizations financially outperform organizations that have no diversity. Those organizations make better decisions, they have a better understanding of the consumers that they serve. And at the same time, they also give back more to the communities in which they reside. It’s delivering that business case with a passion, and demonstrating how your organization plays into it, and how you’re going to move the lever that really was the pivot point for WELD.

So that (lack of Black representation) falls into two camps: there’s the camp of individuals and companies that believe the business case, they understand that it’s the right thing to do, they just need help doing it. For those individuals, the approach is a little bit different. It’s helping them understand the pipeline is not narrow. We have a supply that can meet the demand. And in the words of John Rogers, who is the founder of Ariel Investments, there is no shortage of Black talent for the boardroom. It is how companies source the talent, it’s how they view the qualifications needed to be on a public company board, it’s the networks they source talent from.

The other camp, the camp that no matter what data you provide them, what business case you give them, they still don’t believe the data. For that camp, we have to get at it through legislation. We have to get at it through investor activism. 

What do you think about when you hear Black History Month?

For me, it’s Black History Year, it’s Black History Century, it’s Black History Millennium. Black history is being made every day, and has been made every day. For me, Black History Month is a time for the celebration of the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. It’s about being mindful of supporting Black-owned businesses. It’s an opportunity to really reflect on the experience of Black Americans in the previous 12 months and take stock of what it is we have accomplished and where the work needs to continue. So to say Black History Month is just a celebration of history, I mean, we’re making history all the time and you can’t condense it into 28 days, sometimes 29. This is really a time for strategy. This is a time to be planful, to look at what has been working, and to see what needs to be done to help us move forward. 

Black history is being written right now. In 20 years, how do you hope this story unfolds?

In 20 years, I’m hoping the duality that you see in this country is no more. No more dual standards of justice. No more dual levels of services—one for the rich and one for the poor, one for whites and one for Black. The Black Americans will no longer have to run up the down escalator of life. Once and for all, institutional and systemic racism and barriers to racial equity are truly things in the past. And let’s be clear: I’m not looking to wait 20 years for this to happen. These are things that need to happen today. You can’t turn on the news and not see an issue of disparity and a double standard in duality in this country. Look at vaccinations. Who’s getting access to all the vaccinations? Who is showing up from underserved communities? Who do you see in line to get vaccinations? Not people who live in those communities.

Everybody Can Lead

It’s hard not to feel inspired by the words of Barb Smoot. We can all be leaders, so let’s go out and do it: Just find a purpose and act on that purpose. 

If you want to learn more about the work she and WELD are doing to better our community, head to their website.

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community. Follow us on social media for more inspiration from our Living Legends.