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Living Legends: Dwight Smith

Dwight Smith, CEO of Sophisticated Systems Inc. and Co-Founder of My Special Word, on leadership, Black history, and more.

February 4, 2021

Calvin asks Dwight about his journey to becoming an entrepreneur and what it means to run his business with kindness.

Black History Month is not only a time to reflect on the history of Black Americans, but also an opportunity to recognize those who are still positively shaping our communities. Living Legends, as we call them.

In our first Living Legends interview this Black History Month, Rhove Co-Founder and CEO Calvin Cooper spoke with entrepreneur and philanthropist Dwight Smith.

Dwight is the CEO of Sophisticated Systems Inc., and he sits on boards for a variety of organizations including the Columbus Foundation and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He’s also the founder of My Special Word, an organization inspiring young people around the world to spread positivity through the power of words. 

Calvin asked Dwight about his career, Black History Month, and why words matter. Here are the highlights, condensed for clarity.

Dwight Smith, Interviewed by Calvin Cooper

What led you to take the leap into entrepreneurship?

I grew up in Springfield, Ohio and I was involved in Junior Achievement when I was in high school. That’s when I first started to learn about business. I remember we had to come up with a product, a distribution channel, pricing, and all of those things. I was really fascinated by that concept of how you create and go to market with a product, so I think that was my first insight into being an entrepreneur. 

But much later when I started SSI, I wanted to use the business as a platform for good. People often ask about the business and I remind them that the business is what I do, it’s not the person I am. The person that I am wants to change the world. The business is a vehicle to help facilitate that.

In every interaction I’ve had with you since we’ve met, you always started and ended with kind words. How has living life with kindness impacted your career?

I’ve always believed in and wanted to be—I’m still growing as a leader—a servant leader. If I ever say “I,” that means things probably didn’t go well. If I say “we,” then things went well. When things are difficult, real leaders stand up and speak out and take responsibility. And yet, when things are going well, we step back and give credit to where credit is due, and that’s the team. It takes on a different flavor these days because it’s not just about standing up as a business owner or as a leader. It’s about speaking out. I think that leaders in business and outside of business need to stand up, speak out, make sure their voices are heard, and be a positive factor and a force for change.

What inspired you to found My Special Word?

I have a special word that I live by every day. My word is “sold,” as in “sold out” to Christ. What I often share is that we’re all sold out to something. And when you’re sold out, you’re completely, completely committed. 

So five years ago, we started asking children four simple questions: What is your special word? Why did you pick your word? How are you living out your word? What can we do to help you become that very special person you aspire to be? 

The theory is, when we get enough energy and momentum behind this movement we can do the following: If we can change the words that we use, we can change the conversations we have. If we change the conversations, we can change behaviors. If we change behaviors, we can change the world. So I think, in society, it’s time that we step back and understand, respect, and appreciate the power of words. How do we speak to others and how do we think about ourselves?

Not everyone has the platform and ability to impact the world that we do, but many people are concerned about moving forward and healing the divisions in our country. What is your advice to them?

It’s not all about having resources or writing a check. But you can do little things every day that make a difference. How about saying a kind word to a stranger? How about saying hello? How about giving someone a call just to say “I care about you, how are you doing today?” There are times when you reach out and you do something kind and you never know or see the impact. And that’s not even important. You just have to hope that at some point in time, that good that you pour in has a positive impact. Maybe the life you touch, it made a difference at a critical time. And it’s really great when you can pour into someone and then watch them grow and develop and watch them do the same. And then you get momentum, and then you get change. Sustainable change.

You mentioned this important moment in American history, particularly for Black Americans. Our story is being written as we speak. In 20 years, how do you hope our story unfolds from here?

This is not a request, this is a requirement. I think that we will be equal, all people. I hope and pray for equality for all. A lack of opportunities in education leads to a lack of opportunities in occupation and in wealth creation. We need to address that. So 20 years from now—and I hope we don’t have to wait 20 years—I see a society with equal access and equal opportunities for all people. I actually think about it from a global standpoint. We’re all God’s people. While it’s important to uplift the United States of America, as long as our brothers and sisters are in pain and suffering and living without, all around the world, we still have work to do.

Words to Live By

We have long agreed with Dwight that the power of words is important. That’s why we’re sharing his words with you. 

If you want to learn more about My Special Word and the work Dwight Smith is doing to inspire children everywhere, 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.