Community//

“Policy framework.” with Leslie Lynn Smith and Candice Georgiadis

I work to hire a staff that mirrors the population of our city, which is predominately black and female. I pay them market rate salaries that match their male counterparts and offer a flexible working culture to accommodate the needs of all employees. I also have fought over the course of my career to ask […]

I work to hire a staff that mirrors the population of our city, which is predominately black and female. I pay them market rate salaries that match their male counterparts and offer a flexible working culture to accommodate the needs of all employees. I also have fought over the course of my career to ask my male bosses to compensate me commensurate to my experience and at a level matched to my male colleagues. I have been fortunate to have worked with a number of male allies who have accepted that challenge and have fought against a presumed accepted policy to pay me, and all women, less.


As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Lynn Smith, a nationally recognized entrepreneurial and business development leader. Leslie joined EPIcenter as its first president in 2015. EPIcenter was created to accomplish the Greater Memphis Chamber Chairman’s Circle’s entrepreneurial moon mission and serves as the central hub of Memphis region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Together with its partners, EPIcenter is pursuing a common goal of creating a robust and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in Memphis and the Mid-South region. Before moving to Memphis, Leslie spent five years as president and CEO of TechTown, Detroit’s most established business incubator and accelerator. Previously, she was director of business acceleration for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, overseeing the state’s $300 million start-up investment portfolio. She was named to the International Business Innovation Association Board of Directors last year.


Thank you so much for joining us, Leslie! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

Istarted a banking career in 1986, fresh out of high school as a joyful bank teller, and moved through the organization as I completed college, from direct customer support to commercial workouts, and finally leading the department responsible for underwriting, documentation, and compliance for the commercial local portfolio. Banking provided a great foundation for the arc of my career, which has centered in deep relationships with people and a fundamental understanding that, for any deal to work, everyone has to feel like they are winning something.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
I have been blessed to have too many interesting experiences to count. Among my favorites have been the times I’ve been invited to the White House to discuss our entrepreneurial efforts in communities and how that work might inform national policies. I’ve been able to meet several presidents and would-be presidents, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and John McCain. I’ve been able to meet and engage some of the world’s most extraordinary innovators and entrepreneurs, such as Fred W. Smith, Pitt Hyde, Dr. Roger Newton, Steve Case, and Kimbal Musk, to name a few. I also get to spend time with the next generation of entrepreneurs and feel the promise of our future at all times. Oddly, I’ve also spent a weekend on the USS Eisenhower, have flown in a Blackhawk, and delivered a TEDx talk in Memphis which, in spite of the fact that I speak all of the time for my job, nearly scared the sense out of me.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know how many of the mistakes I’ve made were funny or interesting, but the one that taught me the most is easy to remember. Many years ago, as a young professional managing the North American real estate portfolio for a fortune 100 company, I missed a deadline to renew a lease for office space for the client which occurred over our holiday break. (Yes, this was during a time before the Blackberry, smart phones and computers you take home with you.) When we returned from the holiday, I found a letter terminating the lease, even though the client had indicated a deep desire to stay. I called the landlord and asked for an accommodation, explaining that I’d missed the notice date due to holiday closures, and they were woefully disinterested in my problems and had already identified a tenant who would pay a much higher rate. My heart sunk, and here comes the learning…I went to my boss and told him what had happened, how I had tried to fix it, and that I had failed in convincing the landlord to accommodate my error. He immediately stood up, said “follow me,” and walked me to our client’s office (we were co-located), where he explained the error WE had made, discussed some ideas for new spaces, and informed the client that I would be leading the site selection and lease process for our company. When we got back, he said “everyone makes mistakes, it’s what you do now that matters most.” That moment transformed me, we worked it out, and I have aspired to be that type of leader every day since.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

1-Women are most absent from decision making.

2-Access to salary data and the disparities therein is hard to find.

3-Policy framework re: fair and equal pay lacks consistency and accountability.

4-The economic imperative of female participation across all aspects of industry and economy are not amplified.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

I work to hire a staff that mirrors the population of our city, which is predominately black and female. I pay them market rate salaries that match their male counterparts and offer a flexible working culture to accommodate the needs of all employees. I also have fought over the course of my career to ask my male bosses to compensate me commensurate to my experience and at a level matched to my male colleagues. I have been fortunate to have worked with a number of male allies who have accepted that challenge and have fought against a presumed accepted policy to pay me, and all women, less.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

1-More women in leadership (they will DO this), and that means in politics local and national, on boards, and in the executive suite.

2-Adopt policies at all levels to require fair and equitable pay.

3-Make access to information about compensation free and available to create transparency and accountability.

4-Recognize the importance of the contributions of women to our economy.

5-Measure and communicate that impact regularly. Fair and balanced compensation for all people is not simply a moral imperative, it is an economic imperative.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want our country to more intentionally, boldly and courageously support entrepreneurs of all ages, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations. We still make access to resources, capital, customers and networks of influence too difficult for our entrepreneurial heroes who have the potential to transform communities. (I’ve included a blog I recently wrote about this because it gives a deep look at this concept.)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Henry Ford, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” So, always believe you can. There’s power in that.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Brene Brown, Beyonce, Arlan Hamilton, Serena Williams.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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