Community//

“Read, Read, Read.with Leslie Lynn Smith and Tyler Gallagher

I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment and think we’ve a long way to go until participation in all areas of this industry see representation by women and people of color that matches the population of our nation. As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of […]

I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment and think we’ve a long way to go until participation in all areas of this industry see representation by women and people of color that matches the population of our nation.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Lynn Smith, a nationally recognized entrepreneurial and business development leader, 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 for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

I started her banking career in 1986, fresh out of high school, as a joyful bank teller and moved through the organization as I completed college moving 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 with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story.

My career has been filled with dozens of amusing and interesting moments. I think those that stick with me the most are the ones where I learned about leadership through the examples those who were mentoring me displayed over time. That was most especially true when things weren’t going particularly well. For instance, I was sitting in the offices of Merrill Lynch during the 2008 financial crisis, and in a real estate closing when the planes hit the towers on 9/11. Both times, my inexperience and fear were met with stable maturity and experience that comforted me and guided me through the hours and days that followed. Those situations taught me to always be present for the team of people around me and to fill in the gaps of their experience by honoring their responses to new situations and sharing vulnerably and transparently the ways I have survived similar things.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Epicenter is always working on ways to fill gaps in the Memphis ecosystem of support for local entrepreneurs and break down barriers that prevent our citizens from participating in the entrepreneurial economy. One program we’re really excited about is The 800 Initiative, a collaboration among our organization and the City of Memphis, tech venture development organization Start Co., and Christian Brothers University. The 800 Initiative intentionally serves a portion of the 800 black-owned businesses in Memphis — a majority African American city — by convening technical assistance and access to funding to help them scale and hire additional employees. Because the intent is to grow the revenue of participating businesses by $50M, this is also a significant economic growth opportunity for our region. We’ve also recently partnered with the University of Memphis to create more local startup companies through Patents2Products, an entrepreneurial program for postdoctoral fellows focused on commercializing university patents — also a significant regional economic development opportunity.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a regional entrepreneurial hub, Epicenter assists all entrepreneurs — from tech startups to community-based businesses. They’re intentional about inclusion and want the work to serve entrepreneurs who reflect the demographics of our region. So, they consistently highlight entrepreneurs’ stories — particularly from entrepreneurs of color — through their podcast, Grindset, as well as through media profiles and videos. We want Memphians to see the economic opportunity in entrepreneurship for themselves and be proud and informed about the entrepreneurs who are innovating and creating in our region. For example, Epicenter recently held a workshop to educate female founders about pitching to angel investors. At the event, one attendee approached an entrepreneur who had recently been featured in one of our profile videos and told her she took the leap to come to the workshop because she saw her video. These small moments are what their work is all about.

Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment and think we’ve a long way to go until participation in all areas of this industry see representation by women and people of color that matches the population of our nation.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

Hire more women and people of color into leadership positions and place them on boards. The diversity of experience and thought will lead to a series of new practices which will fix this.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I have adult children, so these are real things I’ve talked to each of them about over the course of the past several years.

· Record everything you spend; you will learn so much about the leakage in your budget.

· Deposit into your 401K now, it adds up. Establish a flexible spending account for your medical expenses.

· Get to know a banker before you need one.

· Learn how to buy and sell stock.

· Read, read, read about business and finance as a part of your everyday content consumption.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It is my experience that our entire careers are filled with people who lift us up when we fall, give us a chance when we need it most, cheer for us as we rally through the hard stuff and encourage us to see and believe the best about ourselves. I’ve had a handful of amazing bosses over the years who have done all of those things. They’ve pushed me, shown me the way, helped me recover when I did stuff wrong. I still write personal thank you notes, keep everything as simple as possible and invest in my team because of the way they each treated me. It’s also impossible that I could achieve anything in life without my parents, my kids and my unendingly patient, supportive and encouraging husband.

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

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. — Henry Ford

I love the empowerment of this quote.

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

I believe with every ounce of my fiber that the work we do at Epicenter is exactly that type of movement. We believe in the power of entrepreneurship and the opportunity it provides for all people. We also know, that if supported appropriately, entrepreneurs can build the types of cities we want to see with thriving economies that benefit and include all of our citizens.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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