VOL. 131 | NO. 171 | Friday, August 26, 2016
Smith Helps Mayor Pick the Right Team
By LANCE WIEDOWER
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
As chief human resources officer for the city of Memphis, Alexandria Smith is responsible for the HR strategy and talent management for the city as an employer. She provides advice to the mayor and senior leadership team, a role that has played an important part in shaping the city’s future, including leading the recent search for a police chief.
Smith has been in Memphis for less than a year, but she already feels a part of the community.
“One of the things about Memphis, it’s like a big city and small city at the same time,” she said. “There is an interconnectedness that I haven’t seen in some of the other places I’ve been. And then how the community gathers around things like Memphis in May. There is a sense of everyone is connected to this one thing. There is an actual richness that happens that’s deep.”
Looking ahead, Smith said she wants to find opportunities to help young women and girls be successful in the community.
Yes, her career has followed a path of helping others in the human resources field, but a desire to be involved in the community started at a young age.
Smith’s grandfather had an important influence on her life during her early years in Gary, Indiana. He served on Gary’s city council for 12 years, ran for mayor and served on numerous boards. He showed her not only the importance of community involvement, but also a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
At 16, she left home and attended boarding school at Indiana Academy for Mathematics, Sciences and Humanities, a move that was a culture shock but one that Smith said prepared her to be resourceful and taught her how to network with others and build relationships.
She graduated with honors and went to Duke University, graduating in 3 1/2 years with a degree in economics. She also studied abroad in Italy and Australia, where she learned to live in other cultures.
It wasn’t the first time Smith had traveled; it was, however, the first time to do it alone. Growing up, Smith said her parents didn’t buy her the latest name-brand clothes. But they were purposeful in saving for travel, experiences that took her from New Orleans and Mexico to Florida and Tokyo.
“I grew up knowing exposure to other cultures was important,” she said. “What led me to study abroad in college, if you’re going to travel and travel on a budget it’s hard to stay in a hostel in your 30s. When you’re 20 that standard is different.”
During her final year at Duke, Smith was director of a small nonprofit organization where she came to better understand the issues of economic poverty. The organization placed college students in a resource center in impoverished communities where they could help with job placement and other resources. In some ways it was her introduction to the world of human resources.
Smith originally thought she’d pursue a career on Wall Street. Her grandfather got her interested in equity markets and being a stockbroker. She started trading stocks at 10; her first were McDonald’s and Disney.
Smith’s eyes were opened when, as a part of the Duke Investment Club, she took a field trip to Wall Street. Several analysts were in the room. Mostly Duke grads, the group looked exhausted, Smith said. They worked 100-hour weeks and lived in an apartment with four or five others.
It was that moment Smith realized maybe Wall Street wasn’t in the cards. She sought a life with balance, a career and the opportunity to work in her community.
Her passion to recruit and train volunteers ultimately led Smith to the University of Minnesota, where she earned a master’s degree in HR. Over the years, her career led her to work for the likes of Target and Microsoft and move to cities including Seattle, Miami and Alpharetta, Georgia.
Her husband’s job brought the couple to Memphis in December, and Smith has worked in the city administration since January.
Alexandria Smith is a graduate of Leadership Development Intensive at New Memphis. Learn more at newmemphis.org.