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Women in Business Q&A: Allison Kent-Smith, Founder and Managing Partner, smith & beta

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Allison founded smith & beta in 2012 after recognizing the critical need to educate the advertising and marketing industry on employee education. Allison has been involved in digital education for the past eight years. She also co-launched Boulder Digital Works, a post-graduate and professional school for digital education with the University of Colorado at Boulder. Prior to Boulder Digital Works, she held the position of director of interactive development at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Recently, as director of digital development at Goodby Silverstein & Partners she designed and launched a customized digital-education program for employees and clients. She's been leading digital strategy and business development for over 15 years; past clients include Pepsi, BMW, Crocs, American Express, and Sprint. She has a M.A. in Integrated Marketing and undergraduate degree in Communications and Fine Arts.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Life is an aggregation of moments that form us intellectually and emotionally. My luckiest moments have been spent with those who have navigated complexity and uncertainty with far more grace than me. To be a great leader, one's lifetime should be invested in listening to others. We think leadership is so much about doing, but really it's about opening our ears and hearts. I only hope that the moments I have left are spent with a greater understanding of others - empathy has to be one of the most important skills of the 21st century.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at smith & beta?
I have been practicing to be an entrepreneur for over twenty years. Some of that time was spent singing happy birthday in a sombrero. Other experiences include a range of founder auditions including managing a local health food store and designing a new soap brand. At the health food store, I was hired to make sandwiches and smoothies for the tourists. Although my job function was restricted to soup recipes and blended ingredients, I found myself studying retail inventory and shopping preferences of customers (all documented on a notepad behind the bar). I would follow the owner around the store and ask about shopper marketing behaviors way before shopper marketing had a name. I always wanted to lead and knew that I had the ability to run my own show. The process of becoming an entrepreneur is equally as interesting as being an entrepreneur.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at smith & beta?
One of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) has been educating our clients about education. Although corporate "training" is well established, our approach to learning in the workplace is much different. We have to combat the stigma of sitting through hours of presentations with little interaction. Learning about technology is about exploring, experimenting and making. So we spend a lot of time explaining how this new approach to learning (essentially, learning is making and applying) on the job can change the entire strategic approach to talent. Companies simply cannot buy their way out of the talent crisis. The opportunities to educate the current workforce are endless.

How is smith&beta shaking up the digital landscape?
Someone recently said to me, "Don't most people know about digital by now?" Well, the truth is - absolutely not. Many of us did not grow up with technology or land a job at a technical agency or company early on. So if most of our digital learning happens on the job, most of us have simply had the wrong job to teach us about technology.

Our programs provide a solution for forward-thinking companies that want the best digital talent. We are big believers in customization and direct application of skills. All of our programming encourages a balance of learning and doing "back at the desk." We're proving the value and return on employee development each and every day. It's good work.

What advice would you give to women who are looking for a career in a similar industry?
If you're interested in organizational change and talent development, I recommend actively shaping your current role beyond the confines of a job title or description. This type of work is often in the white space between roles. You need to have an appetite for creating real change, and it is not easy work. Many of us are seasoned at pointing out challenges or roadblocks, but few of us are brave enough to own, design and implement a solution. My advice would be to not be afraid to question, provide alternative ways of working, and step into the role of "change agent" before anyone has the chance to question your involvement.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a three-year-old toddler at home. Having kids requires adjustments to work/life balance. I was in California a few years back and happened upon a local elementary school during morning drop-off. I kept thinking to myself, how do parents make it to work at a decent hour and find time to walk their kids to school every morning? Now I know that it's an everyday choice. That same important conference call can happen tomorrow, and everything will be just fine.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I am a big believer of good ideas, hard work, and clarity of purpose. For women to succeed, we have to learn to ask for what we want, go toe-to-toe with our male colleagues, and stop being limited by our roles or definitions of women in the workplace. Be confident, know your strengths, and work harder than most. And if you're not recognized in your current role, go start your own company. There have never been as many doors open as there are now for female entrepreneurs. One big issue is peer-imposed limitations: don't let others define your ability to succeed.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I rely on the generosity of others often. When I started smith & beta, some random person at SXSW told me to not be afraid to ask for help. This stuck with me, and I've built a company that integrated mentors as teachers into the service we provide. It's interesting how open and accessible experts are once you ask for input and advice. I like to think that mentorship is the purest form of education. I only hope I can give back as much as I've been given along the way.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire women who are confident and not afraid of taking on something super-big. I think of women like Marissa Meyer and Hillary Clinton, but also women who are less known yet walk confidently toward uncertainty. I'm a big fan of trailblazers, women who have led the way for others to follow.

What are your hopes for the future of smith & beta?
The future is bright for talent development. I have hopes that we will have a big impact on the way most brands and agencies develop future digital-centric talent for their businesses. I believe our work will directly influence some of the biggest operational changes required of companies and agencies that are moving from traditional to modern in the 21st century. I'd like us to reach beyond the corporate sector to design programming that supports adults and children who are interested in learning about technology. Our programming will always be in beta, which allows us to be flexible, iterative and responsive. The future is very bright, yes it is.