Interdisciplinary ‘disruptor’ Dr. Tammy Smithers
Interdisciplinary ‘disruptor’ Dr. Tammy Smithers

Tammy E. Smithers is an interdisciplinary scholar, researcher, writer, and thought leader on issues of race/ethnicity, gender disparity, political engagement, diversity, and inclusion. One of her unique gifts is facilitating conversations both as a moderator, speaker, and panelist on diversity and social justice issues with engaging, thought-provoking candor.

She is a former Visiting Scholar at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity and Justice both housed in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.

Smithers is an Executive Consultant at Bridge Philanthropic Consulting, one of the largest African American owned fundraising firms in the US with a focus on primarily BIPOC organizations. In that role, Smithers will helm fundraising and major gifts strategy for the build-out of a $70 million cultural arts museum and economic growth engine in one of the largest U.S. cities.

In addition, she serves as Practice Leader of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging for the Gerald Hannah Group.

As an educator, Smithers has lent her experience and expertise as an adjunct professor of management at Texas Southern University’s Jesse H. Jones School of Business and as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston’s School of Education and Human Services. She holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of St. Thomas, an MBA from Rice University, and a bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin.

Oh yeah; and in her spare time, Smithers facilitates monthly discussions with authors and readers for her book club, the largest Black book club in the nation. And in 2023, she is scheduled to launch a podcast and series of travel events, retreats and excursions for book club members featuring historical fiction authors.

The Defender was able to speak with this dynamic educator, thought leader and social change agent, to ask her about her professional work, impact in academia and challenges specific to being a Black woman.

DEFENDER: What is your current professional position, and please explain what it is you do?

SMITHERS: A self-described disruptor, I avoid relegating my professional identity to a position or employer affiliation. Instead, I consider myself to be an interdisciplinary scholar-practitioner who thrives at the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion and social justice philanthropy. In addition to being President and CEO of Smithers Global Enterprises, LLC, a boutique consultancy focusing on providing diversity, equity, and inclusion training for corporations and fundraising strategy for nonprofits, I am an Executive Consultant with Bridge Philanthropic Consulting (BPC). BPC is the U.S.’s only full-service Black-owned fundraising firm providing counsel to plan or enhance capital campaigns, annual giving, major gifts programs, special events, program development, conference management, organizational development, strategic planning, team building, board training, planned giving, and strategic communication. My role within BPC is to provide major gifts fundraising strategy, serve as project lead managing the client and other consultants, as well as perform tactical activities such as solicitation, donor development, and grant writing. Between both companies, my clients typically are educational institutions, hospitals, art and cultural organizations, professional associations, and social impact organizations. Currently, two of the major projects I am helming include a $5 million Philadelphia-based memorial statue for a deceased political leader and a multiyear $70 million capital campaign to build a national museum and economic development project in north Texas.

DEFENDER: How did you make the transition from teaching at the college level to your current position?

SMITHERS: During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic while completing the requirements to graduate with my doctorate degree, I was forced to pivot and refocus my career efforts. One doctorate degree, three courses taught, two research studies completed, six peer-reviewed articles and book chapter published, and three universities later, I examined the direction of my career and decided to get off that track. On December 8, 2020, while I was out running errands, I received a call from one of my long-time professional mentors who presented me with an option I had never considered before. After much conviction and prayer, I took a leap of faith and journeyed on the pathway to entrepreneurship full-time but this time, as an independent consultant. Consulting was not exactly new to me – I have been doing it since 2019. However, working with a national consulting full-service firm, I have access to resources and other niche consultants that allow me to diversify my client base. I have worked with youth and education, arts and culture, higher education, healthcare, professional associations, and social impact organizations. While I am based in Houston and am the face of BPC’s Texas practice, I have also worked with clients based in Canada, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Dallas/Fort Worth and have pitched for business even as far as Australia and Brazil.

As a DEI scholar-practitioner, my unique skill as a major gifts fundraiser and strategist was made possible because I am able to draw upon my early career in professional fundraising and philanthropy from 27 years ago. I previously held positions in Institutional Advancement and Corporate Giving at Texas Chiropractic College and Houston Grand Opera, respectively. I had also chaired events, wrote grants, solicited sponsorships, and raised money for scholarships for the Alpha Kappa Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; Rice University’s National Association of Women MBAs; and the Houston Chapter of the National MBA Association, Inc. in the late-90s and early-00s. Here I am 17 years later, this skill has come full circle.

DEFENDER: How did your experience as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, and Justice impact your life professionally and otherwise?

SMITHERS: When I started my journey as a Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, I was focused on the short-term. Never in a million years would I have imagined the breadth and depth of my research, writing, and scholarship being received beyond the academic halls into popular culture. Such is the goal that my academic mentor promised would happen if I wrote using my authentic voice and not to appease an audience or try and use jargon that is inaccessible. My research and published works span topics on leadership, race, and politics. I have evolved to be recognized as a thought-leader and influencer in the literary, philanthropy, and DEI space and continue to author papers and facilitate conversations in a variety of forums professionally and socially.

DEFENDER: What lessons (impacts, etc.) did you take from each of your educational experiences (The University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, and University of St. Thomas)?

SMITHERS: At each juncture of my academic career, I was ill-informed, ill-exposed, and new to each of those stations in my life. At The University of Texas at Austin, I balanced school and multiple jobs on and off campus. My career path was not as defined and direct as I would have liked. I struggled but the end, my survival skills kicked in and I made it through.

At Rice University, I networked my way into the program. As usual, I chose the path of more resistance to prove I belonged. It was not easy. Still, I persisted and became a recognized leader in the MBA program and as a graduate student on the university campus. I became one of the “faces” of Rice’s advertising campaign. The faculty unanimously voted for me as one of the outstanding students in the 2004 MBA class. Through my efforts as a chair of the Women in Leadership Conference, an endowed scholarship was established.

At the University of St. Thomas, I hit a pivot in my life that forced me into this path of obtaining a doctoral degree. As a caregiver to both my parents throughout my years in the program, I was faced with a different challenge. When I applied to the program and pressed send on my application by the deadline, I was in the hospital with my dad in between teaching my class. When I received the acceptance notification, by this time, I was in rehabilitation with my dad. When I moved in the research stage of my finishing up my dissertation, I was transcribing and mining data from my mother’s hospital room. While preparing to defend my dissertation, I was in and out of doctor’s offices with both parents and found myself juggling schedules and managing my own physical and emotional well-being. If I had to sum up all three of these experiences, I would state it in one word: resilience.

DEFENDER: What were the challenges you’ve faced professionally specifically related to being a Black woman?

SMITHERS: My lived experience as a Black woman professionally has been wrought with good, not-so-good, and great experiences. The good was being able to navigate certain spaces based on pedigree, network, and skill with the first two being the door opener for many of my opportunities. The not-so-good came during a time when I was working in a highly competitive environment that came with hitting numbers, building teams, bringing in assets, and closing deals. I can remember moments when I became so vulnerable that I once cried in front one of my bosses. Shortly thereafter, I developed a thicker skin and used the system to fight battles for me. The great experiences came with wins, bonuses, promotions, and deal closes.

DEFENDER: How have you been able to achieve and overcome in spite of any hurdles (challenges) experienced?

SMITHERS: After business school and I sought to make move into the financial services as a relationship manager and revenue producer in an industry where people like me were unicorns and had to often prove ourselves, I used to say, “I specialize in the impossible” and would proceed to prove the naysayers wrong. Again, I often sought out mentors and sponsors who looked out for me.

Born in Third Ward and raised in South Park, I have street smarts and by all accounts, my zip code was supposed to put me somewhere else in life. Fortunately, my parents were advocates of education. They wanted to remove any unforeseen barriers and encouraged me to get my college education and gain practical skills. A college degree is not the answer for everyone, but it does create opportunities when you lack a social network and access. One of the most significant keys to overcoming hurdles for me is always remembering my “why”. My why is my north star that guides me and drives to me live out my passion.

DEFENDER: What advice do you have for young Black women who seek to follow in your professional footsteps?

SMITHERS: The one thing I would tell anyone seeking to go out on their own, is to understand “entrepreneurship is not a journey, it’s a destination.” Listen. Observe. Pray. Be still. I listened to the voice inside me – that nudge of determining that I was in a different season of life – and need to pause. I began to observe the ecosystem to find my niche. I prayed, read scriptures, and centered myself. I have always exercised self-introspection and surrendered my thoughts. Being still, patient, and obedient are vital to this process of following your passion but understanding how to monetize it and support yourself.

As consultant, I often work with retirees who have stepped back into the working world to offer their expertise in certain aspects of the client engagement process. While I am not yet in that retirement age and stage, I am on the third leg of my career. My recent epiphany was that my life and career have come full circle. Being an entrepreneur and independent consultant require discipline: financially, emotionally, and socially. In the age of social media and influencers who focus on the short game and not the long gam, my advice for anyone looking to go full-fledged entrepreneur, is to not live outside their means. Instead, financially reinvest in yourself and your business. Emotionally, it is necessary to set professional boundaries and do not overwork nor undersell yourself. Know your worth; be willing to walk away from a contract if it does not feel right. The key to be an effective entrepreneur, is to recharge, reset, and reward yourself. Your physical and emotional health depend on it. Finally, understand your business, know what you are good at, and do what you enjoy doing. Your clients will be able to feel your passion, value your expertise, and be pleased with your results. It’s a win-win!  

MORE ABOUT DR. TAMMY SMITHERS

Place of Birth: I am fifth-generation Texan born in Houston’s Historic Third Ward and was reared at the age of three in South Park.

Education and Degrees:

  • The University of Texas at Austin – Bachelor of Journalism in Public Relations
  • Rice University – Master of Business Administration
  • University of St. Thomas – Doctor of Education in Ethical Leadership 

Dream Job as a Child: As a child, I wanted to be an accountant.

What Are You Reading These Days:

I am the lead facilitator and co-founder of a historical fiction book club – Personal Librarians Book Chat, which has 370 predominantly Black women readers nationwide. I am currently reading two books by Vanessa Riley: Sister Mother Warrior and Murder at Westminster. I will be interviewing this author on October 19, 2022 at Kindred Stories bookstore in Third Ward. I just finished Piper Huguley’s By Her Own Design, the story of Anne Lowe, the Black designer best known for making Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown. I hosted a discussion with the author and special guests in the fashion industry in August. Lastly, my final interview of the year for the book club will be on November 8, 2022, with Dolen Perkins-Valdez, a New York Times best-selling author of Wench and Take My Hand.

Mantra (Words To Live By): Do what you love and you will never have to work another day of your life because life is too short to be living out someone else’s dream.

Favorite Music: I don’t have a favorite genre. I do love old skool hip hop, R&B, gospel, and classical music. It’s an odd combination but I used to work at an opera company and enjoyed hearing the artists such as Joyce DiDonato, Melissa Givens, Denyce Graves, and Marquita Lister perform.

Favorite Artists: Tu-Pac and Biggie – of course! I love Mary J. Blige and Yolanda Adams. Both woman’s music and voices are timeless.

Favorite Houston Restaurant(s): Houston has so many great restaurants. My favorite go-to restaurant where I meet friends casually is Sixty Vines in Rice Village. When I want downhome smoked meat, I venture to the north side to Burns Original BBQ in Acres Home or Triple J’s Smokehouse on Homestead. I recently found a hidden seafood gem in Pasadena called Sudie’s Catfish House.