Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Smith.
Michelle, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and as a kid, I excelled in school. I knew early on in life that my education would provide a path forward. I went to Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college, where I had my first taste of leadership as treasurer and then president of my sorority. From Gettysburg, I was accepted into Georgetown University for a Ph.D. program. I was so eager to enter the workforce that I left before I had the chance to defend my dissertation. I dove into work at a small consulting firm that focused on federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary. I worked on policy impact studies and business process improvements, analyzed trends including policy and law changes, demographic, and economic trends, and increased firm workload and personnel. While I loved the work I was doing, I found that it was missing a human element, and my heart longed to make a greater impact on the world around me.
Fast forward to December 2014: I was living in St. Louis and attended a non-profit event where I happened to sit right next to Danny Ludeman, former CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors. He had recently announced his retirement and was in the process of starting Concordance, a re-entry non-profit in town. Danny mentioned he was looking for someone to run the organization’s inaugural gala, and I volunteered. Concordance’s gala was a tremendous success, and Danny called me the day after to talk about a more permanent role for me at Concordance. I agreed to start out as a consultant, but each day I thought more about Concordance and the amazing work being done. I knew that God had led me to exactly where I was supposed to be. I ended up taking a leadership position there five months later. Now, seven years in, I am President and Chief Operating Officer where I spearhead new initiatives, facilitate government relations, manage our organization’s processes and operations, oversee the day-to-day administrative functions of all departments, and prepare our organization for national expansion.
We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Everyone goes through both professional and personal challenges throughout their life. While I have been lucky enough to have my family, friends, and faith to lean on for support during those times, there are a handful of lessons that I have learned along the way. All my best life lessons have come from my mom. She was an incredible woman and my best friend. I learned so much from her. She passed away 12 years ago, and I still carry lessons from her with me every day. She taught me that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going and to give without remembering and receive without forgetting. Her work ethic, her heart, and her compassion are what have shaped me into the mom, friend, and leader I am today.
Another important life lesson came while I was in college. I had an amazing mentor at Gettysburg College. She not only helped me land my first internship with the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division through a personal connection, but she also helped me get into Georgetown for my Ph.D. program. She helped me understand the importance of networking and how to advocate for others through your circle of influence. Later in my career and as an adjunct professor, I was able to pay that forward by helping my students connect to job positions and educational opportunities that fit their passions.
At Concordance, we provide participants with 12 services under one roof across behavioral health and wellness, community and life skills, and education and employment. One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my role here was how to incorporate the work of several nonprofits into one organization, in one location, that helps one of the most vulnerable populations in our community. Throughout this process, I learned that by having incredible, dedicated individuals put their collective experiences and expertise together to accomplish the same goal, anything is possible.
Looking back, it is clear that just meeting one person or going to one event can change the trajectory of your life. Through my mentor, I found a career path. Through meeting Danny at that non-profit event, I found Concordance, and that put me on a path I could have never imagined but am grateful for every day.
Concordance’s impact in our community is inspiring. In your role as President & COO, what is the one area of focus you’re most passionate about?
A large part of my role at Concordance is spearheading our national expansion efforts. Our goal is to scale to 11 new cities across the U.S. in the next five years while also increasing the number of participants served annually in the St. Louis region from 250 to 500. To accomplish this goal, I collaborate with our Director of Strategy & Policy to not only define the list of criteria for expanding into a new market but also to liaise and forge relationships with government organizations, such as the Department of Corrections and the Governor’s Office, via in-person meetings and by attending conferences through the Corrections Leadership Association.
I also work with state and national lobbying firms which help Concordance make connections with key contacts in target expansion states. They help our organization strategize on narrowing in on what cities within a state have the greatest need for our services, what grants would be available to our organization on a federal and state level, and what businesses in the area are looking to make connections in relation to the work that we do. I absolutely love this area of focus in my career as I am able to tap into the government relations experience I developed earlier on in life.
Concordance’s holistic, healing-first approach to re-entry supports participants as they create joyful, abundance, and purpose-filled lives. Can you share how you find happiness in your life?
I am fortunate to have a career and life that brings me great happiness. At work, my happiness is derived from seeing the ripple effect that Concordance has, knowing that every single day we are changing lives, reuniting families, and making our community a safer, more equitable place for all. Seeing the transformation and being able to walk alongside our participants on their healing journey is why I do what I do. In my role as President & COO, I take immense pride in fostering an inclusive environment that in turn generates innovative, collaborative, and compassionate team members.
Outside of work, my happiness comes from being a mom to my two amazing boys, Talan and Kedren. Watching them grow, seeing them excel at lacrosse, spending time at the beach together, and imparting the lessons my mom taught me fills my heart. My faith in God, meditation, and exercise help me to keep on the right path in challenging times, and getting to be part of my friends’ lives gives me immense gratitude!
- Website: Concordance.org
- Instagram: @concordanceoutforgood
- Twitter: @ConcordanceAcad
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChd8n15FPWQb5JMo2429pHg