Ms. Smith Goes to Washington

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Current Walter Kaitz Foundation executive director Debbie Smith (left) may not have had much cable experience when she took over the reins of the foundation six months ago, but she has brought with her a wealth of knowledge in dealing with the important issue of diversity.

Smith served as senior vice president and director of diversity for Allfirst Financial Inc., a regional diversified financial-services company, before settling in at Kaitz. And she is is tasked with infusing new life into the 21-year old foundation, which helps to assure minority access to employment opportunities within the cable industry primarily through grant allotments.

Smith recently sat down with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss the Kaitz Foundation’s future direction, its plans to provide financial support to such diversity-minded organizations as The National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications, the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media and Women in Cable & Telecommunications and the industry’s collective efforts to assure a diverse workforce. An edited transcript of their conversation follows:

MCN: Your background isn’t in cable but rather in the financial sector. How did you find out about this position, and what prompted you to move to the cable industry?

Debbie Smith: Why take the position in the industry? Because I love diversity. That’s why. And let me tell you how I found the position.

I went onto the Black Human Resources Network web site, and it was a godsend. I was searching the Web site, was very interested in a diversity position and wanted a position in an industry that embraced diversity and that was fast-growing.

I’ve been a diversity practitioner now for the last 10 or 12 years, and have been in various industries, from the franchise industry to the financial services industry. I knew a little bit about the cable industry from when I worked on Capitol Hill.

MCN: Having had some experience in the past with diversity, I’m curious about how you think the cable industry is doing in that area?

Smith: I think the industry is doing great. I mean I think there are a lot of advancements that have been made. Certainly many of the CEOs have embraced diversity and want to do more around diversity — whether it’s hiring, recruiting, maintaining or looking at supplier diversity. I think all of our CEOs on the Kaitz Foundation board and NCTA [National Cable & Telecommunications Association] are looking at that and have embraced it.

How does this sort out according to other industries? It’s very much the same as in the financial industry or the franchising industry. I think everyone is pretty much in the same place with determining how does diversity fit within their particular industry and how to make it work, because one-size does not fit all.

MCN: Moving closer to the Kaitz Foundation itself, after six months in the executive director position, assess some of the strengths and weaknesses of the foundation.

Smith: It’s strength is the powerful legacy that was started by Spencer Kaitz upon the passing of his father and the founding members. What they put together is absolutely phenomenal, to have a foundation dedicated to diversity in the cable industry and now being able to fund our diversity partners who do magnificent things in the industry — internship, leadership development, mentoring — it’s awesome.

That is a strength that I see in the cable industry that I didn’t see in any other industry — [cable has] a foundation that’s dedicated just to diversity in a particular industry. How awesome is that?

Our weaknesses? I think it’s a weakness in any other industry, and that’s that everyone feels as though they haven’t done enough. And enough is relative.

It’s everyone trying to move forward, because we haven’t done enough and trying to get to that end point. But that’s the thing. There is no end point in diversity because it will always be there.

MCN: The foundation has built up a strong legacy during its 21-year existence, but over the last few years it has faced a bit of scrutiny and has tried to figure out its focus and identity. Will the foundation continue to be one that provides grants to other organizations to help foster diversity within cable?

Smith: Yes, the grants are a very large piece of the Kaitz Foundation. I was fortunate to come into the organization and have the strategic review committee give me a plan to work on for the next few months to a year, and that is taking a look at the grants funding process, making sure that we do indeed fund WICT, NAMIC and Emma Bowen, as well as enhancing our supplier diversity initiative and building our Web site.

MCN: Are those three the only organizations that will benefit from the Kaitz grants? Will the Kaitz Foundation down the line look at other organizations, possibly even outside of the cable industry?

Smith: Not in the immediate future. We’re very narrowly focused on those three organizations, because those organizations are pretty much cable-centric at this point. The strategic review committee was very specific and named WICT, NAMIC and Emma Bowen.

MCN: How do you respond to some people who say that they’re already providing money to those organizations separate from Kaitz. And now they’re giving money to Kaitz, which in turn is also providing money to those same organizations? It’s repetitive, in some people’s minds.

Smith: It all goes to building those organizations. So if it’s our member companies who are funding them directly, that’s great. And Kaitz will continue to fund them as well.

I don’t see us double-funding. I think it just continues to enhance the awesome programs that they have. I was fortunate enough to go out to California to see NAMIC’s ELDP [Executive Leadership Development Program] graduation ceremonies. In taking a close look at the individuals who go through that program, it’s absolutely incredible.

If you look at Emma Bowen’s internship program, you’ll see where we have our pipeline. And then if you go to WICT and NAMIC, you’ll see where the recruiting, the retaining and the developing of executive leadership and mentoring skills are being fostered.

So if our member companies are funding these organizations and perhaps funding programs that we are not, that’s incredible. It just maintains the longevity of those three organizations. So kudos to the organizations that are funding them.

MCN: Do you think that currently there are enough opportunities for minorities to gain access to industry? That’s what Kaitz’s initial mandate was — to recruit and train minorities for upper management positions within cable companies. Are there enough doors being opened within those three organizations to be able to do that, or does the industry need another avenue for minorities to access employment opportunities?

Smith: I think the opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of us making sure the pipeline is filled and moving us up. Again looking at NAMIC’s ELDP and WICT’s Betsy Magness [Leadership Institute] program, the positions that individuals that go through those programs are moving on to next are typically more senior-level positions.

So they are prepared, and that’s what you look for in organizations in terms of recruiting and retaining minorities.

You always hear that they don’t have the executive leadership skills. Well, now they do. Thanks to Betsy Magness and thanks to ELDP.

So I think they are well-prepared and well-armed to move to the next level.

MCN: But once those executives move up, is there another group coming up behind them? Is the Kaitz Foundation assuring that people who aren’t in the industry have a way get into the industry, so they can take advantage of those opportunities?

Smith: But see, that’s the neat connection with Emma Bowen, WICT and NAMIC. Because you have that pipeline. You have internships through Emma Bowen, because they start with juniors in high school. Emma Bowen takes them all the way through college, and then they are hired after that. So once they are inside, there’s the mentoring program for them through NAMIC and WICT. So you’re capturing all of those individuals, and you have a fine connection between all three organizations.

MCN: In terms of diversity suppliers, will Kaitz, along with the NCTA, continue the diversity supplier program, and how effective has that been to this point?

Smith: Kaitz, in conjunction with the NCTA, did host its fifth annual Supplier Diversity Workshop [at the May National Show] in New Orleans. We will continue to do so going forward. There is certainly a need for supplier diversity in the cable industry as there is in any industry.

How effective is supplier diversity? In terms of the programs that we have, that’s something that I’m taking a look at now.

We know we need to do more from the Kaitz perspective, but what that is just yet I’m not sure.

MCN: Do we have any numbers as to how many suppliers have come into the industry through the program?

Smith: No. Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of data at this point. So we do need to benchmark. We recognize that we need to do that, but that has not been done yet as far as I know.

MCN: Are there any other initiatives on the drawing board for Kaitz to potentially implement down the line?

Smith: My very narrow focus at this point is implementing what the strategic review committee set forth for me, and that’s the supplier-diversity initiative.

Also, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but we took down the old Web site and put up an interim site as we work very diligently to develop a permanent site that’s comprehensive in terms of diversity for the industry.

Finally, we’re refining our grants program. So those are the initiatives that I’m working on along with our annual dinner.

Other than that, we’re taking a look at transitioning the Kaitz Foundation from California to the D.C. area as well as all the legalese that goes along with that.

So those are the things that I’ve been working on up to today.

MCN: Speaking of the dinner, are you on pace to meet or surpass the amount of attendees and monies raised last year?

Smith: We’re hoping. We’re looking forward to the dinner this year. It’s absolutely awesome that they are honoring Spencer Kaitz for his dedication and commitment and vision that he had to found the Kaitz Foundation and the relevance that it had when he implemented the Kaitz Foundation to today. So we’re very happy that we’re honoring Spencer Kaitz as well as making sure that we also honor NAMIC, WICT and Emma Bowman. So I think we’re on track.

MCN: You are honoring Spencer Kaitz and the three organizations this year. Next year will Kaitz go back to honoring MSOs, or will you expand the potential honorees to cable network executives and cable networks?

Smith: That’s to be determined. I think we need to take a look at that process, and that’s one of the things that we will do going forward.

MCN: On a personal level, what keeps you up at night and concerns you relative to the industry and relative to what you’re doing here?

Smith: Making sure that I get off on the fifth floor at the office every day. What keeps me up at night? What keeps me up at night is not anything that I’m concerned about. I think it’s the drive to get everything done as quickly as possible. I think there’s just so much to do, and this is just such an incredible experience for me that sometimes you feel like you’re playing Twister, that you know you need to get this done, you need to get the supplier-diversity piece done. But the dinner is coming up, and you want to get that piece done as well.

So bringing all those pieces together is what keeps me up at night. Making sure that we do get to that point where we have the Web site up, that we have our supplier diversity initiative piece going, that the dinner is successful and putting the Kaitz Foundation back on the map again in terms of its vision initiative. That’s where I want to take this as quickly as possible.