Inspiring Women and Young Ladies to Live Purposeful Lives
elping people improve their lives has always been a part of Tamara Smith's lifeâ€™s purpose. From corporate America to the non-profit sector, she has made a difference by improving the health and well being of individuals and families, providing opportunities for women to improve their economic sustainability and developing young leaders. For the past 30 years, Smith has held positions that have enabled her to make leadership decisions on health care plans affecting thousands of lives. She has served as President and CEO of D.C. Chartered Health Plan, CEO and Executive Vice President of Capital Community Health Plan, Director of Government Relations and Director of Marketing at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, and in other top leadership positions.
Monica: How has being CEO of the National Capital Area YWCA impacted your life versus being the CEO of an organization in the corporate world? Tamara: Thatâ€™s an interesting question. I think it certainly gives me a level of satisfaction, and a feeling that the work that we're doing is making a difference. It certainly allows me to work with a group of very dedicated and passionate staff members and board members. It allows me the opportunity to interact with young men and women who are trying to transform their lives. It brings me into very different circles, foundations and corporate organizations that want to support this mission and this work. It brings me into different advocacy circles, so it's a different group of individuals that are focused on supporting, financially and philanthropically, organizations that do the work that we do.
While fulfilling her passion for helping people improve their health and well being, Smith has made an amazing
Tamara A. Smith transition from corporate America to the non-profit sector and currently serves as CEO of the YWCA, National Capital Area. Her impeccable record and desire to achieve excellence have enabled her to help organizations establish clear visions, and achieve organizational goals, increase customer satisfaction, exceed membership goals and budget objectives. Smith also currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Lake Forest College, the Excel Institute for Automotive Training, the Nonprofit Roundtable and YWCA MidAtlantic Regional Council. She has also served in leadership, volunteer or advisory roles for other organizations, including: Whitman Walker Clinic, Hoop Dreams and Medicaid Health Plans of America. Smith shared her passion for strong advocacy for the health and well being of women and families with Exceptional People Magazine.
Monica: As CEO of the National Capital Area Chapter, how many people or members do you support? Tamara: Well, it's not a typical association. In other words, the YWCA National Capital Area is its own freestanding organization. It has its own board of directors and is fully independent in terms of managing its finance and operations. And we are a part of Mid-Atlantic Region, so there are a number of other YWCAs in the region. We're all part of a mid-Atlantic regional council. Then there are nine regions around the country that are part of YWCA, and they make up the national coordinating board of the YWCA U.S.A. We're not focused on building a membership, if you will. Monica: What are some of the core areas that you focus on when it comes to helping families and women become self-sufficient? Tamara: We focus on three areas, to include education and training in both early childhood development and child November-December 2011 | Exceptional People Magazine | 71
care services. We provide day care services in Northern Virginia, and then we also focus on adult education and learning and workforce readiness. Our second area is health and wellness where we provide free, communitybased health promotion programs, exercise programs, nutritional awareness programs, as well as very affordable fee-based programs, classes, yoga, line dancing, Zumba and a variety of other exercise-type classes at our downtown location. And the third area is social justice where we promote and provide domestic violence awareness and prevention programs, racial justice dialogue series, and an annual Stand Against Racism initiative that engages the community to work on issues of reducing bias, hate crimes and racism. Lastly, we provide a leadership program for young girls where we are providing mentoring, tutoring and leadership development and social justice initiatives for girls five to eighteen. Monica: It sounds like you take the holistic approach. Tamara: We definitely take a holistic approach. That's exactly right. We try to integrate our programs with one another for all the women that we serve. We target lowincome women and children and families. Our social justice initiatives are city-wide and regional. The domestic violence prevention and awareness initiatives are also city-wide and more regional. Monica: You're passionate about working to improve the lives of women and families. Has that always been an interest of yours, or only through the YWCA? Tamara: That's a good question. I became interested in the field of health and healthcare service delivery when I was in college, and I did an internship at Cook County 72 | Exceptional People Magazine | November-December 2011
Hospital, which is a public hospital in Chicago. I was exposed to some of the disparities that exist on issues of health, access to healthcare services and how they disproportionately impacted low-income and working families. My awareness of disparities was raised at that time, and I wanted to work in an arena that helped address those disparities. It's really always been a passion of mine. I worked in the health care sector, which is really a service delivery sector, non-profit sector for a number of years, as well as the corporate for-profit sector. I think my passion has always been trying to take a holistic approach to help improve the health status of individuals. Monica: You've held amazing positions in the corporate world. What inspired you to leave corporate America for the non-profit arena? Tamara: I had a life-changing moment when there was a member of our health plan who tragically killed her four children. We were required to research the matter and find out what happened and what led to that tragic occurrence. What I learned was that this was an individual who had her first child as a teenager, had dropped out of school, who had behavioral health issues and depression. She didn't have a job, was homeless and had really just fallen through the cracks and didn't have any support system. I realize that she took that tragic action, I think, because of the misery that her children were living on a day-to-day basis. It was so emotionally traumatic for me that I realized that there were just thousands of young women who could be in that same situation. Really the only difference was that I had a system of support. I completed high school. I went on to college. I had a dream. I had a vision. I believed that I could do something with my life. So many women, if
they had that support and that structure and those resources, would be able to achieve their dreams too. It was a leap of faith, and I realized that it's something that if I wasn't part of the solution, then I was part of the problem. I wanted to try to reduce the likelihood of those kinds of things happening again. Monica: You have served as the CEO at many different corporations, and you are definitely a leader. So coming from a woman's perspective what challenges, if any, have you encountered over the years as a female leader, as opposed to what men may encounter? Tamara: Well, there are always challenges, I think, being included in â€˜the club,' the men's club, if you will. When you work in predominately male organizations, oftentimes there are barriers and challenges to being in the loop. I have found that if you establish relationships with individuals and build those relationships, the understanding, the commonality, the acceptance and the inclusion increases. So instead of looking at those things as barriers and challenges, I tried to find a way to build relationships with individuals that allowed me to become part of that group, or certainly participate in the functions and the decisions and things that were going on. So my lesson to individuals is, it's not always just what you do day-to-day, it's also finding commonality with others, whether it be on an informal basis, whether it's playing golf, playing tennis, talking about your family or your animals. It could be figuring out where you grew up and where there might be some commonality. We all have commonality, regardless of how different our backgrounds are. There is much commonality among people. You can tear down some of those barriers by reaching out and finding some of those commonalities. I think I've been pretty successful at doing that.
I think that oftentimes women aren't heard in the same way that men are heard, and I think that we have to continue to be persistent and speak our minds and advocate for ourselves. Monica: With so many challenges in the world and so many things happening, we can certainly use many more great leaders. How does one discover the leader within, or determine if you have true leadership abilities? Tamara: I think that you can develop your leadership skills in a number of ways. Part of that is by getting involved, whether you're in school, whether it's at your workplace, whether it's at your place of worship, whether it's in your circle of friends or family. Leadership can take on many different forms. You can advocate on behalf of a family member, that's taking leadership. I always got involved in a lot of professional associations, and I took on leadership roles. It helped me develop leadership skills in a very supportive non-threatening way because people that are volunteering their time are working together. So it's not competitive. It's not a working situation; it's a volunteering situation. That's a tremendous way for people to develop leadership skills. Through those volunteer activities, I built relationships with a number of people, and then I began to receive offers for different positions of leadership. So I think it's by dedication of your time, by giving of your talent and by growing your own skills. Outside of the workplace, oftentimes you build your leadership skills. Then you begin to realize you're comfortable in these kinds of settings, and those skills are always transferable to everything you do in life. Monica: As the CEO of the National Capital Area chapter, what is your vision for the organization?
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Tamara: My vision is that we continue to provide programs and services to transform the lives of women and girls and families and allow them to reach their full potential. By that I mean young girls stay in school, finish school, decide they want to go on to college, or get jobs and start careers. They can identify their dreams through the programs and services that we offer, they can explore the various career options, and they can have mentors and support systems to help them. It means for adult learners who may have dropped out of school that we are helping them get back on track. We are transforming their lives. We are helping to create role models in them for their children and their families. They then can pursue dreams that they never realized in the past. They're achieving their educational goals, they're getting employment, they're receiving additional degrees, and they are working to support themselves and their families. They're thinking strategically about how theyâ€™re going to create income and wealth for themselves and their families in the future.
people grow and change and realize their dreams, the people that we serve. Monica: That is wonderful. What words of encouragement can you offer young ladies and women about becoming leaders, or stepping up and living purposeful lives? Tamara: I think three things. One is that you have to believe in yourself and know that you can make it happen. Two, is to remain optimistic. You'll have barriers, you'll have challenges, you'll face disappointment, but your attitude has so much to do with your impact on others and your own success. Thirdly, relationships are so important. You never know who you're going to meet, who you're going to sit next to. Get out of your comfort zone and get to know people that you may not get to know normally. You will be amazed to learn how people are willing to help you, people that have something in common with you. So get out of your comfort zone. Get to know other people and believe in the value of building relationships with people that are like you and that are different from you. Monica: Is there anything else that youâ€™d like to share?
We are changing the health status of individuals, whether it is young children who are inactive and we get them active through our soccer programs, or we get them active through our fitness and exercise classes in the community. We engage seniors in a regular exercise and fitness program that helps reduce their risk of chronic diseases or early onset of chronic diseases. We're helping individuals achieve their personal, educational and work-related goals, and we are continuing to prevent domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking. We can promote awareness of these terrible problems, and we are beginning to encourage dialogue on the impact of racism and bias in this country and in society. We can understand how interrelated we are and how things will get better if we work to reduce racism and bias and we work together as individuals in our society. When I see staff members grow and develop and create their own vision for things that they didn't think were possible in the past, I'm very, very rewarded. When I help people get the skills and the resources that they need to do the best they can, I feel very rewarded. So it's about helping people get the resources, the skills and the support they need to be the best that they can be to make a difference in the lives of others. And it's about seeing 74 | Exceptional People Magazine | November-December 2011
Tamara: I was sharing with some undergraduate students the concept of moving from success to significance in your life. What I mean by that is success can be defined as making money, or having an important title, or getting a lot of resources, or a lot of material things. But what's important is it has to be self-directed and self-driven. When you think about what's significant in your life, when you think about the legacy that you want to leave, it isn't necessarily the money that you made or the title that you had, it's the people that youâ€™ve touched. It's the individuals that you helped. It's the difference that you were able to make in the world. I think that people can make decisions about jobs, about where they spend their money, or how they give their money away, in a way that allows us to all feel like we're making this world a better place. Success can be defined in ways other than materially. I think it's so important to think about what your values are, and those values should drive how you spend your time, and how you treat people and how you spend your money. We can individually define success, and we can individually define how significant we want our lives to be. I encourage everyone to think about their own values, how they can be significant in their lifetimes and match that with how they define success.
Published on Dec 2, 2011
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