We are so excited to welcome Leslie Lynn Smith as our new GET Cities National Director. Leslie is the founding president and CEO of Epicenter, the nonprofit hub of the greater Memphis entrepreneurial movement. Smith’s role in Memphis came after five years of successful entrepreneurial leadership as president and CEO of TechTown, Detroit’s most established business incubator and accelerator. Previously, she was director of business acceleration for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, overseeing the state’s $300 million start-up investment portfolio and managing the statewide innovation economy and its network of ecosystem partners. We couldn’t think of a better person to lead GET Cities as we grow into our second year and new regions across the country.
We are especially excited about Leslie’s focus on cultural change in the work of gender equity. Here at SecondMuse, we build economies of the future: ones that drive growth, ensure inclusion, and provide opportunities to leverage value within a community. We were thrilled to sit down with Leslie to learn about her vision for GET Cities. Check out our interview below (the following has been edited for length):
GET Cities: We are so happy to be speaking with you today! Jumping right in, we wanted to get your thoughts on how the systems approach you used at Epicenter could be applied to your work at GET cities. What does that mean, how that has worked in the past, and how do you envision it being similar or different here?
Leslie: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. I believe that together we go further, and if collectively we can all agree where we want to go (in this case, a world where the impact and influence of women and other marginalized genders are more broadly felt), collaboratively create a culture ripe with opportunity for change and flood the community with resources, accountability and transparency, we can create real change. That approach worked well in Detroit and Memphis, and will no doubt work well in each of the cities where GET Cities operates. What is intriguing to me is how we knit those individual initiatives centered in cities into a national movement, and set the stage for transformational change at scale. For instance, when we incorporate the federal government and policy infrastructure, national funders, and global corporate partners who use their resources and influence to expand the influence and impact of women in places across the country, the impact can be exponential. And so for me, what was the most interesting about this switch in my career was the opportunity to toggle between the two and see what change in both systems can look like as we build an economy and society shaped by the gifts and insights of women and other marginalized genders at a national level.
GET Cities: Could you speak a little bit about the role of partnership and collaboration? Why is that important to doing something so big, like changing gender equity in tech?
Leslie: Not any one of us will individually change anything at scale – particularly society wide behaviors – you have to have partners in that work. I don’t know if you’ve read Epicenter’s narrative summary of our learnings and work, Vital Impact Report, but we speak a lot to the limits of going alone. Together we will go further and every decision we make is a decision around who else we can bring on the journey. Sometimes that means other people leading and us following, sometimes it will us leading and people following, and sometimes arm and arm we will walk together. I think during the pandemic, we’ve seen the real value of having built really strong trusting relationships because we could immediately organize without competition or concern against the sort of challenges that are facing us. And I find ecosystems are so convinced that they are sitting in a scarce environment that there’s this sort of natural competitiveness, but that doesn’t serve the work, right? So if we keep women and other marginalized genders at the center of every decision we make and we partner with purpose to advance that cause, and eliminate any innate concern about credit and control, the partnerships get a lot more obvious and honest. I also think my number one lesson about this has been people are just concerned that their value and worth is going to be lost in the relationship. If you commit the energy to truly understanding and honoring those insights and efforts, partnership is the most natural, rewarding and effective path.
GET Cities: How will we know that this work has succeeded?
Leslie: I think, for me, the big hairy audacious change we seek is that women are represented in all forms of leadership across our entire society. I think we’re focusing on tech because it is pervasive and ubiquitous and it touches so much of what we do societally and economically. When we see women in an outsized role, broadly, we will know we have succeeded. In the meantime, I hope that women and other marginalized genders start to see themselves in ways that they have not previously because through this effort we lift up the stories and impact of people just like them and, maybe for the first time in their lives see themselves in this way.
GET Cities: So with all of this, really we’re talking about changing the world, right? We’re talking about these massive, intractable systemic challenges. What keeps you inspired and motivated to keep doing this big, difficult work?
Leslie: It’s the people creating the change that inspire me. Every single woman and marginalized person we empower is a march toward that change. And it’s those faces and stories and engagements that always keep me fueled. As a mother of two extraordinary daughters who are fierce and audacious in their own right and leader of this GET Cities team of extraordinary, driven, motivated women, to think about building a movement that furthers their hopes and impact is really cool to me too.
GET Cities: Love that. Is there anything else about what you hope to bring to GET Cities that is important to share?
Leslie: I think in addition to the expanded way we talk about gender, we also need to ensure that we highlight the intersection of gender with race and ethnicity. So long as we continue to underestimate the gifts of women across our society, our full potential will elude us. The advancement of Black and brown people across our communities is critical to the creation of the just and inclusive society we are obliged to build. It is both my personal and professional commitment to make sure that we continually highlight that advancement as a critical commitment of this work and an identified gap. Oppression lives in the increments, and it’s in the increments that we get to continue to excuse bad behaviors. So if we never name the oppressive systems, or barriers built to sustain them, we aren’t held to account to tear them down and build back better systems. We will always say exactly what we mean, listen more than we talk and commit to real, measurable and exponential change for all women and marginalized genders.
GET Cities: Absolutely! Lastly, as you know we’re working with women and other marginalized groups at many stages of their lives and careers. What advice would you give younger people entering in this field or this work?
Leslie: Maybe the answer to this question has changed over the decades, but now in my 50s, it is firmly: don’t take yourself so seriously. The amount of time I spent wrapped around the axle concerned about what I should have done or drawing higher and more scrutinized demands of myself over the decades didn’t serve me terribly well. And so I try to take the work seriously, my commitments seriously, and my integrity seriously. But the interrogation of myself, not so much.