New Kaitz Leader Has the Right Stuff

Sep 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Debbie Smith could be described as the picture of racial diversity. The daughter of a mother born and raised in Ireland and an African American father, Ms. Smith brings a unique viewpoint to her new position as executive director of the Walter Kaitz Foundation.

“When you are growing up and your mom is not the same color as you, you don’t really realize it until someone brings it to your attention. I think I understand diversity a lot better because of how I grew up,” Ms. Smith said.

Her professional background is just as varied. She worked in the financial services industry as a corporate lender with Riggs Bank and Signet Bank and as the first executive director of the National Association of Urban Bankers. She also spent time on Capitol Hill, serving under former Rep. Kweisi Mfume as staff director of the House subcommittee on minority enterprise finance and urban development.

Ms. Smith re-entered the banking industry and served as a VP for diversity issues for Baltimore-based Allfirst Bank. While with the bank she spotted a listing for the Kaitz position on a human resources Web site.

“I gave the search firm a call and told them, `I think I am perfect for this,”‘ she said. Kaitz foundation leadership agreed and offered her the job in March of this year.

Ms. Smith oversees the day-to-day management of the foundation, including the awarding of grants to beneficiaries. She is also working to revamp a new industry diversity Web site, organize the annual Kaitz Foundation fund-raising banquet and develop a new industry supplier diversity program. She concedes she is on a rather steep learning curve, especially since she has no background in the cable business. But both she and the industry leaders who hired her believe she is up to the task.

“Debbie possesses the perfect combination of diversity advocacy, management skills and financial expertise to lead the Walter Kaitz Foundation into its next phase,” said Glenn Britt, president of the foundation’s board and chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable.

Ms. Smith takes the helm at a crucial time for the organization, after a high-level strategic review committee recommended that the foundation place less emphasis on advocacy and more on raising money to support the work of other groups. The bulk of the money raised by the Kaitz Foundation will now be directed to programs of Women in Cable & Telecommunications, the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media.

“We recognize that the industry is not where it wants to be in terms of minorities in the executive suite,” Ms. Smith said. Still, she praised cable’s leadership for reaching out to recruit minorities and women and providing them with the skills they need to ascend the ladder.

“What we don’t want to do is to place people in positions of authority and have them fail, because once that happens, no one wants to recruit those candidates anymore,” she said.

Ms. Smith said the only way diversity programs can succeed is to make sure top-level executives are held accountable for quantifiable results.

“I think people in the industry recognize that diversity is critical, and that is a huge first step. The industry has done a good job of realizing where it falls short and has started to do something about it,” she said. One area she intends to pursue with gusto is the expansion of the industry’s supplier diversity program to help minority vendors gain access to cable contracts.

Ms. Smith is an avid golfer and a classical music fan who likes to attend symphony concerts.