Debbie Smith has been executive director of the Walter Kaitz Foundation for the past year and a half, and in her first year oversaw one of the most successful fund-raising dinners in the foundation’s history. This year’s foundation dinner is scheduled for Wednesday. TelevisionWeek correspondent Sherri Killam-Williams spoke with Ms. Smith about the future of the Kaitz Foundation and the cable industry’s ongoing diversity efforts.
TelevisionWeek: What is the theme of the Kaitz dinner this year?
Debbie Smith: It’s “Diversity 365,” because diversity has to happen 365 days a year. It is not limited to Diversity Week and it is more than just a fund-raising dinner. Our funding companies do a yeoman’s job every day of every year, and that is something we don’t acknowledge. Diversity is a business imperative.
TVWeek:How long will it be before we can say that diversity goals have been reached?
Ms. Smith: Diversity will never go away. It is an ongoing journey with no start date and no end date. We will always take diversity and put it at the forefront. We must look beyond the question of black or white. Diversity is about embracing all of our differences and similarities-single parents and families; people who suffer from depression or are obese. All of those things concern diversity.
TVWeek:How close are we to eliminating the glass ceiling in the cable business?
Ms. Smith: It is still there and will be there for a number of years for a number of reasons. [The National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications, Women in Cable & Telecommunications and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation] are making wonderful efforts to ensure we place talented individuals in our member companies. We have to continue to ensure there is succession planning and that we are constantly feeding the pipeline with minority and female candidates at very junior and senior levels alike. The industry has to be willing to look at transferable skills. Then we can identify individuals who may contribute.
TVWeek: How can Kaitz help effect that change?
Ms. Smith: By continuing to fund the organizations that act as change agents. If you look at the organizations we work with-NAMIC, WICT and Emma Bowen-they fit together very nicely. Emma Bowen starts with people at a very early entry stage, where they get students interested in the cable industry. With WICT and NAMIC, they target midlevel managers who are talented and who can contribute to the organization. They are starting to do some additional outreach to make sure those people have the skill sets to move forward, so when there is an open position in the executive suite, we have someone groomed and ready to move into it. As Kaitz continues to fund those organizations, they are able to provide the programs to make sure that minorities and women are ready to move up.
TVWeek: How do you see the Kaitz Foundation’s mission expanding?
Ms. Smith: When you see our new Web site at the end of this year, you will see a deeper involvement in diversity issues. We launched a supplier diversity initiative this year to show women and minority businesses that our cable members want to do business with them. We are reaching out to members that currently do not have diversity supplier programs in place. There will be a new career center on our Web site, where we connect our members with talented minorities and women.
TVWeek: Why do you have such an interest in diversity issues?
Ms. Smith: I am biracial. My mother is Irish and my father is African American. At a very young age I learned there were differences in people but also recognized there were more similarities than differences. I grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and discrimination was still a factor.
TVWeek: What is the biggest change you have seen in your time at Kaitz?
Ms. Smith: Progress continues. Our member companies continue to forge ahead with their diversity initiatives. It’s not a massive change, but it’s a progression.
Title: Executive director, Walter Kaitz Foundation
Place of birth: Washington
Education: Catholic University, undergraduate degree in elementary and special education; master of business administration from Howard University
First job: Teaching special-needs, learning-disabled and emotionally disturbed children. She taught for two years, tutored for 15 years and mentored for about 20 years.
Family: Husband Lin; daughter Lindsey, 14
Interests: Enjoys going to the symphony, playing golf, having dinner with friends
Who knew? A devoted Washington Redskins fan, she predicts the team will reach the Super Bowl next year.