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Kimberly Smith

An MBA and mother, Smith gives back with Native American spirit.

Full-Time MBA - Student

Just days before receiving her MBA degree, Kimberly Smith sat in the atrium of the Haslam College of Business and described her time there as a “whirlwind of chaos, excitement and enjoyment.”

A glance at the list of her civic engagements makes clear she’s not exaggerating. Smith is active on committees for more than seven organizations, including: The Native American Student Association, the Mountain Partners Coalition and the National Association of Women MBAs.

In addition to that, Smith is mother to two daughters, ages four and six. She raises them as a single parent and is the first member of her family to achieve higher education.

Smith’s path to entering the Haslam MBA program as a student of entrepreneurship and marketing began during her first job after graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2011 with a double major in French and World Business. As a rental occupancy specialist for the Qualla Housing Authority in her hometown of Cherokee, North Carolina, Smith worked with low-income families inhabiting 160 rental units in three counties. She saw opportunities to impact those tenants’ lives through energy efficiency.

“It all started out with the clients,” Smith said. “It gets really cold in the mountains during winter, and sometimes people on a fixed income struggle to decide between paying an expensive utility bill or their rent. I didn’t want to be just the ax lady sending out eviction notices. I wanted to find ways to help them reduce their power bills and give them a chance to be self-sufficient.”

Smith launched a two-year study to demonstrate the cost-saving potential of reducing energy and resource use for both clients and the agency. The agency installed LED lighting, aerated faucets, water pipe insulation, low-flow shower heads, window tint and other products to limit resource consumption in many of the apartments.

“Our clients saw significant reductions in their utility bills, and we saw a reduction in eviction notices for utility issues,” Smith said. “I also developed a set of financial literacy courses for families approaching delinquency.”

Early success in implementing the Qualla Housing Authority’s energy reduction program motivated Smith to apply to the Haslam MBA program in 2015.

“I decided I really want to continue this type of work but be in a position to have a larger impact,” Smith said. “I want to address systemic root issues and serve on that level more so than solve problems in the short term. The Haslam MBA was a great way to acquire the skills I needed.”

Smith’s favorite course was Alex Miller’s nonprofit management class. Miller, the William B. Stokely Chair in Management and director of the Consortium for Social Enterprise Effectiveness in UT’s Haslam College of Business, arranged for students to distribute $30,000 to local nonprofits and encouraged them to make ethical decisions about how to maximize the funding’s impact.

Another fond memory Smith has from her time as a graduate student is working with the Native American Student Association to organize a halftime show for a home football game against the University of Kentucky. The show featured formations of tribal symbols, a traditional Cherokee song, tribal dancers from 11 tribes and a tribute to Native American veterans.

“One of the reasons I love UT is that, given the circumstances of my life, there has been a support system willing to invest in me,” said Smith, who received the Moll Anderson Scholarship during her time at Haslam. “In Native American culture, we have a concept of doing work to benefit people seven generations from now. I want to have an impact by helping transition our society to a more environmentally cognizant community.”

When Smith graduated with her MBA degree on Dec. 9, 2016, she had 25 guests from Cherokee in the audience.

“Everybody told me, ‘We didn’t get to have experiences like this, so we’re going to watch you do it!’,” Smith said. “Someday, I want my own girls to love UT as much as I do and go above and beyond my own accomplishments.”