“If you want something done, then ask a busy person to do it,” is a quote attributed to many, but the one person it definitely suits is Louisville Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith. Barbara has been a dynamo since childhood. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit since she was 8 years old, she sought ways to add to the 10-cent allowance she received weekly. She scoured the neighborhood looking for work, by organizing the neighbor ladies’ kitchens or ironing pillowcases and shirts. At 13, she worked as a Fuller Brush salesperson and sewed clothes for her older sister. Her career path flourished after she received her business degree from the University of Louisville. She’s worked for Wendy’s, she was the first and only National Franchise Director for a new restaurant company, and she’s been employed as the President and CEO of Fund for the Arts. She’s been a public speaker, radio host and now serves as councilwoman for the Fourth Metro Council District in Louisville. Meet this week’s very busy, very engaged FACE of Louisville, Barbara Sexton-Smith.
How was your family instrumental in shaping your desire to serve others?
My mother said that from the time I was about 2 or 3 years old that I went about my business to save the world one person at a time. My parents very seldom spoke of their work. They spent their time focusing on family and neighbors and volunteering. So I just sort of thought it was my job to go up and down the street to help others.
Tell us about working for Wendy’s.
I thought they’d hire me into management right away, but that wasn’t happening. I had to work my way up. My first position was a grill operator, and then I learned how to work every position within two weeks. I was named assistant manager, and in a short period of time I was named co-manager, and then in six months, I became a general manager. In one year, I became a regional supervisor running five restaurants in the area.
How did this job help prepare you for other positions you’ve held?
I always say that everything I needed to know about management and leadership I learned at Wendy’s, even though that was a long time ago. You have to stay very focused. You have to remember to be decisive and committed as a leader. You have all these people working in the restaurant, and you have to remember they’re more important than you are and that you’re there to serve them and lift them up. And when things get complicated and difficult, you have to stay still. You have to be calm in a storm.
You experienced a life-changing situation while working at Wendy’s. Tell us about that.
As an assistant manager, in 1980, I was taken hostage in the restaurant one night with four teenagers. Somebody broke into the store after we’d closed. I was horrifically beaten and left for dead in a pool of blood. What I like to say is that I was given a second shot at life and never had to take the first one. That explains everything about me. When you’re staring down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun and somebody wants to blow your brains out and kill everyone in the room with you — if you live through that and live to tell about it, and you are at all connected to your soul and your foundation — then you will look at life very differently. And you will cherish every day.
Explain what some of your duties are as a council member.
I am one of 26 Metro Council Members in Jefferson County and one Mayor for Louisville Metro. I represent a district that has close to 30,000 people. My first job is to uphold the legislative process. We are constantly reviewing the regulatory processes through resolutions and ordinances and making determinations if there need to be revisions, modifications or new ordinances.
What area of Louisville do you serve?
I represent the most diverse district in all of Jefferson County. It is most diverse in terms of socio-economic status, industry, race, faith, gender, age, you name it — life choices and lifestyles. My district is 73 percent African-American, and 84 percent of the children in District 4 cannot read at grade level. The district is centered in the downtown business district, which means this is the economic driver for the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky.
What would you say is the most important part of your job as a council member?
The most important part of this job is serving the neighbors and the constituents who live and work in the district. Every day, more than 70,000 people drive into my district to go to work, which is unique. Not every district has that component. The legislative and executive and judicial branches of government are all officially located in my district, as is the police department, the fire department and the EMS, and the entire hospital district. We’re a little city within our district.
What are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of your job?
The most challenging part for me has been going up the learning curve of the entire legislative process, including local, state and federal requirements, as well as finding time to read a voluminous amount of legal and financial documents every week. The most rewarding part is moving through District 4, working with folks who are excited about getting connected to the community.
What is one thing about you that would surprise others?
I launched a 300-foot barge into the Ohio River by cutting six ropes with a long-handled ax.
What do you like to do for fun?
Hop on the bike path heading west near the Portland Canal along the Ohio River through the Shawnee and Chickasaw parks. I’ve also been teaching myself how to cook from scratch.
Do you have any places you like to hang out?
My absolute favorite place to be is at home.
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What advice would you like to give?
Believe in something much bigger than yourself. Define yourself and BE that self before the world does it for you.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Having something significant to do every day, making a life worth living, and being a self I can live with.
Thank you so much for sharing with us Barbara, and thank you to Gretchen Bell for these beautiful photos!
To be inspired by other great Louisville women, check out our other FACES of Louisville here.