Leslie Lynn Smith didn’t envision leaving her native Detroit, MI, where she spent decades building infrastructure to support equitable entrepreneurial development. But when the opportunity arose to apply her hometown’s hard-won economic lessons to the city’s unofficial Southern cousin, Leslie not only moved to Memphis but also brought along an entire Michigander fleet, including her husband, their adult children, her father and sister, and her business partner. Now serving as the founding president and CEO of Epicenter — the nonprofit hub of the greater Memphis entrepreneurial movement — Leslie and her team increase support to businesses across industries and stages of growth to create a more successful, just and representative local economy.
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Detroit in 1967. It was during the civil uprisings preceding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. I think the connection to that conflict and the racial dynamics of both Detroit and Memphis play a unique and defining role in my life, career, worldview, and the way I try to show up for people and our communities.
How did your background direct your career path?
There’s a significant imbalance that has to be addressed for our economies to truly become just, balanced and thriving. Entrepreneurship is one of the most effective ways to do that. It really can create independence and agency that isn’t always obvious in other segments of our economy. I think being born in Detroit and being rooted in that place has informed a lot of the choices I’ve made in my career.
How did you get started in the work of supporting entrepreneurs?
I started my career as many people in this work do: in banking. I was a bank teller through college, and then I moved into doing large-scale commercial workouts, which is like “deals gone wrong.” I think the fastest way to understand how to do a productive deal is to work out hundreds that have gone wrong because you realize what was missed and how to work to ensure that in every transaction, everybody feels like they’re winning something.
I moved from that into commercial real estate, and as my career has been destined to do, I worked on an economic development deal. I was the chief financial officer for a real estate firm in Ann Arbor, MI, and had the unique blessing of working on an economic development deal with the founder of Lipitor. I also got to work with state and local governments and Pfizer, so there was big industry, state and local governments, a scientist, inventor and entrepreneur all swirling in this deal. And it was like my finance background, workout background, real estate background and general interest in economic growth came together in one place. And I thought, “Oh, well, this is what I’m supposed to do.”
What brought you to Memphis?
I never had any intention to leave Detroit. I knew folks in Memphis who were doing similar work here. They had been coming to Detroit to learn from our experiences. Throughout that time, they invited me to Memphis to check out what was going on here. As the Chairman’s Circle launched the moon mission initiatives of launching 500 companies and serving 1,000 entrepreneurs, I was asked if I would consider coming here to lead that effort. And I thought, “If Memphis is in a space to consider radical change, this could be an interesting relationship between Memphis and me.”
People often compare Memphis and Detroit. What were your observations about their connections and differences?
I expected Memphis to be more similar than it ended up being. I’ve had to learn a lot about patience and pace and resistance to change. I think we ignored a lot of warning signs in Detroit because we just were a genuinely confident city. And I think Memphis isn’t as confident as she should be for all of the gifts and treasures that exist here. We’re so much greater than we perceive.
In a city that is majority female and majority African-American, what are the unique challenges faced by women and black people when it comes to creating and growing business?
Women and black people are getting a proportionately smaller share of contracts, capital, and access to new clients and networks. The only way for this to truly come into balance is for us to address those things head-on and change our behaviors and start looking at things differently. We have to create this intentional space to see and be with people who don’t look like you in places like Memphis. That is really important because only just, inclusive economies grow. You cannot have a majority of your population not participating in the economy and be okay over time. It’s an economic imperative. And it’s a moral imperative that people have the opportunity to create the lives that best serve and suit them and their families and their communities.
What do you find most inspiring about your work?
It’s always the entrepreneurs. These are the folks who are taking on the burden of trying something new, and they are putting their health, families and security in spaces of great risk and tenuousness. Every time I get to be with an entrepreneur and see what he or she is doing in our community and hear the story of how they moved to start their first business and grow their first business … when they achieve a milestone, they are rarely expected to achieve … it’s just amazing. It is the energy that fuels us!
Shifting gears, what are the first places you take visitors to Memphis?
Our top five always involve a walk across the Harahan Bridge, because I think that is an amazing view and fantastic thing, and a part of what I love about Memphis is how active it is. I also enjoy the Civil Rights Museum because you can’t be on the planet and not go there, and you certainly can’t be within a couple of miles of it and not be shaken to your core about it. We do tend to throw in the Memphis Pyramid because it’s iconic Memphis stuff. Shelby Farms often includes a walk around Hyde Lake and a discussion about the role of philanthropy in place. And if it’s summer, you can bet they’re going to the Levitt Shell because I just can’t believe that place exists anywhere in the world.
What is your best advice?
Don’t take yourself so seriously. I think we stress ourselves out trying to be this perfect version of ourselves, and we forget to be flawed and laugh. We forget to grant grace, and we forget to chill out. I think it undermines the moment.
What are three everyday things you can’t live without?
Music, reading and movement.
Thank you, Leslie! And thanks to Erin Mosher for the gorgeous photos.
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