April 5, 2015 | last updated April 5, 2015 5:13 pm
Women In Business 2015

Smith builds CT's economic development toolkit

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic & Community Development, has developed an informal mentoring relationship with Dara Kovel, shown in the photo below, a senior leader at the Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority.

Who is your mentor and why?

I have had the benefit of a number of mentors over my career – people who had tremendous influence over my development, decision making and effectiveness. One of the most memorable was a woman I worked with early in my corporate career. While only a few years older and further along in her career, she taught me a lot about how to fend for myself in a male-dominated environment; she opened doors or helped nudge me to open them myself; and importantly, she "lead by example," demonstrating the enormous value of a mentor and helping me decide that I would lend a hand to others.

How do you mentor your staff?

I am a firm believer that experiential learning leaves the longest, most lasting impressions. In mentoring people on my team or others, I have tried to use real-life situations to help people become more effective leaders, learning from both successes and mistakes.

Since joining government, where mentoring is much less formal and leadership development is not as much of a focus as it is in the private sector, I have had fewer "formal" mentees, instead developing ongoing conversations with individuals about their careers, issues they are facing in the workplace and personal development. The photo is of me and Dara Kovel, a senior leader at the Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority with whom I developed an informal mentoring relationship with a few years ago. I encourage more leaders in government to find their own mentors and find ways to hone their leadership skills.

What advice could you offer to people thinking about being a mentor?

The greatest thing about being a mentor, is that you can learn too! At its best, both parties learn something new and find ways to grow. Try it and see!

State Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith didn't take lightly her decision four years ago to jump from a successful, high-powered career in the private sector.

How high-powered? She had been named by American Banker magazine in 2009 among the top 25 nonbank women in finance, at No. 9, and in 2010 among the 25 most powerful women in finance, No. 7.

She had enjoyed a successful career at Aetna and ING U.S. Inc., now Voya Financial Inc., but after writing the last college tuition check for her two children, Smith started exploring new opportunities.

"I also felt that it was a moment that I could look around and say, 'What could I be doing that might be more in the category of giving back?' " recalls Smith, now 62.

When the DECD job became available, she was CEO of ING's U.S. Retirement Services, one of the largest defined-contribution plan managers in the U.S., with more than $280 billion in assets under management and administration, according to her state biography.

"It just seemed like a really good fit for me and a really good opportunity for me to take the skills that I'd been able to develop over the years in the private sector and bring them to bear through the public sector to help the state really get back on its feet," Smith says.

Smith touts the progress the state's economy has made since 2011, when many companies were still reeling from the recession. Now, more are talking about hiring and capital investments, but there is still room to improve, she says.

She's proud of the economic development toolkit known as the Small Business Express Program, or EXP, which launched in Jan. 2012 and offers loans and grants for small businesses to spur job creation. The program emerged from a "listening tour" Smith and Gov. Malloy conducted with businesses.

One thing Smith learned in business, "is you better know what your customer needs are because if you don't … you'll never be able to help them solve their problems."

Connecticut didn't really have a tool like EXP, she says.

"It was designed specifically to make it easy and accessible for small and young businesses … they would get access to capital, access to strategic help if they needed it, just give them a leg up in the tough environment in which we were operating," Smith says.

The program has helped almost 1,300 companies, which, on average, have created about 108 percent of the jobs they said they would, Smith says.

"… Capital's been deployed and lots of people have been put to work on account of it," she says. "It's a remarkable and very good thing I think for the economy."

DECD is seeking about $50 million each of the next two years to fund the program, roughly equal to the amount spent each year since 2012.

Smith also has been a proponent of streamlining public-facing government processes in DECD and supports similar efforts throughout state agencies.

Jill Adams, CEO of Adams & Knight in Avon, which does work for DECD, says Smith's leadership style stands out.

"She's both decisive and yet inclusive," Adams says. Smith listens to her team and to businesses and "based on all that information … she moves forward and people feel confident that she's … headed in the right direction."

Smith wants to make an impact and has delivered results, Adams says.

"She cares very much about obviously doing what's right for the state, but at the same time it's also about doing what's right for the business community — so it's that win-win I think that really defines Catherine in the sense that she's always looking for what is truly in the best interest of all the parties involved," Adams says.

Smith is married to Peter Maxson and has two grown children, a daughter, 28, getting a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and son, 26, who's doing disaster-relief work in the Philippines and is headed to grad school in landscape architecture.

Some tips she shares?

"Always find opportunities that build upon your strengths," she says. "If you take from one opportunity to the next a set of new skills and build upon the skills that you already have, you end up with a quiver of arrows … that gives you a lot more down the pike. …"

Most important, "You need to do your best. If you're not working hard and not putting your best foot forward in your job, you're never going to get recognized or have people want to help you move up the ladder."

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