At UT Austin in the late 1980s and early 90s, Smithers found herself being titled with a lot of firsts. This included being her dorm’s first Black resident assistant (RA), an experience she connects to her first interaction with overt racism.
“During freshman year, my roommate, and I were the lone two Black women in this particular dorm,” Smithers said. “In our three-bedroom suite, two other incoming freshmen actually moved into the suite, and they moved out ... within an hour of us arriving. There was already an RA living in our suite. When the other two women moved out, a second RA moved into our suite – a move that confirmed my suspicion. So that was my first experience as a 17-year-old going away for college.”
Shortly thereafter, Smithers learned there were two other Black women living in the dorm. Together, they navigated the college experience. Smithers remains friends with them this day and was a bridesmaid in each of their weddings.
Another connection came in the classroom, where Smithers met Alexus Rhone in an African American sociology class; both were majoring in journalism/public relations and remain faithful friends.
“She and I bonded,” said Rhone, an author, storyteller, artistic theologian and founder of Where Truth Meets Story, LLC. “A lot of times, when you are trying to find your way – professionally, socially or personally – life happens on life’s terms. With resilience, you figure out how to work within the confines of things we cannot control.”
Smithers immersed herself in the campus community and found avenues for connection through advocacy and service. She participated in the Black Student Alliance, Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), and Women in Communication, Inc. (WICI), now the Association for Women in Communication. She was also a co-founding member of Beta Chi (Blacks in Communications).
Smithers worked as a student admissions counselor, responsible for staffing the Office of Admissions’ campus information desk, answering questions, and giving tours. Outside of the university, Smithers also had an internship in the public affairs office of an Austin-area hospital.
“As a first-gen student there was a lot about having to navigate and negotiate my studies that I had to figure out on my own. Even interviewing for jobs and learning how to dress and prep for interviews was a challenge,” Smithers said. “In spite of that, my work ethic as a college student was unmatched. In my last two years at UT, I worked two jobs, three if you count the internship. I have always had to work twice as hard than others. Nothing was ever handed or given to me.”
Upon graduating, Smithers bounced between communications-related internships and entry-level work selling ads for a newspaper, the Houston Defender. Though Smithers said she struggled to find her footing, she credits this transitional period with building her resilience, which paid dividends when she applied for a job on Foyle’s team.
Smithers with the Texas Chiropractic College leadership team
Foyle was filling a role to lead public affairs and promotions at Texas Chiropractic College.
“It was a one-person office, and we needed someone who could come into the role, think outside of the box, take control of the arena and make it her own,” Foyle said. “Tammy’s positive approach and proactive attitude made it clear to me that she could really prove herself early in her career if someone was willing to let her try.”
“Her magnetic spirit is one that you don’t forget.”
Several years later, Smithers left her job at the Houston Grand Opera, where she spent four years directing corporate philanthropy, in pursuit of a master’s in business administration from Rice University. She was one of five Black students in the full-time MBA program at Rice to graduate in 2004.
Smithers (far left) was one of five Black students in the full-time MBA program to graduate in 2004.
During this time, Smithers met Alicia Yancy at a National Black MBA Association convention in Houston, and she guided Yancy through the MBA application process. Yancy is now an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Houston-Downtown and became the first Black female to earn a Ph.D. in accounting from the University of Southern California.
“Tammy was an advocate for me,” Yancy said. “I credit her with becoming Dr. Yancy, because without meeting her, I would not have applied to Rice.”
In 2006, armed with her MBA and desire for a new experience, Smithers relocated from Houston to the east coast. A career in wealth management and the financial services industry took her to New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. After more than a decade working for three Fortune 500 companies, including a Wall Street firm, Smithers felt a call toward using her lived experiences in a way that would empower others and promote social change.
“That was the new beginning for me – that zest, that zeal, for wanting to make a difference,” she said.