Seven years after Erik Smith's move to St. Petersburg, he's deeply woven into the fabric of the city and its many civic organizations. Smih created Inclusivity LLC, a cultural competence consulting organization, to reshape the conversation around race in the local business world and drive real change in inclusion, racial diversity in hiring and retention, as well as marketing and communications. As the demographics of the nation change with each coming generation, Smith says cultural competency has never been more important to prepare businesses, families and cities to thrive.
Years in St. Pete
I’ve been in St. Pete for seven years. The business itself came from another company called Carlton Consulting that’s been in existence since 2000 in Ohio and kickstarted again here in 2005.
Organizations involved in
I’m currently the chair of the Pinellas County Urban League. I was on the board of governors for the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, VBS President of the Deuces Live, and am a former president of the Bridges Committee for the United Way. I am currently part of a grant community for allegating Franciscan ministries, am a proud member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., since 1990, doing quite a bit of work in the community, and was part of the Leadership Pinellas class of 2014.
What gets you out of bed every day?
The fact that St. Pete is an awesome place to live. This was not planned by any means – this has been divine intervention every step of the way. I think the last Facebook post I made was right when I’d gotten married a month ago, and I basically said “In Florida, I’ve been drinking from a firehose of blessings.” Ohio, where I came from, was my trials-and-tribulations period, so I’m reaping what I’ve sown, so to speak. Love the people, love the area. When I got here, it was a vacation that became a staycation that became a relocation. My condo, back in Ohio, was kind of a science project for nine months because the refrigerator still had food in it and everything. What gets me up in the morning is that I want to see this place be better. I want to see St. Pete be better. My son is 13 months, my other son is 31 weeks in utero. Frankly, because of what I do for a living, I don’t want my sons to have the same conversations that I’m having today. I want them to have different conversations.
Why St. Pete?
Because the sun shines on everybody! It’s an area I actually had never heard of it, really, until a friend of mine, who was born and raised here moved back. When I came, I was like “I’ve never been here before, this is kind of cool.” When things got a little rough for me in Ohio, she said to come back and just hang out. I remember clearly – I was here, I had been here for a week and a half, meditating every day at Gulfport Beach, and I was like, “I’m not going back.” And that was it. I just fell in love with the area and never looked back. I’m still in love with the area and don’t plan on leaving.
What is one habit that you keep?
I work out every day. Not just for the physical benefit, which is great, but mostly to clear my mind. I do a lot of my thinking during working out. The practice has also been to ensure that I get to the beach at least two or three times a week. That’s a place where air, water, and earth meet in the same place. Energetically, it’s a great place to think, to just let my thoughts flow and to meditate. That kind of connecting within is a daily practice.
Who are some people that influence you?
My wife – she’d be happy to hear that – just because Delquanda Turner Smith is the one person that I have met in my entire life that no one has an ill word to say. She’s an example of servant leadership, so when it comes to leadership-oriented issues, I look to her and she inspires me. I’ve watched her lead, and I think there’s nobody I know that does it better.
Another person that has been inspirational has been Michael Vivio. Michael is one of the first people that really believed in what I was doing. He challenged me a bit. His willingness to lead, be innovative, be wrong, and still move forward has been very inspirational to me.
Barack Obama, of course, was the junior Senator from Illinois that no one saw, coming out of nowhere and actually becoming president and doing some pretty incredible things. Before that point, my dad and mom said “you can be anything you want to be, including President of the United States” and I’d think “yeah, right, I’ve never seen that before” but now that’s a reality, and you can say that to a child of color. Off the top of my head, those few folks have been pretty darn inspirational for me.
What is one piece of insight - a book, methodology, practice - that you would share with our readers?
I don’t know if this would necessarily be a methodology, but it’s the mantra that inclusivity lives by: the presence of diversity plus the practice of inclusion is the context for innovation. I think that’s important to think about in every facet of life. Our country is becoming progressively more diverse.
Your children, this is who they’re hanging out with. These are your new employees. These are your new vendors. These are your new leaders. These are your new consumers. If this is not at the forefront of your mind, as a company, as an organization, as a family, you’re going to miss the boat when all of those great ideas and those perspectives collide and come together. You have really robust conversations. You always leave with something new that you’ve learned. The idea of being open so you can have one of those innovative, aha! moments for yourself, taking it out of the context of the business for yourself is really something I would suggest folks should hold on to. That presence of diversity, having all those great ideas in the room around you, and the practice of inclusion – including them in your thought processes, allowing those voices to be heard. You’d be amazed at what can happen.
What is one thing you wish you knew about your work 3 years ago?
I wish I knew that it was going to be as difficult as it is for hearts and minds to shift. I wish I understood more of the psychological impact of being in silos and thinking that way. I wish I knew more about the idea of the big “R” word where it comes out and everybody gets nervous. It’s called “race,” people, and it scares the crap out of folks. But if you think about it, it really impacts everything that you do. It’s the lens that you process information through. You have immediate responses when you see someone of color. You know, me, I have immediate responses when I see someone white. Or of color. Or anything. These are things that occur, and it’s natural. But to try and hide them, to try to avoid them, that’s when your challenges occur. Because you don’t really know yourself. I think the biggest part to take away from what I do is how much self-work is involved.
What’s next is, frankly, for me to work for everybody. I want to be the person that you want to talk to. Not necessarily that you want to hire me, that’s not important. I want to be the conversation that you want to have a conversation with. “Hey, Erik, I don’t understand this,” or “this really bothered me,” or “you know what, I don’t agree with you” and be vehement about it. If you really feel strongly about it, no matter how much fervor it is, even if it’s anger, let’s just have a conversation. I want to be the guy that people want to talk to. Just to have a conversation.