Jennifer Smith is a lifelong learnerCuriosity and determination helped Smith transition from technical work to leadership roles
Curiosity and determination helped Smith transition from technical work to leadership roles
By Anne Millar and Mary Wells
December 07, 2017
Jennifer Smith is a dedicated volunteer with organizations that support young people in pursuing STEM degrees and careers. Courtesy of Ken Milmine, Jennifer Smith, and Chris Harduwar.
Jennifer Smith has a background in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aeronautics. She is formerly the executive vice president of global market solutions and engineering at Christie Digital Systems Canada, a global visual solutions company. A respected leader, she has significant experience cultivating, managing, and bringing to market technical innovations. She is also actively involved in promoting engineering and strengthening entrepreneurship and innovation in Canada.
Jennifer believes it is important to be a contributing member of her community and has acted as a supporter, volunteer, and mentor with many organizations, including Junior Achievement Canada, an organization providing opportunities for youth to learn financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and work readiness skills; hackademy, a social innovation venture teaching coding and technology literacy; and CanWIT (Women in Tech), a global networking group. Jennifer is particularly passionate about engineering and encouraging young people, especially girls, to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related careers. She is actively involved in community outreach initiatives through the University of Waterloo, including the “Go Eng Girl” and “Day with a Difference” programs. In 2013, Jennifer was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 by the Waterloo Region Record for her efforts to create social change through business and technology and her work promoting engineering and tech careers for young women.
Were you strong in math and science throughout your youth? Always math. I hated physics. I loved mathematics. I still do. Even through elementary school, math was my thing. The manipulation of numbers is pretty awesome. When I was in high school, grade nine, I remember we had a teacher exchange. He was from Australia, Mr. Edwards. He ran this math club. There were three or four of us that got pulled into this class and we used to solve these crazy problems. I loved it. I was so energized by that, having a couple of other people who were really about pushing the boundaries of math. If I did it again, I would do all of the various aspects of math that are coming now with machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence, all of the computer science pieces. Mathematics, to me, is the universal language. Always has been, always will be. It is the underpinning of music, art, technology, language, human society. It has always been at the root of what I love.
What has motivated you to succeed? I was always a very focused, determined child. I was getting out of small-town Ontario and I was going to university because no one else around me had. My parents were always big on education. My dad dropped out of high school in grade ten — he went to work because he had to help his family earn money — but he always loved school. He was a natural learner. Whether it was my parents not having that opportunity or feeling that education was about a better future, it was always instilled in me that learning was a good thing. For me, there was a personal goal to get out and to do more, to capitalize on the opportunity that I knew was there because my parents hadn’t been able to. I needed to learn. I am a lifelong learner. I watched my family have financial struggles around food and the basic necessities. I wanted to be able to have my own financial independence. I never wanted to have to make a tradeoff between paying the utility bill and putting food on the table. I know a large portion of my drive comes from that. I firmly believe that complacency belongs nowhere. That is really the core of who I am. If I’m not learning or driving or growing, then I fall into my own definition of complacency.
Why did you decide to pursue your master’s in technology management? I had always wanted to grow beyond the technical to project management to the business management realm. I was getting pressure to do my MBA internally. I knew I needed to level up on the academic training as it related to the professional management for technology, but I didn’t like many of the MBA programs. In a lot of cases, I found them to be not as directly relevant to managing technology. Then this program popped up at Laurier, an M.Sc. in technology management. The program was absolutely brilliant. It has the underpinnings of an MBA, but it is constructed in a way that covers advanced topics like intellectual property right management, data privacy and security, and competing in open and closed standards, the kinds of challenges you really experience.
What have you enjoyed most about your work? There are a couple of things that stand out. One is the impact on the actual end markets we serve, the people who end up using the equipment and the experiences that they create. The stuff we enable in a visual experience is truly fabulous. It creates places for people to gather, to share, and to connect at a human level, which I think the world needs far more of right now. I always tell our customers, “I want you to dream, envision, create, and ideate. I don’t want you to think about the technology. I will make sure the technology does what it needs to do to help you create those experiences, however grandiose, however complex.” For me, being a facilitator of that dream, that end vision, that’s what I like about what we do at a corporate level. The second is having had the opportunity to participate in the transformation of an entire industry: the conversion of global cinemas from analog to digital. What I like about what I do individually is that I play a role in helping all of the people who do all the hard work get it done. It’s a facilitation role. People ask, “What energizes you the most?” For me, it’s seeing people around me achieve truly brilliant things because they feel inspired, supported, passionate, and dedicated in doing something that they, or others, maybe felt could not otherwise be done.
How have you balanced work and family life? My wife does all of the work. I do as much as I can when I’m there, but I travel so much. We have the conversation fairly regularly about whether it is time to privilege her career over mine. If it is, I am truly okay to do that. I work because I can provide for my family, because I love it, because this is who I am and I get a lot of energy from it, but at the end of the day, if push came to shove, my family would come first.
What factors have influenced your success? I firmly believe that I would not have been nearly as successful during my tenure here at Christie if I did not have the technical background. I think it is exceptionally difficult to manage small and large groups of technical people if you don’t have any credibility in a technical domain. I think there’s an easier gravitation towards a leader who has some empathy and understanding of the challenges, constraints, and methodologies that get learned and put into practice through the discipline of engineering. You have to ask the right questions. I don’t need to be an expert in all of those areas, but I know enough to be able to ask questions that help those people make sure they have covered the risk assessment and all the other areas that are their responsibility.
What obstacles have you encountered in your career? I’ve experienced both gender and age issues. As blatant as being told, “you’re the reason women should not be allowed in engineering” by a university professor, to the subtler recognition that you are standing outside the “boys’ club” at a business meeting or event. I’ve noticed some people are more questioning, discerning, dismissive of your inputs because you are the youngest at the table. It can be hard when you’re in a traditionally male environment to create meaningful and authentic relationships. It is hard to find female mentors. I have one. She was at COM DEV and is an electrical engineer. I remember looking up to her and thinking she was awesome. I learned so much, just watching how she behaved, how she conducted herself, and how she managed the very male-centric environment.
How have you overcome obstacles? I’ve always looked for ways to pursue what I think I need to do to gain greater credibility, to continue to advance, and to make sure I have the necessary training or background. I’ve tried to make strong relationships in key places across the organization. Mentors are helpful. Self-reflection for me has always been a big piece. I will deconstruct a situation when I have a moment. You have to allow yourself to feel emotion in safe and appropriate times and places. The confidence piece is important, not even so much about a display of confidence, it’s an internal self-assuredness. Confidence, for me, came with time. It came with recognizing that I do add value; I do have an opinion that people want to hear.
Why do you feel it is important to mentor women in engineering? I didn’t know any women engineers. They just weren’t there. I think we still have a lack of identified role models. At an operating level, they are hard to find, too — even icons, people that stand out as being strong women in STEM. People can probably tell you five scientists that are all men, but can they tell you five that are women? At a personal level, I don’t want another girl to go to university and be told she is the reason women shouldn’t be in engineering. That is crazy to me. At a professional level, STEM fields will propel economic growth, there is already a vast talent shortage, and we simply can’t have fifty percent of the population not considering careers in STEM.
What advice would you give to a young woman in STEM? Don’t be apologetic for being capable. Don’t allow yourself to go small. You do need to play the game, and the game can suck. You can’t hide from it or pretend it’s not there, and you better figure out how to play it. Learn how to navigate it. The other biggest piece of advice I give is don’t chase titles, chase the experiences that you want. What are you trying to learn? What are you trying to contribute? How do you want to grow? To evolve?
How do you define innovation? To do something or enable it though it’s never been done before. Or to do something better than it’s being done now.
What qualities does an innovator possess? I think the authors of The Innovator’s DNA got it right: a natural inquisition, constant questioning, and then the multiple perspectives piece. To me, curiosity is probably the biggest piece. People who have a natural curiosity are probably the ones that are more inclined to be innovators. STEM fields train people to hone their curiosity into problem solving and ways to advance, transform, and integrate differently. A balanced team has a combination of that skillset. I watch the people around me and my own interactions. In any group, there is going to be one, if not a few people, that hit that curiosity piece. Then everybody rallies around that point and the innovation comes with the pieces people individually bring. But the initial spark comes at that curiosity level or that inquisition level.
How can we encourage young people to be innovative? They have to be brave. I feel really passionate about the SHAD program because they’re driving the innovators, creators, and leaders of tomorrow. Kids are awesome. If people can get kids to believe how truly awesome they are and unleash their curiosity, creativity, and imagination, that is the power that will create solutions for the world’s biggest problems.
To read more about Jennifer and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.