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The Essential Podcast, Episode 49: Entrepreneurial Leadership — An Interview with Co-Author Ella Bell Smith

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Listen: The Essential Podcast, Episode 49: Entrepreneurial Leadership — An Interview with Co-Author Ella Bell Smith

About this Episode

Ella Bell Smith, Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, joins the Essential Podcast for Part 2 of a four-part series to talk about the report "Entrepreneurial Leadership Must Help Meet America's 21st Century Challenges in a Post-Pandemic World" and how her own work and career shaped her approach to the collaboration. 

The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets—macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, ESG, global trade, and more—in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.

Listen and subscribe to this podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and Deezer.

Show Notes
  • Listen to Part 1 of this series: Entrepreneurial Leadership – An Interview with Co-Author Robert Litan

  • Listen to Part 3 of this series: Entrepreneurial Leadership – An Interview with Co-Author Matthew Slaughter

  • Listen to Part 4 of this series: Entrepreneurial Leadership – An Interview with Co-Author Robert Lawrence

  • Join S&P Global Sustainable1 for the next episode in our ‘Beyond ESG’ series as we sit down with the authors of the report, ‘Entrepreneurial Leadership Must Help Meet America’s 21st Century Challenges in a Post-Pandemic World’ to examine the challenges facing America and the role state and federal – as well as private industry – leadership must play to meet them. Register here to join the discussion or receive the on-demand replay.



The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.

Nathan Hunt: This is The Essential Podcast from S&P Global. My name is Nathan Hunt. Over the past year, I have had the privilege of working with four of the leading economists, and academics working in the United States today, as they wrestled with at the challenges America faces in the coming decades. S&P Global is proud to present the output of their work. An article entitled, Entrepreneurial Leadership Must Help Meet America's 21st Century Challenges in a Post Pandemic World. To accompany this article, I am interviewing all four co-authors. The purpose of these interviews is to understand this article in the light of each author's past published work and career. Today, I have the good fortune to interview Ella Bell Smith of a Tuck School at Dartmouth.

Ella Bell Smith: My name is Ella Bell Smith. I am a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. I've been on the faculty there for 21 years. I've been an academic for a number of years, but I don't need to share all of that.

Nathan Hunt: Ella, let's start with the book you coauthored called Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle For Professional Identity. Let me just say I loved the book. I read this book. This is a wonderful, wonderful book that has been recently reissued by the publisher. And I encourage my listeners to pick it up, but let me get to my question. It's been two decades since the book was first published and it recently came out, as I said, in a new addition. Understanding that the book is about the radically different experiences of black and white women professionals in corporate America, are you happy that the book is still so relevant 20 years, or are you, in a way, frustrated that so little has changed?

Ella Bell Smith: It's a bittersweet moment. Of course, as a writer, it's always amazing when one of your books get re-released, that's a powerful reality, oh, my gosh. Given the topic that this book is about, it's bittersweet because we are not, in my opinion, we are not where we need to be for advancing all women in the workplace, but particularly brown, and black, and Asian women. I would've liked to have seen the scenario change significantly, but it hasn't in reality.

Nathan Hunt: Are you surprised by the lack of forward progress in the last 20 years?

Ella Bell Smith: I think disappointed is a better word. Given that I am a black woman and have seen how race, particularly race, race relations, racism has seen some progress, but not as much progress as I would have thought. No, I'm disappointed more than I am surprised. I'm sad. It makes me sad, and the fact that this particular historical moment seems to be even more challenging when it comes to white supremacy, when it comes to police brutality, when it comes to the resegregation of our society and the issues around being able to vote. I'm also saddened about gender issues as well. Look at Texas and they whole debacle around being able to have a new abortion is scary times for me. So I'm sad.

Nathan Hunt: This article that you have just finished with your collaborators features case studies of successful social entrepreneurs, just as your book is filled with very profound case studies of women professionals. Tell me a bit about why you chose to include case studies, and life histories in your academic work. That goes a bit against the grain in academia.

Ella Bell Smith: Yes. I tell stories and we want quantitative numbers and analysis. And I'm of the believer that the statistics are incredibly important, in Our Separate Ways we also did a survey to get the statistical information, but you don't know the types of trees in the forest if you will. You don't know what's growing in the forest, what's surviving in the forest if you can't paint a picture. And the narratives, the stories allow us to paint a deeper picture so that we know what are the critical issues, number one, and how they're being experienced by the individuals. How are they navigating in terms of, you get more color, you get more texture, you get more context, and context and texture is important. If we're going to dismantle oppression, and oppression manifestations in our society, we've got to be very specific about what needs to be unlocked, unpacked, what needs to be changed.

Nathan Hunt: One of the things I find so interesting about the case studies that were written with your co-author in the book and your co-authors in the article is that they seem to be filled with empathy for people who have had experiences that are clearly so different from your own.

Ella Bell Smith: Nathan, I'm glad you bring that out because I mean, that's the other thing. I think we, as human beings, resonate with stories, we all have lived experiences, and people are captured by the story, the compassion, the empathy, the willingness to be able to connect, to be able to see another human being's reality and to say, "Wow, how can I make a difference? How can I help? What do I learn? How does this connect to my story? My reality?" I think narratives are critically, critically important in being able to shed light on the human experience. And that's an important reality here, particularly, when you think about the article and the issues that we're addressing, as well as our separate ways. We've got to create empathy, compassion, and to understand that there are heroes and sheros out here in the universe who are making a difference in how they're doing that and why they are doing that.

Nathan Hunt: For this article that you wrote with Bob and Matt and Robert, does this come out of a place of optimism for you or pessimism when you look at the challenges facing this country?

Ella Bell Smith: First of all, I was just absolutely amazed to be in the circle of Bob and Robert and Matt, just how did I get on this team? I don't know if that's because as an African American woman to have this opportunity, particularly, I'm the narrative researcher and they are brilliant, hardcore, analytical economists. And I'm like, "Okay, how am I going to fit? What do I bring to the table?" Yes, I bring a female lens. Yes. I bring a ratio lens and a class lens to some degree, but it was really quite an honor. And it took me a second or two to get my voice, but I also realized how important it is to put not extreme groups together or teams together, but people given the historical moment, and the issues that we are dealing with and the criticalness of what we're dealing with in our society, you've got to put odd couples together to be able to figure it out, and to be able to come in and tussle. And the thing that was so amazing about our team is that we could tussle. We could push back and forth with each other.

And let me explain to you from my world, you need to have that kind of trust, but you also need to have that kind of tussle, that kind of interaction. We were also very lucky to have three amazing graduate students with us from Tuck. And we had one undergraduate student from Dartmouth who really pushed us, organized us, added their generational view, if you will. And that was so special because I think at times we focus on taking the generation that has the wisdom, the knowledge, the more senior, if you will. And the big wonderful aha for all of us is that the younger generation is packed with wisdom, insights, want to make a difference, are ready to roll up their sleeves, have ideas about how to do that, and what needs to be done. And they complimented everything we did. And it was delicious. It was just a delight.

Nathan Hunt: Ella, I'd like to return to the question. I think I know the answer, but I'd like to return to the question of when you were approaching your contributions to this article, dealing with major challenges facing our country, were you coming from a place of optimism or pessimism?

Ella Bell Smith: Not optimism at all. I was more pessimistic. I don't think any of us were truly optimistic to be honest with you. That's my take on it. For me, I was concerned that maybe I didn't have enough compassion for the divide that we are now facing in our country. When you start thinking about what the issues are, my frustration, my anger, trying to keep in tow, if you will, in terms of looking at alternatives, and how do you bring to the other people, and how people have need to be tempered right now to bring people who don't think like you, don't believe like you, how do you bring them across to more insight, more compassion, more understanding, maybe not to change, but to not be so rigid and fixed in your perceptions and your realities. And I think the other thing is you realize in yourself how rigid and fixed you are too.

Nathan Hunt: One recurring theme throughout the article is about the lack of data, measurement, and accountability when it comes to social entrepreneurship. You have talked in the past about how a lack of the right data in corporate diversity and inclusion programs leads to ineffective efforts. How do we, as a society, go about collecting better data and acting on the data we collect?

Ella Bell Smith: One of the things that I continue to experience is that when you go into a organization, a company, and you ask to see the data, they are able to break down the data so many different ways in terms of where are people stuck? What does the pipeline look like? How many people are leaving? Why are they leaving? How many people are coming in? Who are you recruiting? And what do they look like in terms of their race, ethnic, gender backgrounds. But one of the things that frustrates me is that we tend to clump minority groups to the agenda we clump the men and women together. We don't break out what does it look like for black men, black women. We might not break down that analysis for other racial groups as well. And the problem with that is that we assume that black men, black women, or any minority group in terms of a gender separation, experience the same kind of obstacles. We would never assume that about white women ever and white men, but we assume, because of race, they must have the same needs and they must experience the same things.

No, they don't. There is such a thing as intersexuality. There is also connected to intersectionality, also connected to that is the racialized sexism if you will, that black women experience that black men do not experience. And that happens for every racial group, including Asians, every racial group. So it's frustrating for companies, it's frustrating for me when companies don't break down the numbers based on gender, don't break down the numbers in terms of professional class and nonprofessional class. Don't break down the data to show the specific opportunities that are created for women working in the lower ranks of a company. It's all right when people leave another data point, when people exit leave the company, "Oh, we did a survey", a survey's not going to give you specifics around why a certain group is leaving. That needs to be tailored, and it probably needs to be done by an external consultant to be honest with you.

For example, I worked with one company and we actually did exit interviews. Would you work for the company again? Would you recommend the product to your family, to your friends? And the answers were brutal, just brutal. And the company had no idea, no reality that people that were leaving, particularly, minority women that were leaving were telling their friends and their family members don't ever buy this product again. Okay, so the consequences of your business is at stake if you really don't collect the right kind of data, have the right resources to look at that data, and be sure that the consultants, and the groups that you're using to analyze your data, really understand how thorough and complete they need to be.

Nathan Hunt: To your point, beyond your academic and teaching work, you have extensive experience consulting with corporations. One of the interesting conclusions from the article is that corporations have an important role to play in addressing the challenges we face as a society. Does your experience working with companies lead you to believe they are ready to take up this torch?

Ella Bell Smith: I think companies pick up the torch when they see a societal need. When they see something go a stray around race relations in society. Our book first was released 20 years ago, two months before 9/11, as an example. Racial issues after nine 11 were not at the table. We were together as... More together as a society, we were fighting what we thought was a common enemy. We were hurt. We were angry. And when people came survived, those that did survive, 9/11 came out. They were covered with Ash and you couldn't even tell what race they were. Given the historical moment now companies are jumping on board, particularly after George Floyd, black lives matter. The racial protests, where you had all shapes, colors, and sizes of Americans saying that we will no longer accept discrimination. We will no longer accept racism. Companies pay attention to that. But when the external noise dies down, what do companies do? There's a new issue on the front burner. So they turn their attention to the new issue on the front burner.

Not to mention the fact that companies don't have great histories. So you get a new CEO and they have a different agenda. So, the energy, the enthusiasm, the dedication, the commitment, whatever, can sway. And you can't change your culture. You can't change oppressive, institutionalized racism if you will, in a company or sexism, if you're taking a give and take kind of approach, it's got to be consistent. It's got to be ongoing. You've got to be accountable. You can't walk away from it. This is not an issue in our society, as we can tell, that you can check the box, you just can't. There's no checking the box yet. And I'm not sure if the box will be checked in my lifetime. So, you really have to find a way to be consistently doing the work. And that is a problem. What triggers these conversations? Do we have to have a seizure that is so extreme, if you will do we have to have police brutality, police murders, if you will, to get this conversation going or voter rights being threatened to have this conversation, and that's an issue. That is a serious issue.

Nathan Hunt: The article talks about the challenges our society faces from institutional, and systemic racism. It also covers income inequality, addressing climate change, and reinvigorating democracy. Ella, that feels like a lot. Do you see an intersection between these challenges that makes it possible and important to tackle all of them at once? Or should we be prioritizing between them?

Ella Bell Smith: I don't... But they're all connect aren't they? Don't you think they're all connected, Nathan? There's a systemic kind of reality to these issues when you look at them. I think digging in, we need different approaches and different people that are doing this, but we've got to maintain a conversation across the board about all these issues. It used to be a time that if you did gender work in any way in society, they would always tell you, "well, if we just focus on the women at the top, they will help all the other women", well guess what? We just get one woman in, in an organization, as a CEO, that's going to... No. We've got to look at this from a systemic point of view and understand the interconnectedness of these issues and be able to approach them in an interconnected way.

I might not be working on everything across that that article talked about, I'll probably stay in the race and gender box because that's my expertise, but I need to be talking with the others who are doing the work so that we can see how these issues and problems are connected and how, when we work and tweak something and one area, if you will, how it shows up in another area. What does the backlash look like, or what are the advantages? If I make any leeway in my area, what is happening in the other areas as well? Not a solo reality.

Nathan Hunt: In talking about corporate boards, and minority rep presentation, you have said in the past, "One single voice isn't enough. One single voice is not often heard. One single voice has to fight the tide." One of the recommendations from the article is to bring together social entrepreneurs to share ideas, and approach. Is this also an attempt to join the voices together to achieve important change?

Ella Bell Smith: Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. And to think about resources, succession is important, and how you build on the resources, if you will, becomes critically important, because what you find amongst those change agents is that they're all trying to do the same techniques, if you will. And the resources are not there. They need to have the resources, they need to build ideas. I imagine that it would be a house full of lightning bugs, for lack of another analogy. I live in North Carolina, so we always have these beautiful lightning bugs and I can see one lightning bug. One of these change agents said, they're talking about all lit up talking about what they're doing, and how they're doing it. And I can just see a beautiful lightning bug impact sharing, learning, stretching, if you will.

Those conversations working in isolation doesn't make the depth of difference that is needed to be made. We need to be able to find resources, philanthropy, to be able to support these individuals, to be able to bring them together, to be able to, not only share their stories, but to engage others to join them. What can they spark amongst others to be able to go out, have the courage, have the belief system, have the vision to go out there and make a difference? So, to me, having a leadership center where we can pull all these individuals together, let them share their ideas and see what else they can create and how we can get others to join them. That to me is urgently needed and deeply, deeply important.

Nathan Hunt: Ella, I'm going to quote you again. From an interview you did with Bloomberg earlier this year, you said, and I quote here, "Culture is the issue. How do you change the culture?" Addressing the challenges outlined in this article seem to demand a degree of cultural change, so I'm going to turn your question back to you. How do we change the culture to address these challenges?

Ella Bell Smith: Oh, my God. If I knew the answer to that Nathan, I'd be a billionaire for crying out. That's a hard, hard question because culture needs to be changed on so many levels. There's a societal level where we seem to be at a cultural war, if you will, in terms of what's right, what's not right. Who's an American, not an American, who can vote, who has a voice, what a woman can do with her body, what a woman cannot do with her body and who can maintain guns everywhere. And who says, no, we've got to relook at what our culture values. We're at war right now. And I wish I had an answer. It's very, very, as an African American woman, it's very scary for me to see how our culture is just so not even all over the place, but so separated, and so divided in understanding what America should be, what I believe America stands for.

I'm relieved to see that the numbers seem to be more in what I think America stands for, which isn't that far out of the box quite honestly I believe in an immigrant society. I think we should value that. I believe that racism is a horror. And we need to understand how white supremacy in this country dismantles chances of opportunity, and advancement, and economic security. Let's not forget economic security for people, and how that sexism does that for women, and we need to address issues so that families can maintain, and raise their children, and feel safe, and feel that the children can have a solid education. All these are important things. And to me, it's the core of growing up as a little colored girl in the Bronx, South Bronx. To me, that's the core of what America is all about, because look what I've been able to do in my life because of the American reality.

I'm not sure of the American dream per se, but there is an America where I believe opportunity is so critical. Companies on the other hand and educational institutions, and other type of organizations, they can have the opportunity to question, very simple question. What is competency? What does competency look like? Is it when we think about competency, when we think about success, when you think about those attributes, when you ask people, what are those attributes? And they basically describe a white male you've got culture work to do. We've got to recognize that there are many success stories that attributes on what competency looks like in our society, particularly, in the workplace needs to change, needs to expand, needs to take a different worldview, to be more inclusive, and to appreciate the uniquenesses, I should say, of what women and people of color bring to the table.

And to understand that particularly, as we get to be a more global society. Does that make sense? I don't think we have those conversations. I don't think enough of us are challenging what the issue is in terms of what competency, what success, who's of value here. Because when you unpack competency, you find out who's valued. And cultural change means expanding, who is valued, who is affirmed, who gets the opp... If you are valued, you get the opportunity. If you're not valued, you're going to get the opportunity. And we've got to think of that in a very broad term. And it's not just black and white. You got me wound up now. It's not just black and white. It's also people that are located in the middle of America. People who are in rural America, we've got to recognize that we've got to bring everybody along to understand this.

It's not just race, it's region, it's location. It's who has exposure, who has a quality of education, if you will. Global types of education, the rhetoric that we're hearing now about race, and education it just doesn't make any sense. It's not realistic. Nobody is teaching radical race theory to elementary school or high school students. They're just not. But we get, because we're so, this is a terrible word to say, because we're so not naive, but ignorant, the limits of our knowledge has to be increased. And we've got to take the educational institutions, the colleges, and universities, the public school system has to really do a more thorough job of understanding different versions of history, if you will, that are all real to the people who have lived in those understanding that how we make sense of the world, what are other world views, we've got tremendous work to do in reeducating, our society.

Nathan Hunt: Ella, to return to a point you had made earlier, do you think that we have lost the ability to understand the life histories of people who are different than us? Is there an empathy gap that is affecting the culture?

Ella Bell Smith: I do think some... I'm not sure that people have ever understood. I'm not sure that we understand the realities. Let me take an example from Our Separate Ways, one that taught me a powerful lesson, if you will, in understanding somebody else's reality. We interviewed two women, they both came from very poor backgrounds and rural backgrounds. One came, her mother was a sharecropper. She was raised where the father was in, and out of the family. There were younger siblings, and she worked with her mother as a sharecropper while going to school. Another one is a white woman came from dire background as well. And what was sad about her story was that her mother died at an early age when she was in high school from cancer and her mother had remarried. The stepfather was an alcoholic. So both of these girls did not come from backgrounds that were enabling and empowering per se.

But for both of these girls, they were both very smart. Both of them turned out to be valedictorians in their high school classes. For the black girl, the principal recognized how smart this girl was. Went to the mother who could not read and write and said to the mother, "Your daughter needs to go to college. She's absolutely brilliant. I'm going to pay for her college application. I need your permission", and really broke down why the daughter should go to college. And the mother agreed. But when the girl got accepted into college, she had had a full wardrobe. Everybody at the church, everybody at her school, the teachers all put money together to make sure she had a wardrobe. She had books. She had the good suitcase. She went off feeling proud. Now let's turn to the white girl. The principal knew of her dire straits as well.

Principal tells her, "You need to go get a job because nobody in your family is going to be able to afford college." She, too, was valedictorian, now. And why don't you start as a secretary, maybe you can work your way up. And in this girl's reality, she had two dresses. One she wore one while the other one was drying from being washed. She lived with her aunts, when the stepfather kind of let go of her. And the aunts took turns using her as servitude. She slipped on a cot in the kitchen and she was like Cinderella. She had to do all the cleaning of the house. She had to take care of her cousins. That was job. That was her job for them to be able to quote unquote, keep her. She didn't tell anybody at lunchtime that she didn't have money for lunch said she went to the library and read. What do these two girls learn about their lives, about how to play it forward?

Well, the black girl learns that she has nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. That people will come together and lift her... Lifted her up. So her job is to lift others up. Her job is to make sure that she pays it forward, if you will. Her job is not to look down on anyone, and to recognize that it takes a community, make a difference. What does the white girl, as a woman walk away with? Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, work as hard as you can. Relationships are not that important or valued. She's going to deter a little bit defer rather to male power, because that's where she believes the power comes from, from the males, since the aunts didn't empower her with any kind of feminine voice. And the fact that paying it forward doesn't really make a difference. The more we know about the others life, their journey, their experience, the more we can have compassion, the more we can see, all right, with the white female, I've got to work on her.

The understanding that it does take a community. That, yes, you had it really rough, but you're not by yourself. You're not alone anymore. To get her to have more empathy, more compassion. I think we think that leadership comes when you get anointed. We forget that our life journeys, if you will, those experiences, those events, are stories throughout our life journeys. Those are the things, those are the... That's what matters if you will in shaping us as leaders. So, yes, we do need to be able to share stories, but you just can't do stories. You both have got to change the oppressive structures. You got to do more than here's my story. You've got to put change. You've got to match the story with the structural dismantling of the obstacles.

Nathan Hunt: Ella, one final question. You've described yourself in the past as an auntie, which is a specific role in the black community. I've got an auntie in my life, a wonderful woman and an activist named Jackie Peltzer. As you say, an auntie is someone who gives you a hug when you need it and a kick in the ass when you need that too. When you were a pro approach, your contribution to this article, would you say that you were giving America the hug it needed or the kick in the ass it needed?

Ella Bell Smith: Well, that's a easy one! That's the easiest question you asked me! A kick in the ass. I mean, I think the idea was to keep me calm. I can't talk for all the others, but I think there was a true call for kick in the ass, and trying to temper that because don't forget while we're writing this, there are all these issues around voting rights going on. There is still, no, the capital is taken over. So, it's like, "Whoa, we've got to get this out." There was an urgency for all of us, but I felt the urgency. It was like, "What can we do? Will this really make a difference?" Pulling back on the kick in the ass, and saying, "Wait a minute, that's just going to alienate the groups that we're trying to reach. For me, that was a big question because I'm all for kicking the butt.

And it was like, "No, you can't do that." Somebody would say, "No, you can't do that because that's part of alien..." I was like, "I don't care." It's a hard thing to do because for me, I'm so passionately caught up in these issues because I've lived many of them, not all of them, but I've lived many of them in my 72 years. So, as a result, I'm kicking and screaming and yelling and deep in my heart. I know that won't make a difference. Deep in my heart, I know people that don't see the world the same way as I do. And they're not evil. They're not mean people. We just have very, very different views. And it's hard not to demonize people that have such a strong stance, different from you.

You want to kick them in the butt, but you can't demonize them because when you demonize them, you lose them. You lose the possibility of making a difference. And that's why the change agents in this article are so important because somehow they have been able to rise above demonizing. They have been able to hold onto their compassion, their intention, and their commitment to making a difference. And that's why fostering development of people who want to make a difference who have that wonderful capacity to make a difference. How do we spread their message? How do we create more individuals like that is a key key question, because a kick in the butt is not going to give us a change that we really need to have in our society. It's not going to change who we are.

Nathan Hunt: The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kirk Berger and Camille McManus. For more research and insight from S&P Global, please visit spglobal.com/subscribe. From the majestic heights of 55 Water Street in Manhattan, I am Nathan Hunt. Thank you for listening.