Julie Smith | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Building Relationships in the Community
By Karen Rosen
Even as a third-grader, Julie Smith was drawn to politics. On a family visit to Washington D.C., a White House tour made a lasting impression.
“I remember the Secret Service actually saying, ‘Yes, Ronald Reagan’s here today. He’s in the Oval Office right now,’” Smith says. “I was just in awe. So I always was interested in politics.”
She returned to the nation’s capital after college to begin her career, eventually segueing out of the political realm and into television. For the past seven years, Smith has worked in the telecommunications industry in a role that allows her to apply what she learned in public service to the private sector.
Smith is vice president of external affairs, South area, for Verizon Communications. She is responsible for directing charitable contributions, community involvement, communications, and government affairs in eight states: Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
“Even though I’m not doing politics now, my career has been kind of a domino effect,” Smith says. “One thing led to the next and these opportunities have been all sort of ‘pinch me’ jobs.
“I wake up and think, ‘Wow, do I really get to do this for a living? I get to meet and work with some extraordinary people.’”
Smith’s job is primarily to represent Verizon in the community. She coordinates philanthropic work through the Verizon Foundation, one of the largest corporate foundations in the country.
“It’s all about relationship building, and that was something that I did in politics,” Smith says. “The skill set that I learned in politics very much prepared me for what I do now.”
Last year in addition to her work in government and community affairs, Smith managed about 160 Verizon Foundation grants awarding approximately $2 million in the company’s South area.. Verizon’s total investment is actually much higher and it includes a robust employee matching program.
“Over the course of my seven years at Verizon, I have helped manage over $10 million of Verizon’s charitable contributions in the South,” Smith says.
Some of the organizations in Georgia include Project Safe in Athens, Partnership Against Domestic Violence in Atlanta, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Reach Scholarship Program, TechBridge and TAG-Ed.
Broad focus areas include domestic violence prevention, healthcare and STEM education, especially as it relates to mobile technology and improving the learning environment.
“I take the responsibility of being a steward of Verizon’s resources very seriously as I work on their behalf in the community,” Smith says. “Working in politics taught me how I represent my boss. When I’m identifying those organizations that we want to support or when I’m talking to an elected official, I realize that I am representing the company. Verizon has a great reputation and part of my job is to make sure that continues.”
Verizon has 180,000 employees globally and 6,000 in Georgia, making it one of the largest employers in north Fulton County. The company recently announced that it is creating about 430 positions within Verizon Wireless in Georgia, mostly in metro Atlanta. Verizon’s telematics business, headquartered in Sandy Springs, is adding an additional 250 jobs.
“We’re growing,” Smith says. “As you look across the South, Atlanta is growing so rapidly and it’s a very important market for Verizon.”
Through her work in politics, Smith learned the value of partnerships. She understood early on that it is essential to partner with elected officials, for example, when making job creation announcements, such as Verizon did at the state capitol with Gov. Nathan Deal.
However, she’s not a lobbyist. While members of the 12-person state government affairs organization for Verizon handle that duty, Smith does her part to get the word out about the company’s investment and innovation.
“We invested $278 million in capital in the state of Georgia last year,” Smith says, “so we are always educating elected officials about the work that we do and about the networks that Verizon is providing.”
As part of Smith’s philanthropic work with the Verizon Foundation, she decides which non-profits to support. Smith does research and also hears of worthy groups via word of mouth and focuses on building partnerships to benefit the community.
“We’re not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” she says. “It’s about identifying those non-profits that are doing the best work in areas we believe we can have the greatest impact so that we can go in and the dollars we invest can really make an impact in the community.”
“How many victims were able to get away from their abuser because of some support that we’ve given? How many students are more interested in science because of a program that we supported? How many more teachers know how to use mobile technology in the classroom in an effective way?”
With an average grant between $10,000 and $20,000, an organization can only get funding from Verizon for three years in a row, and then must sit out a year.
“We want people to appreciate our funding,” Smith says, “but we never want them to be dependent on that funding because from year to year things could change.”
Proud to be a native Georgian, Smith was born in Athens and raised in Conyers. She worked on political campaigns in high school, starting with Nancy Schaefer’s 1994 bid to become lieutenant governor. Smith shadowed Schaefer’s campaign manager for exposure to the campaign trail.
Moving on to the University of Georgia, Smith says, “I chose political science when I first figured out that there was such a thing. I declared my major my freshman year at Georgia and stuck with it.”
She continued working on campaigns and her junior year gained experience and contacts during an internship with the Georgia General Assembly.
Smith was a legislative aide for a Sharon Trense, who was then representing North Fulton.
“They don’t have full-time staff, so the aides really provide a lot of value to the legislators during the session,” Smith said.
She also worked on Guy Millner’s Senate campaign during the summer of 1996. Millner offered Smith a full-time job, but she decided it would not be a wise move to leave school for part of her sophomore year.
Millner didn’t make it into a Congressional office, but Smith did.
The day after graduation, she was on her way to Capitol Hill. Smith found a job through connections she’d made at the General Assembly. Ralph Hudgens, then a state legislator and now the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner, passed her resume to Rep. Bob Barr.
Smith was the staff assistant, answering phones, opening mail and greeting visitors. She also gave Capitol tours to constituents, encountering wide-eyed third-graders like she once was.
Smith would point out the ornate features of the building and talk about the excitement of what was happening inside the walls.
“It was always fun to take families and kids on tours,” Smith says, “hoping that they too would be inspired.”
After about nine months in Barr’s office, Smith accepted a promotion to work with Deal as legislative correspondent, and subsequently legislative assistant. She worked on issues related to Deal’s committee work, including immigration, education, environment and energy issues – practically everything except telecommunications.
But Smith grew restless. “I came to a point where I decided, ‘Do I want to stay here forever and make a career in Washington, or do I want to go back home to Georgia, my home that I love?’” she says.
Three years after moving to Washington, Smith was back on her old turf. She wanted to see a formidable Republican not only run against Roy Barnes, but also win. “I felt like the right candidate could. So I came home and started working on Sonny Perdue’s campaign for governor.”
Smith knew Perdue only by reputation.
“All my friends in Washington thought I was crazy, that I was leaving this great job in Congress to come home and work for Sonny Perdue,” she says.
Smith was deputy finance director, helping Perdue raise money.
“Roy was so entrenched as the incumbent, so every penny we raised we had to work so incredibly hard for,” she says.
Smith stayed with Perdue as director of external affairs, working on his public events and serving as liaison to community organizations.
She planned local events for President Bush and was the liaison to the King family for the funeral of Coretta Scott King, who was given the honor of lying in state at the capitol.
“No matter what was going on from a high-profile standpoint, I usually found myself in the middle of it,” Smith says.
Looking back on her time in public service, Smith says Mrs. King’s funeral was not only the most poignant moment she experienced, but also the most historically significant.
“When Dr. King was assassinated, the state did not do anything to honor him officially,” Smith says, “so this was really an opportunity for the state of Georgia to pay honor to the King family in a way that had not previously been done for Dr. King.”
Smith transitioned out of politics when Perdue was elected to a second term.
“He was the best boss that I could ever ask for,” she says. “I had so much respect for him and didn’t want to leave him, but I just felt like career-wise it was time for me to go on to do something different after eight years in politics.”
A colleague whose mother worked as a consultant for Fox News in New York told Smith they were looking for an audience producer for the network’s new syndicated morning show.
“Getting to see how live television is produced up close and personal was very eye-opening and intriguing,” Smith says, “however I learned very quickly that I didn’t want to work in live television. I like to watch it, not produce it.”
After six months in the high-stress job, Smith moved home without any prospects. She wasn’t unemployed for long, though. A mentor she’d known since her General Assembly days was the contract lobbyist for Verizon and recommended Smith for the job in external and community affairs.
About two years later Smith was promoted – right about the same time the Fox morning show was canceled – and transferred to Tampa. Smith was chosen by the U.S. Navy to participate in the Distinguished Visitor Program and spent 24 hours aboard the USS Enterprise CVN-65 while out at sea, including an arrested landing and catapult off the carrier.
With Alpharetta the South area headquarters for Verizon Wireless, it made sense for Smith to come home once again.
“All roads lead back to Georgia,” she said.
Smith lives in Atlanta and is a member and volunteer at Buckhead Church.
She’s prepping for a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, to visit a friend who works for a non-profit serving the massive Kibera Slum.
“With the work that I do in the U.S. with non-profits, I’m hoping to be exposed to what goes on overseas,” Smith says.
She also serves on the corporate leadership council for Fernbank Museum of Natural History, was the program chair for the Partnership Against Domestic Violence’s Domestic Violence in the Workplace Committee and is a member of the Board of Visitors for the School of Public and International Affairs at UGA.
“I enjoy talking to college students, especially those interested in politics, “Smith said. “I remember how important the advice that I received was and the mentorships that I had.”
Working for Verizon gives Smith a chance to interact with the public in a way she had not expected. People ask her to fix their cell phone or explain unfamiliar charges on their bill.
“No matter where you work inside Verizon, you do customer service for a living,” she says.
“I don’t have access to customer data, but I do get them in touch with the right customer service team member who can respond or resolve their issues.”
But Smith does sometimes take a crack at fixing a phone.
“It’s funny,” she said. “After seven years working for the company, I’ve become a bit of an expert. At least, I’ll say, ‘Let’s try powering it off and turning it back on and see if that helps.’”
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