What I’ve Learned: Gillian Smith ’95

She seemed to have a dream marketing career wielding multimillion-dollar budgets for brands like Coca-Cola and Burger King. So why did Gillian Smith trade big budgets (and perks) for the unheralded nonprofit world?

The phone rings in Gillian Smith ’95’s office. Actually, two landlines are ringing—one in Boston and one in Miami. In her role as chief marketing officer for City Year, Smith always seems to be in two or more places at once. “Technically, I work remotely from my home in Miami,” she says. “But our headquarters are in Boston, where I am now.” Sometimes she’s not in either place. Last week she was in Detroit. Two weeks from now she’ll be in Seattle. The woman who led award-winning marketing campaigns for Burger King and Coca-Cola and who was recognized as a Woman to Watch by Advertising Age and as an Online All-Star by MediaPost is now flying under the corporate radar—by choice. She travels 100,000 miles a year to raise awareness for what City Year does (provide small-group one-on-one educational support in schools with low graduation rates) and why they do it (because education is the critical factor in helping students reach their full potential and in achieving economic mobility). If that sounds a lot more complex than a BK value menu, then you’re falling right in line with Smith’s unpredictable footsteps.

My marketing career was an accident. I studied political science and German at Rollins, which led to my one-year Fulbright experience in Germany, which led to an internship with Coca-Cola there, which led to a full-time marketing job. If it hadn’t been for the Fulbright, I have no idea what I’d be doing now. I even met my husband in Germany.

Inmates were an even bigger influence. During my sophomore year at Rollins I taught literacy at the Orange County Correctional Facility. At first I thought it was a nice idea, a way to give back. I was naïve, with a lot of stereotypes and fear. But I met incredible people whose lives had been derailed simply because they didn’t know how to read and write. That experience shaped my choices down the road.

My per diem now is about $20 a day. I have no problem with that. At Burger King, I was overseeing $350 million in spending, so you can imagine the restaurants where partners were taking me. But I never placed a lot of value on the perks. I make decisions based on the best thing for the business or organization. Integrity and how you treat people have always been paramount. That’s something I never forgot from my community involvement and overseas studies while at Rollins.

Our values are more than words on a wall. At City Year, we live and breathe our values. I work with some of the smartest, most driven people I’ve ever known. Improving the future for kids is in our DNA. That’s why we choose to do this. I can tell you it isn’t for the financial benefits.

The concept of success to me isn’t financial. It isn’t owning a European car or a huge house. At Rollins we were always challenged to think of how we were equipped to change the world—in our neighborhoods or a continent away. Success is about how you are making a positive impact in the world around you.

Nonprofit work is incredibly challenging. The stakes are much higher than selling more burgers and fries. We’re tackling the world’s most pressing issues, like the fallout from economical and educational gaps. It’s a huge task with enormous consequences, and the problems are very complex and multi-dimensional. But the public’s expectations for nonprofits are that you’ll create results without the financial resources or rewards. You have to be very creative.

There was no marketing budget when I came to City Year in 2011. So we decided to let students impact others with their stories on Twitter, using #MakeBetterHappen. In the first year of the campaign, the awareness of City Year among college students nationwide went from 25 percent to 51 percent. The stories have gotten nearly 20 million impressions. I pull them up every day as inspiration.

My best advice for students? Take time now, before you have a family and responsibilities, to volunteer and find what you’re passionate about.

That’s the beauty of Rollins. The curriculum includes real-world opportunities. Many businesses now weave corporate social responsibility into their culture—and consumers are demanding it. So Rollins graduates are set up to parlay their social experiences and a college degree to leapfrog others and carve a personal career path—or, like me, to find one by accident.