Wanda Smith is the founder and CEO of Symphony Placements, a full-service staffing firm in the Baltimore Metro area. Service areas Symphony fills include accounting, legal, human resources, and administration. In 2014, the company was listed on the Inc. 5000, which ranks the fastest growing private companies in America.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard you were a finalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award?
WANDA SMITH: When I think of this award, I get a bit teary eyed, because here’s this little kid from Point of Rocks who didn’t go to college. I have a high school degree. I worked hard—this is my 52nd year of working. I started at 7 babysitting, but with a paycheck at 16 after school. For me, to be considered as a finalist for such a prestigious award, I’ve already won.
Q. It sounds like you started your career rather young.
A. I was a young entrepreneur. I lived in a rural area. My father ended up with a 7th Grade education because back in those days—in the 1940s—you could work and you helped to feed your siblings and worked on the farm. I ended up staying in Point of Rocks until I became a middle schooler, but I did get to join the Girl Scouts. My entrepreneurial role started with babysitting at 50 cents an hour, sometimes five children, because families were big back then. I would also pedal around my bicycle and sell green beans and tomatoes and cabbage. I remember my mother and father telling me, when I was in high school, to be a secretary for my mother. “Be a secretary. Be a secretary because you’ll always have a job.”
My daddy said, “I’m not going to send you to college, total waste of money, total waste of money. You’re just going to get married and have lots of kids. I am not going to throw money away on you going to college.” I got married at 18 to my high school sweetheart, who passed away in 1996 after 31 years of marriage.
Q. What were you doing when you decided to venture out on your own as an entrepreneur?
I was at Mary Kraft [Staffing and HR Solutions]. I had just decided I wanted to leave management, and I wanted to go back to running a desk and being an old time headhunter. I wasn’t with Mary very long when she decided she would like me to start her healthcare division. So I started it, but then I received a phone call from my son. He owns a construction business, was in a partnership, and he called his mom and asked me to come to work for him. So, I gave two weeks’ notice to Mary Kraft and went to work in a construction company, wearing a pair of blue jeans and a sweatshirt, and became the controller of his company. Two and a half years later I finally decided I could leave them.
Q. How did you finance your business at the beginning?
I used a home equity loan on a townhome I owned in Owings Mill. That was $200,000. I took an additional $100,000 from my savings, and that’s what I started to fund the company with. I rented a space on York Road in 2006, starting with very, very meager surroundings. The only thing in my gameplan was that I was going to make a phone call to all these old customers of mine two and a half years before. I was going to give them a call and say, “Guess who owns her own firm?” Except all of those people had left and I couldn’t track them down. So I had to go back up, knocking on doors and trying, “Hi, I am Wanda Smith, I do staffing. Here I am.” And that’s what I did.
Q. Symphony is highly involved in philanthropy. What motivates you to give back to the community?
A. I try to give forward. I like that expression as opposed to “giving back.” One of my favorite charities is Casey Cares. A few years ago I was watching a TV show called “The Millionaire,” which featured the organization. I had never heard of Casey Cares, and when I found out this charity was homegrown, grassroots, taking care of critically ill children and providing a lot of joy for not only the sick child but their caretakers, siblings, and extended family, I immediately wanted to get involved.
So, I had an annual Christmas party and one of the things I asked in handouts, in the invitation, was to forego the bottle of wine for me but bring a pair of pajamas. We dedicated a tree and all my guests were able to hang a pair of pajamas on the tree for Casey Cares. We collected hopefully 175 pairs. The next year I again asked for donations, but I got a little bit more bold and asked for money to stick in the stockings on the tree. We had just under 200 people. We raised $7500 of cash and gave almost 300 pairs of pajamas to the critically ill kids.
I now sit on the board and I am cheering on the golf tournament that’s going to be in June. It’s an area where it really makes you feel good to be able to create and do, and to see the children and see the sparkle in their eyes even just a pair of character pajamas to a little sick kid in the hospital. How can you get a better feeling than that? How can you? You can’t. I also work with Pathfinders for Autism and worked very closely where developed six experienced mentors that came in and we enjoyed a day of uplifting. It was a great day. We raised about $71,000 for the charity. I also sit on some other boards and work with the trade schools. I’m even talking at CCBC [Cooperative Children’s Book Center] next week. I think that you live a certain way and you’re rewarded for it.