Female Disruptors: Dr Cynthia Smith Of Minds of the Future Academy On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
“Never Give Up” — Those 3 words can shake up the dynamics of anything. As a serial entrepreneur and educator there are days that you really want to throw the towel in. Sometimes things happen beyond the scope of one’s control. I believe those 3 words specifically help me along the way to also stay focused on my goals. Further, I think if it was easy everyone would do it! I believe it is important to have words to live by and for me these words have played a major role in the determination for who I am today and what I desire to continue to strive to achieve.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Cynthia Smith.
If the word “dynamo” was a person, it would be Dr. Cynthia Smith. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Smith has built a career on turning no’s into “Nobody can stop me!” After graduating from Andrew Jackson High School on Jacksonville’s East Side, Smith completed Education and Curriculum degrees at The University of North Florida with honors. As a first-generation college graduate, Smith kept going, eventually earning a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University, and achieving this feat before turning forty while working full-time and managing her active family. Smith’s dissertation focused on research about young men of color and college completion.
Dr. Smith has a proven legacy of impact, from mentoring at-risk youth in reading, writing and math to promote high school completion to achieving district records for improvement in statewide test scores to leading dramatic school turnaround teams in some of Jacksonville’s most challenging communities. Disillusioned as she waited for a much-deserved school principal role, Smith decided to transition her talents to early learning, launching early learning centers. When her beloved childcare facility burned down, Smith pivoted, purchasing and renovating two buildings across from her high school, launching Minds of the Future Academy and establishing a multi-campus STEAM VPK-2nd grade private school.
She spurred an economic renaissance in East Jacksonville, mentoring other black owned business owners throughout the community. Smith continues to consult and is a serial entrepreneur, launching an event space and expanding the school to offer K-12 and after school enrichment. Smith is proud mom to LJ, one of the South’s hottest djs, and Aubrey; wife to Dan, and inspiration to all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was in college studying Psychology as I wanted to be a therapist one day. While going to school I was working at the public school system as a bookkeeper. I never really had a strong desire to be an educator but working in different schools I saw there was a need to have someone to work with our future generation to not only bring them academic excellence but love and care. Once I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I decided that I would give teaching a try while obtaining my master’s degree in Counseling. My first teaching job was at my high school, Andrew Jackson. I was hired as a 9th grade English teacher. I was only 22 years old and most of the kids were almost my age. I definitely had some challenges, but I had a strong foundation of educational mentors within the school they helped develop me beyond being just a novice teacher. Within receiving my master’s within two years, I had lost my job 3 times for failure to pass my certification exams, been to more than 3 schools, had the highest student gains on the state exam for 3 consecutive years and a host of other challenges and all that made me want to pursue being an educator! I was not only involved in the classroom, I became involved in students’ lives outside of school, attending student activities, becoming a teacher for various afterschool activities and eventually seeking leadership training to become an administrator. I remember the day I found out I was conferred to graduate with my master’s degree, I went to my professor, and I cried- I realized at that moment I had just gone to school for a degree I would never use. I have been an educator ever since!
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Education is a disruptive job globally. As it pertains to the work I’ve done specifically, I worked for a school district for more than 16 years in various civil service to administrative positions. I had the desire to one day lead my own school. The district failed to promote me despite glaring and dramatic gains in every school I worked for, I flipped the script and created my own STEM school and learning community in an underrepresented area not known for having prominent programs for students. Not to mention, our students are 93% top percentile for performing at or above their grade level and they are learning STEM concepts that will take them beyond the traditional education. Disruption is necessary and needed now more than ever to ensure diversity of ideas & of impact.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My mentors are people I know personally and some I have never seen and the impact they have made on my being today has been influential in my personal and professional growth. I remember when I was applying to the administrative leadership program, I did a mock interview with my mentor (who is now the Campus president in South Florida) i thought I was interviewing well because she was taking note, I didn’t know she was making tally marks of how many times I said “umm”. That did something to me and for me- it made me more aware of how I speak and mindful of when to use silence. Ron Clark, I had the opportunity to meet him and visit his school in Atlanta Ga, he is a huge inspiration for me. Prior to meeting him, I had no idea of the impact he made in that community. I was able to see students directly and see how a nontraditional education has developed their life. Further, I took my staff and to hear them say to me “Dr. Smith, this is the same stuff you tell us” Is confirmation to me that I am on the right track. My most favorite mentor and my greatest inspiration is Oprah Winfrey, although I have never met her and totally desire to one day, her books, magazines and network ALL inspire me to continue to strive for my highest potential every day. Oprah is also a huge advocate for education. What she believes “ Education is the key to unlocking the world, freedom is the passport” is closely aligned to the belief I lead with every day “Education is something no one can take from you”
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
In regard to who I am, “The Educated Educator” disruption can be positive or negative. It can be disruptive when implementing a new curriculum, standard or policy. However, these same things can be positive as there is not a one size fits all approach. Many times, there are extenuating factors that play a role in disruption. A new curriculum can be disruptive especially for teachers that are just learning a curriculum or for a student that is high performing on a curriculum. A standard or a policy can be very disruptive because these are not created for everyone. An example would be “No child left behind” which is meant to increase accountability, but it causes disruption because it leaves students behind. This disruption was NOT positive as it was seen as a relentless focus measuring students’ ability with test scores.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Never Give Up”
Those 3 words can shake up the dynamics of anything. As a serial entrepreneur and educator there are days that you really want to throw the towel in. Sometimes things happen beyond the scope of one’s control. I believe those 3 words specifically help me along the way to also stay focused on my goals. Further, I think if it was easy everyone would do it! I believe it is important to have words to live by and for me these words have played a major role in the determination for who I am today and what I desire to continue to strive to achieve.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I have a desire to write a book. However, before publishing my book my goal is to produce my very own documentary, I am a visual learner and I believe giving my audience a visual representation of who I am and where I am from will engage them to know more about the “Educated Educator”
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women are underrepresented in the top ranks of leadership roles in government, administration, and business, etc., I believe the biggest challenge is that women are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and facing persistent gender stereotypes, women are systematically placed on an uneven playing field. We must work much harder and be very persistent when overcoming barriers that sets us apart from our counterparts.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I am in the process of writing my book. I have two in publication right now.
“The Educated Educator” — This book is more documentary based on my educational experiences and why those experiences I had shaped who I am today in every aspect of my life including my personal relationships with my spouse, family, and friends.
“Black Boys II Black Men ‘’ — This book is an extension of my dissertation, centered on the academic achievement of African American males in secondary education. It delves into the lack of achievement black males have encompassed and how that plays a role later in life destroying relationships and inabilities to be successful.
“The Educated Entrepreneur” — This book shares my journey of being an entrepreneur. It can also serve as a guide for aspiring and experienced entrepreneurs. It is a hard look at what being an educator means and how to take risks and still be on top financially.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I have the desire to expand my STEM school in my community and eventually franchise locations around the world to give students the opportunity to foster creativity and divergent thinking alongside fundamental disciplines. A STEM education motivates and inspires young people to generate new technologies and ideas. I have seen and believe that if we provide an education to children that is well-rounded, we are developing the whole child to prepare them for success in their future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take”
I believe this quote to have been so essential to someone that was leaving a place of comfort and stability. When I resigned from teaching in 2015 I was afraid of the unknown. I knew there were things I knew for sure; I worked hard, I was educated, and I had a vision. I was not prepared for the challenges that came with being an entrepreneur as well as unforeseen issues on the business side, I was an Educator! There were ALOT of times I had to take shots not knowing what the return would be, examples, engaging parents and the community to believe in my vision, meeting with potential investors for my school, to get their buy-in and support etc. Almost everyone can succeed as long as they keep trying by taking the most realistic approach possible. Failure is guaranteed when we avoid taking the first step out of fear of failing.
How can our readers follow you online?
Facebook: Dr. Jax Smith
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!