Power Women: Ann Smith of A.wordsmith On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman
An Interview With Ming Zhao
An ability to relate with others. As a powerful woman, you will interact with powerful men — and other powerful women! Having the ability to relate and connect while never compromising on who you are is important. Understand football, order a cocktail, carry a conversation and speak with conviction…if you believe what you’re saying others will too!
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ann Smith.
Ann Smith is the founder and owner of A.wordsmith, a boutique communications firm in Portland, Oregon that has been titled one of the top firms in the area consecutively for the past four years. With two decades worth of strategic communications experience Ann has worked in both agency and corporate settings, Ann thrives at building strong partnerships with her clients, connecting them with their target audiences and delivering exceptional results. Ann has crafted a work-life balance that leaves room for her to be passionate about many things, including her family, loud country music concerts, adrenaline-pumping Burncycle rides and St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
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 childhood “backstory”?
I am from a very small town in the southeastern corner of Oregon. Technically I actually grew up about an hour outside of my “hometown.” That’s right, my commute to and from school every day was 50 minutes during good weather and a whopping hour and a half during the winter when the closest road snows in. My family owns a large cattle ranch and I grew up on the back of a horse from the time I could straddle a saddle and driving on country roads as soon as my foot could reach the pedal. I’m very proud of where I’m from and will forever be a small-town girl at heart. My upbringing absolutely instilled in me a strong work ethic that I carry with me to this day. During my middle school years my family built a guest resort on our property and I started waiting tables in 7th grade. I always say that waiting tables is a great foray into public relations as it teaches you about the power of relationships, creating an exceptional experience for your customer and leaving them feeling so satisfied they’ll keep coming back for more.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I have always loved writing and I was also a track and cross-country runner in high school. The combination of those early passions led me to the University of Oregon (aka Track Town USA) and its school of journalism and communication. I didn’t know anything about PR prior to entering the program but a great professor changed all of that and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an emphasis in PR.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Oh wow. Well, I suppose it was getting laid off in 2009 during the economic crisis. I was 8 months pregnant at the time (not an ideal time to be on the job hunt during an economic recession) and a week later was asked by my former boss to freelance for that same company that let me go. From there I started networking and bringing in new PR projects and the rest is really history. That was the impetus for starting my firm A.wordsmith which is now one of the top communication agencies in Portland. We have worked with more than 200 clients around the world over the past 12 years and the thrill of seeing “what’s next around the corner” continues to keep me excited about each new day.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Tenacity- I am faced with obstacles every day that could immediately thwart my forward progress, but instead I am in the habit of pausing and considering, “What are my options? How can I make this work?” Where there’s a will there’s a way!
Loyalty- Maybe it’s coming from a small town, or maybe it’s just my DNA but I love my people. I will stand up for and by them come rain or shine and I trust they would do the same for me.
Bravery- I have a quote by Mark Twain up in my office which sums this up perfectly: “Go out on a limb. There’s where the fruit is.”
The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
I’m raising two daughters who are tough as nails and I remind myself constantly that even as challenging as it can feel as a parent at times, their strength is the most beautiful thing about them. I think women still face an uphill battle when it comes to being seen as strong versus bossy or bitchy or unlikeable. Men are touted for being strong while women are still expected to stay in their lanes when it comes to what they say, how they say it and to whom. I don’t believe there’s an easy or one-size-fits-all answer to why this is as it’s based on years of stereotyping, societal expectations, character portrayals and unfortunately political and governmental decision making on behalf of women.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I had a business coach once who was an older white man. He was working with me and our firm’s vice president — another woman. It came to my attention that he was trying to play us against each other by saying negative things to me about her and vice versa. He was hired to help move our business move forward, certainly not to get involved with interpersonal relationships and try to create a rift that didn’t even exist.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
In our firm, we all take DiSC personality profiles to asses and understand our own preferences when it comes to human interaction. These are extremely helpful in knowing how to relate most successfully with others. I am such a strong D (dominant) personality that my dot is barely on the graph. When I got the results, my initial reaction was a bit horrified as I wondered if I might be a terrible person. Of course, there is no right or wrong personality style; however, it can be helpful for powerful women (or men) with strong dominant styles to be mindful of how we might be received by people with different styles. This isn’t to say that any woman should shy away from her power, but to be most effective in working with others it can be helpful to remember that if you’re coming across really strong you could be causing someone (male or female) to have a fear-based response if that is not how they best receive information. This can actually cause their limbic nervous system to light up, putting them into fight of flight mode and while you may feel like you’re communicating as directly and clearly as possible, their brain could be short-circuiting and literally not hearing a thing you say. That ultimately doesn’t set anyone up for success.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
Keep showing up! Representation is so important and there is a growing number of strong, powerful women in the public eye. Women and girls of all ages have role models to look up to and I think the more we can relate to others with similar viewpoints and opinions, the more courageous we will all be about not only living our own truth but also earning respect from those around us.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women have to work twice as hard to earn the same respect and success as men. Women must consider more details than our male counterparts — whether that’s what we wear, how we carry ourselves or the tone we use to make a point. While it isn’t fair, my advice is to do everything we can to fight that battle by showing up prepared, professional, and ready to do the work. It’s hard for anyone to argue with that.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
Balancing a career and family is absolutely a challenge. However, I truly believe that as women we can and should have it all, whatever “all” looks like to each of us. For me personally, my career is very important and I believe that it makes me a better human and mom. Owning my own business has actually given me more freedom when it comes to ensuring everything and everyone gets the time and attention they deserve. While being a business owner means the work never truly stops and completely shutting off on vacation is nearly impossible, it’s ok, because my firm is my baby — clearly not the same as my living, breathing “babies” but I would do anything to make sure it survives and thrives so putting in extra time isn’t a burden, it’s a privilege. On the flip side, my daughters come first. I love watching them compete in their respective sports so will always do what I can to make the game or meet, even if that means getting back online later that evening or over the weekend. Again, do what it takes to truly have it all!
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
A few years ago, we brought an outside consultant in to a team offsite to talk about the power that comes with looking your best. She focused on clothing, accessories and makeup and how each of these things can seem silly or superficial, but the reality is that they have a meaningful impact on our own mental state, feeling of empowerment and like it or not, how we are perceived by others. The last year has been rough on my closet. So much of what fit before March of 2020 seems like it will never be the right size again. I found it was becoming demoralizing just to look in my closet and try to choose something to wear to the office once a week. One Saturday a few weekends ago I went in and just gathered everything up that I knew I would never want to wear, or be able to wear, again and marched all of those items straight to Goodwill. Clearing out those items from my “past” gave me a new outlook on the “future” and creating a wardrobe and style that feels right and good to me now.
How is this similar or different for men?
It’s hard for me to say for sure but I do believe that men may be less inclined to spruce up their style or wardrobe, but when they do, they also feel (and look) great!
Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A thick skin. You will get told no; you will be disrespected; you will be challenged. These outside opinions and experiences don’t define you. Have the ability to feel it, learn from it and keep going.
- A strong belief in self. I’m thankful to have been raised in family that made me work hard and was always proud of everything I did and believed in me to do it bigger and better next time. My dad always said, “remember who you are what you represent.”
- An ability to relate with others. As a powerful woman, you will interact with powerful men — and other powerful women! Having the ability to relate and connect while never compromising on who you are is important. Understand football, order a cocktail, carry a conversation and speak with conviction…if you believe what you’re saying others will too!
- A mental toughness. Knowing what you want to do, and believing in yourself to do it is important. Things will get hard and there will inevitability be failures and fears. When the pandemic hit, none of us knew what that meant for business or even our own personal lives. After a period of fear and a bit of in trepidation it was important to set goals and chart a path forward. I still have a sticky note on my desk that I wrote last April that reads, “One year from now, how do I want to be remembered as a leader?” Stay strong, find ways to release the stress and put one foot in front of another the next day.
- A sense of humor. I own a PR firm and a common expression is “it’s PR not ER.” Keep perspective, laugh out loud and surround yourself by those who make life worth living.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Dolly Parton, for proving that with hard work, heart and personal conviction, small town country girls can truly change the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.