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Sept. 27, 2021Print | PDF
Our alumni consistently tell us about the importance of being intentional in where they chose to study and their career choices. Thinking about where you want to be and what impact you want to make can help you focus on what matters. That idea of intention is something alumna Jennifer Smith knows a great deal about.
Today, Smith is the Director of Product Management for Google Cloud at the tech giant’s Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener, Ontario. Her path to Google is filled with intentional choices that helped her adapt to change.
For 17 years, Smith rose through the ranks of cinema technology pioneer Christie Digital to become their Executive Vice President of Product Management & Engineering. During her time at Christie Digital, Smith chose to return to school and earn an Executive Master’s in Technology Management (EMTM) at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.
Smith was looking to round out her general management skills and was considering an MBA. But living in the tech world, she found that while MBA programs had a broad business perspective, they missed something. That something was a focus on entrepreneurship. “When I came across at the Executive Master’s in Technology Management program, it stood out as unique unto itself for being able to help leaders in technology think about why that space is different and how to keep evolving,” said Smith.
The program had the right combination for Smith – a business degree with a focus on technology. “It just hit the sweet spot. For me, when you have a pedigree like that, when you have the commitment of the university to create that unique program in the true spirit of Waterloo Region, it was the right place, and so I made that choice.”
In 2018, Smith took a new challenge as Senior Vice President of Technology & Operations with Cineplex. It was an opportunity to put her experience from Christie Digital and learnings from the Lazaridis School into enhancing cinema experiences for movie lovers across Canada.
At Cineplex, Smith had to make some tough choices about her career due to two unique challenges. First, in 2019, Cineplex announced it was going to be purchased by British cinema operator Cineworld Group. The purchase was approved in February 2020 – one month before movie theatres across Canada would be shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The number one primary concern was always about the safety of everyone – staff and employees, patrons, and partners,” said Smith. “It was safety first and then we’ll sort through business pieces afterwards.”
The pandemic meant movie theatres needed to be closed to protect public health – but it wasn’t clear how long that would last. “It was just chaos. Things were changing almost hourly, so you were making plans and an hour later, you had to change those plans, because something had happened,” said Smith. Having theatres across the country meant dealing with a mix of federal, provincial, and regional public health directives. Smith and the executive team were managing from Cineplex’s Toronto head office. “There was all this synchronization to keep track of all these things that were happening. It’s a testament to how the organization runs itself.”
Smith’s family regularly went to the movies, so the impact was both professional and personal. “To see the theaters closed down, it was heartbreaking. But to date, a year later there hasn’t been a single COVID-19 scenario or situation attributed to the theater environments across the globe – not just in Canada – but across the globe. The organizations globally come together to ensure public safety, especially when something like this happens, so I think they deserve kudos for that as well.”
With movie theatres closed, with no reopening in sight, and the Cineworld acquisition closing in February of 2020, Smith realized she wouldn’t be able to do the things that she wanted to do at Cineplex. Having a solid connection to Canadian tech, Smith sought out new opportunities and found one that met her requirements at the Google office in Kitchener. Her role on the Google Cloud team allows Smith to work on a product going up against Amazon, the market leader in the space.
Smith’s choice of Google was intentional for another reason. Google supports community and educational initiatives in the communities in which they have offices. One of the company’s goals is to encourage more women and young girls interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. It’s a passion for Smith and something she aspires to be better at inside each organization she’s worked at.
She said that businesses are doing more than they have in the past, but there’s still so much more work to be done. Smith said it starts with how the company hires. “You have to be intentional about really building diverse teams,” said Smith. “It’s not one of these things that just naturally happen. Businesses need to take a look at their hiring process and their practices, really looking hard to take out our biases in those practices.”
Those biases can be both conscious and unconscious – and it’s the latter that Smith said businesses need to address. One way to tackle this is by taking active unconscious bias training, especially for leaders involved in recruitment and talent management. “Having a conscious awareness of unconscious bias is super important,” added Smith.
Smith also said that intentionality is critical when creating opportunities for hiring and retention. “You have to be open to different models for how to curate this diverse long-term, sustainable, valuable resource which is the human capital side of business,” said Smith.
One of the models Smith advocates for is close to our hearts – co-op placements. “Allocate a few dollars to a co-op program, hire some interns, it’s a great way for underrepresented groups,” added Smith. There’s an additional benefit for those companies that bring in diverse co-op students. “You generate a long-term talent pipeline. It’s a low cost, high-value return option.”
Smith’s career choices of Christie Digital, Cineplex, and Google all share an intention – being part of the ecosystem in Waterloo Region. “The region itself has an ethos to it that I’ve not found elsewhere,” said Smith. “That ethos of barn raising that is always known to be a core tenant of the overall area, it has really created this ecosystem of support that not only turns out great companies, but tries to help really great leaders that care about not only their goals for growth of their companies but also their impact on the world,” said Smith. To give back, she has served as a board member of the local tech organization Communitech since 2015 and is an active alumna on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the Lazaridis School.
Choosing Laurier and the Lazaridis School means you’re part of that ecosystem in Waterloo Region. Smith recommended getting out and meeting people to help build your network as you study. “It’s all about getting out and meeting people, which I understand right now is hard,” said Smith. “When I talked about the ethos of the region, there are very few people who wouldn’t take a phone call.”
Smith said volunteering is another way to get connected. “You’ll meet people in the region, they work within our companies and they support our community organizations. They have their own networks across not only the region – but beyond.”
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