Kathryn Smith, MBA ‘16, is creating a business empire. Equipped with her education from the Scheller College of Business and lived experiences from her personal life, the corporate world and entrepreneurship, Smith has founded two businesses: Walton Birch LLC in 2019 and Black Lady Business School in 2021.
As a child, Smith first learned about business and entrepreneurship from her mother.
After severe carpal tunnel syndrome sidelined her from office work, Smith’s mother saw a need in her community and worked to fill it. Smith’s mother noticed that some children in their church community did not receive gifts on holidays because their families could not afford it. To address this, she began creating affordable gift baskets for the children in need in her community, and the venture quickly became its own business.
“The response to that was overwhelming,” Smith said. “When you do something from not just strictly capitalist intentions, it is overwhelmingly received. So, she just grew it from there.”
Witnessing the hardships her mother went through was an introduction to the realities of being an entrepreneur.
“My mom, first and foremost, definitely was the first entrepreneur I ever experienced in my life. And the one that showed me … you just have to keep going despite feeling like you don’t have support from your family, not being able to hire employees and bootstrapping your business,” Smith said.
Her mother’s determination was a source of inspiration for Smith.
“Remembering … the lack of support and the almost kind of mocking that she had to go through as an entrepreneur and still grow her business … it’s just inspiring to me,” Smith said.
Smith herself first stepped foot into the business world in 2009. When internships during her undergraduate degree did not pay a livable wage, she began her first business out of necessity.
“I started just building really simple websites on WordPress for local businesses in exchange for dry cleaning and bar tabs,” Smith said.
While the website development side hustle helped Smith throughout college, she ultimately entered the corporate world. Her internship at AT&T allowed her to move up in the company, and the prospects of success in the corporate world excited her.
Smith described her experience in the corporate world as being both difficult and rewarding, and the obstacles she faced, in part, pushed her to leave the corporate world to start her own business.
“The way things happen in corporate America is a bit strange … It’ll chew you up and spit you out,” Smith said.
Smith told of her experience moving up the ladder in AT&T. Smith revealed she was underpaid for her work, and several of her positions or projects were eliminated shortly after she would join them.
She compared the experience to being shuffled around like an office chair.
“That was the first time where I learned about the various ways that corporate America just continuously disappoints,” Smith said.
“… They basically said ‘we’re selling like an asset, and you are now their property. They don’t have to give you benefits. We don’t have to give you benefits.’”
Her time in the corporate world inspired her to pursue an MBA at Tech to become more business literate.
“An MBA program, in general, and specifically the MBA program at Scheller was a great overview into the critical business knowledge areas,” Smith said.
While at Scheller, Smith learned technical business skills such as operations, marketing and organizational development. She also developed soft skills such as networking, which she described as being vital to growing a business.
“It definitely influenced my decision to go into business as an entrepreneur, and it largely influenced my decision to create an organization like Black Lady Business School because I recognized that, not just that education, but the networking and the resources associated with that, are tremendously helpful and important for people that want to go into business,” Smith said. In 2019, Smith founded Walton Birch LLC, a consulting company that helps businesses build their online presence.
Then, in 2021, Smith and business partner Tamay Shannon started Black Lady Business School to provide Black women entrepreneurs with the information and resources to start and grow their own businesses.
Many of Smith’s own experiences in business inspired her to start Black Lady Business School. She had first hand experience of being overlooked for business resources and opportunities because of her race.
She also described how being a queer woman of color meant she would be excluded from certain business spaces that are less welcoming to marginalized communities.
“The word professional or professionalism is wielded against Black people like a sword,” Smith said.
Smith asserted that coded language is just one of the many ways the business community marginalizes Black entrepreneurs and prevents them from having equitable access to opportunities and spaces.
Smith expressed excitement about how her businesses allow her to offer support to communities in need and to open the doors of the business community to include groups of people who have been historically left out.
“Going into entrepreneurship full time kind of brings it full circle, except it’s been much more intentional this time,” Smith said.
Looking forward, Smith hopes to build a better and more inclusive future.
She described how Black women entering positions of power and influence, from the Supreme Court to the executive office, can cause a tipping point in history.
“If you see a Black woman that’s a CEO or a judge or an attorney, she’s not just there because she was okay … she is exceptionally driven,” Smith said.