Dwight E. SmithPresident and Chief Executive Officer Sophisticated Systems, Inc. Columbus, Ohio Sector Representation: Information Technology
Spend one hour with Dwight Smith and you will hear about his strong faith, his love for children and his family, and his passion for entrepreneurship.
You will also learn that he can dance the funky chicken, chat with former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke like the two are old friends, and hike Mt. Kilimanjaro not only for fun, but also to raise funds to support youth-oriented organizations in the United States and Africa.
Smith is president and CEO of Sophisticated Systems, Inc. (SSI), a technology services and solutions firm he started in 1990 after working for nine years at IBM. He works hard, sleeps little, and sees the good things in life—even when times are tough.
The company Smith leads, SSI, has been serving customers for 27 years with technology services, such as technology assessments, business continuity and disaster recovery planning, cloud solutions, technology deployment, network monitoring and security, hardware and software procurement, and professional services.
In simple terms, he runs IT systems for small and mid-sized companies. As a member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s board of directors and a technology entrepreneur, Smith brings his expertise to the monthly meetings, sharing information on what he thinks is top of mind with business and community leaders these days—such as concerns about cybersecurity risks, disruptive forces like natural disasters, and how to retain the millennial workforce.
Caring for the business and the community
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, SSI and Smith were at the top of their game: SSI made Inc. magazine’s list of the country’s 500 fastest-growing private businesses, and Smith was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year a few years later.
In addition to business accolades, both he and his company’s employees are regularly recognized for their dedication to the Columbus and central Ohio community. SSI employees regularly coordinate and participate in programs aimed at supporting organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Salvation Army, Junior Achievement, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, Columbus City Schools, and the American Heart Association.
The business was doing well. Until it wasn’t.
“About 15 years ago, we closed the year with a $715,000 loss and $2.1 million in debt,” he says. “Our bank could have closed the business down.
“I prayed,” he continues. “It was really taxing. I never told the people that worked here that we were losing money and almost went out of business.”
When the bank came to him asking about repayment on the loan SSI had with that lender, he was confident. He let them know that he had already led two turnarounds for another company, and he had a plan for this one, too.
The next year, SSI closed the books with a profit. Shortly after that, the line of credit was closed, and the company “didn’t borrow a dime for six to seven years until we did the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP),” or an employee profit-sharing plan.
“It was a humbling experience,” he admits.
Smith learned that keeping the truth about the business’ finances from employees was not the right thing to do. His employees let Smith know that they didn’t agree with his decision. It was a painful lesson for him.
To keep the dire truth about the situation seemed, to him, a way to protect the “family business.” He assured employees it wouldn’t happen again.
The Fed comes calling
Because of his successful business and civic involvement, Smith in 2010 was tapped to be part of a program in Columbus, Ohio, with the Federal Reserve’s then-Chairman Ben Bernanke.
The chairman was traveling to The Ohio State University to talk about jobs. His visit to Columbus also included meeting with five CEOs from the area. Smith was selected to be part of the group.
“I am so nervous driving down to Ohio State,” he recounts. “I take an extra shirt because I’m so nervous that I’m going to spill something at lunch. Once I get there, I’m told that the chairman is getting his lunch. I went in and got about 10 minutes with him, and he was just delightful.”
Bernanke shared a funny story with Smith about his daughter and talked about his wife, Anna, who is a teacher.
“I remember thinking, ‘this is a real person,’” Smith says. “Even though he is arguably the second most powerful person in America. I then sat next to him on the panel, and he made everyone feel so comfortable. That 90 minutes went by so fast.”
In 2015, Smith got involved again with the Federal Reserve. He was asked to join the board of directors of the Cleveland Bank’s Cincinnati Branch and served until December 2016. The next year, he was appointed a director at the main office in Cleveland, and in 2018 was named vice chair.
“The Federal Reserve has clarity, focus, and purpose,” he says. “And that drives our decisions and our behaviors. We also have a culture of respect. The difference in an organization where there is a high level of respect makes the difference between functional vs. dysfunctional.
“Everyone [at the Federal Reserve] I’ve met is just so smart,” he continues. “To be able to take something as complex as our economy and break it down in terms that an average person who doesn’t live in that world every day can understand and appreciate, and then give insight—it’s just fantastic. I wish all of America ran like the Federal Reserve.”
Work is play
Recently, he began championing a personal project, “My Special Word,” a not-for-profit program to inspire youth to think about the wonderful people they are and that they hope to become through the use of positive words.
Smith, who hopes to reach one million children globally, tirelessly visits schools and organizations and meets with potential sponsors and youth-serving organizations.
“I have this love for kids and entrepreneurship,” he says. For him, his work for children is play.
He introduced “My Special Word” to Momentum children’s dance company and drew the children into the discussion by grooving to the funky chicken and showing off some other smooth moves—dancing the robot and the moonwalk, too.
Once he had their attention, he encouraged the children to think about a word that is special and descriptive to them.
This work with children, coupled with his business acumen and involvement on local boards, is all part of Smith’s quest to make a difference. In fact, he keeps a binder at home called “Change the World,” he explains. The binder holds a collection of his personal goals, an exercise he has done each year for 20 years.
Whatever he is involved with, he goes all out to support. He has certainly made a difference in the central Ohio region, and has extended his reach abroad with programs in Africa.
“Yes, my schedule is very busy,” he says. “But I would never do any of this if I was going to half do it.”
In 2011, Smith and his friend “Shake” (Shekhar Mahajan) climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to raise awareness and funds for African children. It was his second trip to the continent. He was in Tanzania in 2007 and met with children in an old schoolhouse. He later sent money to build a new classroom and to buy supplies for the children.
“I always tell young people—if you ever want to run your own company, learn how to manage profit and loss (P&L) on someone else’s nickel,” Smith notes.
“You have to learn to laugh at yourself,” says Smith. “You can’t be too darn serious.”
Smith arises each morning by 5:30 a.m. and vigorously walks almost five miles on a treadmill before breakfast. “I have a lot of energy,” he says.