Fentress County native Leann Smith is sure passionate about her hometown. A good thing, too, because it just so happens to be her day job to help promote it. Executive director of the Fentress County Chamber of Commerce since 2014, and an employee there since 2007, Smith helps market destinations like Big South Fork while working to continually brand the area as an equine and adventure tourism destination. Oh, and there’s a growing roster of small businesses to support, too.
While it can be a lot to juggle, she says she’s grateful for the opportunity. We all should have the opportunity to do job we love – in the communities we love.
Describe your first paying job.
I was raised on a farm, but as the youngest of three kids not too much was required of me as far as “chores” went – my siblings would attest to that. There was, however, on a rare occasion the event that did have to pull my weight, and that sometimes involved a tobacco crop. I, at the time, consider this activity an unusual form of punishment my parents were inflicting upon me. For them, I’m sure it meant extra hands they needed to get their product to market, but for me those crops meant the income needed for them to buy my first car. The truth is, they likely would have bought me the car with or without my labor. When I look back at that time and have a genuine appreciation for agriculture and the hard work my parents endured to provide for our family.
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
I spent most of my childhood on a basketball court, so there was a length of time I thought I was destined for the WNBA. When that oddly didn’t pan out, I majored in nursing, in which I had very little interest. I felt a lot of external pressure and listened too much to people telling me “what they would do.” I realize now my decision was influenced by my lack of exposure to careers that better suited me. So, I’m a huge advocate for exposing our local youth to careers that they’re best suited to; specifically careers they can fulfill here in Fentress County. I’m extremely blessed with the ability to have found a job I am passionate about in my hometown. Not everyone is that fortunate, but I think there are so many opportunities here and throughout the Upper Cumberland we are on the forefront of taking advantage of; like our access to broadband and our renewed entrepreneurial mindset.
How long have you been at the chamber and in what roles did you serve before your current position?
September will mark my 10th year, and I have I served in every capacity, starting out as office administrator. In 2008, I assumed the role of tourism and membership director, which was a very gratifying position. The chance to advocate for the place you choose to call home is extremely appealing to me.
Last year, our chamber celebrated its 40th year. Today our organization is stronger than ever. We represent over 175 member businesses, and our staff is committed to promoting the businesses and attractions that make our community unique. We are continually in search of innovative yet resourceful ways to move our chamber forward, while providing a strong support system for local businesses. Not only is every Fentress County business impacted positively by the chamber, but every citizen as well. If you ever find yourself questioning the value of your local chamber of commerce, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: Who will provide information to visitors and newcomers? Who will advocate for local businesses? And who will be there to assist new businesses and prospective industries when they call?
What are some of the biggest challenges for the chamber at the moment?
Membership growth and engagement. As most chambers, we develop great opportunities to expose our members through specialized publications, distribution of marketing materials, promotional campaigns, and so on. The struggle is getting businesses to take advantage of the many benefits of being an active member. We’re currently in the middle of an annual membership drive, where we focus solely on the numerous benefits we provide our members and the projects we are involved in regarding economic and community development. Our goal is to reach 200 members over the next year, and I think that’s very attainable.
What is the chamber’s next big goal? Any exciting new plans for 2017?
Membership is definitely our focus. We are increasing our number of networking events, and making direct contact with local businesses a priority. Our members need to know we are here for them, not just to promote their events or products, but to assist them in every aspect of their business
What about your career are you most passionate about?
Entrepreneurship. I’m so impressed by those who take risk to open a brick and mortar establishment and pore themselves into its existence. They build the character of the community and give back in so many ways. I want to do everything within my power to assist in making Fentress County a place where small businesses can thrive. It is a dream of mine to take this leap of faith someday, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be so brave.
What’s your favorite place outside the office?
Anywhere with my husband and kids. I’m also partial to Big South Fork and my garden.
What civic activities are you involved with?
My work at the chamber encompasses most all of my civic activity. In my occupation, you are often thrown onto countless boards and committees. I’ve had the pleasure of serving a several local non-profit boards whose work is still very special to me and important to our community; but currently, I am strictly Chamber Director and mom to Sophie and Henry. That’s enough for now.
What’s something that would surprise people about you?
I’m fairly health conscious. A few years back, I had a bit of a health scare involving melanoma discovered during a routine skin exam. I was overwhelmed with the thought of not being able to raise my children if my prognosis was poor. It was a very relevant moment that thankfully ended well, but it definitely opened my eyes to mortality. I vowed to make my health a priority. Now, my periodic avoidance and criticism of certain foods or activities is somewhat of a running joke around my peers, but I don’t mind.
When you are stressed, what gets you back into balance?
Man. Balance is hard. Working mommas out there understand. Of course, I try to stay healthy. I attend yoga classes and do most of the typical things folks do to unwind; but when work life hits hard, I go back to why I do what I do and that is for my kids. If I can make my community a little bit better every day for them, the stress is no big deal.
If you weren’t in your current field, what other career path do you think you would have pursued?
Farmer. My husband and I are avid gardeners. Now, I’m not saying we’re good, but we have learned a lot over the past few years. (Truth – we have more ideas than know-how.) We also have two hens that occasionally lay eggs.
How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
One, typically…maybe two.
Who has made the biggest impact on your career and why?
My father. He has taught me many lessons, but the most important is how to treat others. Over the years, I have watched him operate his small construction business and excel by treating people fairly and respectfully. My dad’s example has taught me that people, no matter who they are, are deserving of kindness.
What do you wish you had known before you started your business/career?
People are going to disappoint you from time to time. It’s an inevitable part of life, not just work. People will likely disrespect you, devalue you, hurt you, etc. Don’t allow the actions of others determine your self-worth or make you question your values. Your reactions to those who make you feel inadequate could easily define your character and possibly your career. Hard lesson. I’ve been there, and still sometimes find myself getting bogged down by someone else’s discrepancies. When this happens, I literally have to step back from whatever is going on and tell myself to move on.