Executive Engagement: An Interview with Michele Smith, CFO of Woodland Park Zoo

March 15, 2019

Employee Benefits

In early January, we expanded our Women Executive Engagement series to the Pacific Northwest, an evening focusing on female CFOs in Seattle. Another truly inspiring filled with women executives from all sectors: technology, architecture… even the zoo. I was honored with a chance to meet with Michele Smith, CFO of the Woodland Park Zoo.

Michele has a magnetic personality, welcoming you in with her huge smile and natural leadership. Although currently CFO of the Woodland Park Zoo, her career has taken her around the globe, from leading a team in Ireland to managing the entire fleet of United Airlines flight attendants. People are at ease with her demeanor and attracted to her intelligence and grace.

Michelle Smith headshot

I was fortunate to be able to interview Michele for this Executive Engagement and these were her answers:

What challenges have you faced being a woman in your profession?

People are sometimes surprised that I am an African American women managing a nearly forty-million-dollar budget for the zoo. I fortunately am surrounded by tremendous support from the zoo board, executive team, and community… but there just aren’t enough African American CFOs in the Pacific Northwest. I take on the challenge of managing so many facets of the zoo: I review revenue and our mission and manage our risk for the whole organization. I often find that some CFOs look at just the bottom line, but I know what it takes to approach the organization holistically. My style and approach is to take on more risk and bring innovation to my roles, not only putting on the finance hat, but also sales and business development.

If you had to give a piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

Never doubt yourself or your instincts, push through event if someone says no. Don’t be intimidated by people who say “no.” I am loving the new Serena Williams ad with Nike, “Dream Crazier.”

What is your motto in life and how does it relate to your work?

My motto in life is to make self-care a priority, not only for me, but the team of people that work with me. I believe that if you are tired, then it’s time to go home and rest; making sure that you are fully present because you are no good at the office when you’re exhausted.

If you could choose any other profession or career path all all, what would it be and why?

I am passionate about the food, beverage, and entertainment sector. Even at the zoo, I am able to help update the menu and make sure that we are serving things that people actually want to eat. I also get to play a big role in “Zoo Tunes” which is Woodland Park Zoo’s annual summer concert series. Not only do I work with all the artist lineups, but I also work alongside the zoo’s animal care team to make sure the music we choose for the concerts doesn’t upset the animals.

If you could have dinner with any woman leaders, who would it be and why? Where would you go?

I would love to have dinner with Oprah. She is someone that I have always looked up to get advice and feedback… and of course we would invite her best friend, Gayle. We would meet at her home in Montecito, naturally.

We’re grateful to Michele for taking the time to connect with us in this edition of Woodruff Sawyer’s Executive Engagement.

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