An Investment in Creativity - How one finance exec found fulfillment in the arts


Working within the financial services industry for most of her career, Deborah Smith has held a variety of executive positions, principally within the investment servicing space at Citigroup and State Street where she served institutional clients. She also served briefly as State Street’s first Chief Knowledge Officer, establishing and leading its Knowledge Management and Thought Leadership initiatives. Throughout her career, she has served on a number of nonprofit and community boards of directors, both nationally and local to Boston. Smith is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Originally from the Philadelphia suburbs,  she now resides in Boston.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a degree in international and public affairs?

When I was fifteen, I had the opportunity to live in Japan for a year as a high school exchange student. I attended an all-girls Japanese high school and lived with four different Japanese families, all of whom had daughters in my classes. I gained a better understanding of the similarities and differences across cultures and the immersive experience really drove my desire to pursue a degree in international and public affairs. I was intrigued with how cultures worked - particularly how they embraced issues of human welfare and social science and how their political systems influenced behavior and practice, while their public policy shaped the law. My time in Japan sparked something inside of me; I felt compelled to gain expertise on other regions and help solve social issues through public policy and diplomacy.

Q: Tell us how you migrated from the financial services industry to ArtsEmerson. What was the journey?  

I’ve always had a passion for the arts and a lifelong commitment to civic engagement. After some time in the financial services arena, I began to develop an interest in social philanthropy and social impact investments. When the opportunity arose at ArtsEmerson, I felt that my financial services skills - relationship management, new business development, product management, and marketing - would be a major asset to the role. The piece de resistance is the opportunity to work for an organization with a mission to forge transformative social change through the arts.  It has been quite the serendipitous journey and my position as Senior Development Officer at ArtsEmerson feels like a culmination and fusion of my career interests and passions.

Q: You expressed, “I'm delighted to join a team so committed to both artistic excellence and strengthening the conversation about socially challenging topics such as race, equity, and privilege.” Tell us more; we’d love to hear your perspective and how you, personally, are contributing to those conversations.

At ArtsEmerson, the play is the prompt for conversation. I love having the opportunity to see how art, storytelling, and theater unite people. There is a real power to the stage and ArtsEmerson has had great success using this power to create a dialogue around some of our more challenging social issues.  It is thrilling to me how this work is bringing together people of all backgrounds and finding positive ways to make connections.

Q: How do you define creativity?  

Using one’s imagination and self-expression to create something new or to create a thing of beauty, whether art or music.    

Q: Based on your definition, do you have a creative hobby and/or side hustle?

I have many interests and creative hobbies - flower arranging, playing the piano, stitching bargello, and growing orchids. Some of them feed my energy and others help to calm me.

Q: For women pursuing entrepreneurial or creative ventures, what would you advise?

Two pieces of advice:

  1. Pursue your dreams; if you’ve envisioned something, you’ve already given life to it. See it through.

  2. Don’t compromise on your vision but be willing to change course or direction if it will bring you closer to your dreams. .