Dwight Smith runs Sophisticated Systems like a parent runs a household. In the midst of a pandemic, he puts his employees' health, safety and peace of mind first.
On the soft, yellowy-green wall near Dwight Smith’s desk in his Dublin home, three ornate, wooden picture frames hang over a fully stocked bookshelf. Black and white photos of his maternal grandparents join one depicting his late mother, Ruby Irene, a bright orange shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
Lining the top of the dark, wooden bookshelf are smaller black and brown picture frames: photos of Tanzanian children boasting the brand new e-readers Smith and his wife, Renee, donated to them through their Thanks Be To God Foundation. Propped up beside them are images of Smith with members of a Tanzanian tribe and groups of his colleagues. On a lower shelf lay stacks of Highlights for Children magazines, some with issue dates from before Smith, 63, was born.Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
On his desk sits a metal sign that says “Changing the World,” with child-sized bracelets handmade by students at KIPP Columbus dangling from it, their beads spelling family, love and kind—a keepsake from a KIPP event for My Special Word, Smith’s child-affirming movement.
On the office door, at eye level across from his swivel chair, hangs a sheet of easel pad paper that reads, “Children are the most important people in the world” in bright orange marker.
“I try to keep those things around me because it reminds me how blessed I am,” Smith says of his office decor.
And Smith would admit he’s very blessed. He’s the chairman and CEO of Columbus technology services firm Sophisticated Systems, and he sits on boards for an array of top-tier organizations from the Columbus Foundation to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
But Smith doesn’t want to talk about his success after celebrating 30 years in business; or profit margins before and after Covid-19 hit Columbus; or how more than 40 years of experience honed his business sense.
He wants to talk about change and how he hopes to achieve it through loving and caring for the world’s children, nurturing their minds and self-esteems so that they might shape the world into a better place.
“You get to a point where what’s really important is your ability to impact the world and bring change and goodness to those that you love and care about,” Smith says.
Raised in Springfield by a single mother, Smith and his three siblings grew up with “so much love in the household,” despite not having much materially. Though his mother did the bulk of his rearing, he credits his extended family and community in Springfield with shaping him into the man he is today.
His community—once over 80,000 strong, but today closer to 60,000 residents—was close-knit, chock full of neighbors who really knew each other, who cared for each other and who always found time for each other. Smith’s love for Christ, a love his mother introduced him to, transformed into a long-lasting love for his community and giving back to it, he says.
“I carry Springfield with me every day,” he says. Though 50 miles away from his hometown, Smith stays connected to and involved in it, working with the city itself and local organizations like Junior Achievement, the youth program that sparked his interest in business while in high school, the Springfield Foundation and the Springfield City Youth Mission.
While working to combat food insecurity, Smith also advises new Youth Mission Executive Director Tyler Worley, who he met six or seven years ago. “He and Renee have just really befriended me,” Worley says. “They really encourage me. I can bounce stuff off of them. I can call them, and that’s not normal really for somebody that’s traditionally somebody who would be a funder.”
Smith created the Ruby Irene Youth Association Fund, $100,000 meant to support the children of Springfield through the Springfield Foundation, during one of the most difficult times of his life three years ago.
As his mother’s health declined, over 18 months Smith made the 70-mile drive to her Xenia hospice care facility multiple times a week, holding her hand as she neared the end. “Mom, someday, when you’re in heaven, there’s going to be kids in Springfield that are going to get books and groceries and clothes because of what you did,” he told her.
“I knew I wanted to honor children, and I knew I wanted to honor my mother, so what better way to recognize and acknowledge a person, my mother, who poured so much into me?” he says.
Over 30 years, Smith and his team at Sophisticated Systems have cultivated a company culture that reads more like a multigenerational family than it does a tech business. He hosts bring-your-dog-to-work days and a company Christmas party where a former employee’s boyfriend proposed after asking Smith for his blessing. Though childless, Smith cares for his team as though they were his children.
“We get to learn the team, the family members of the teams, the kids, the grandkids, the schools that they’re going to,” says Rick Venson, a senior field engineer. “We all enjoy hearing about the successes of when the kids graduate high school and they go off to college.”
For Venson, Smith has been family since he paid his respects at a Venson family funeral just two months after Venson started with the company. “I was raised where family and respect are super important, and Dwight showed me such a level of respect that I committed myself to working for Sophisticated Systems,” says Venson. “I’ve been there 20-plus years, and I’m loyal to Dwight because he’s a special person.”
Smith “parents” his team the way he believes any strong leader would, living by the doctrine that his team gets the credit when business is booming, and he takes the fall when it’s not. And in the late 1990s, Smith felt he had a responsibility to protect his “children” from the financial hole the company was in.
He describes SSI in its first few years as an Inc. 5000 rocket ship, shooting up through the tens of thousands of dollars in sales, then the hundreds of thousands, then through the millions and tens of millions—before it plummeted. In its tenth year, the company saw more than a $700,000 loss and accrued $2.1 million in debt, and Smith was scared.
He kept the damage hidden from most of his team, making sure everyone who earned a raise got a raise and taking a salary cut to make up for some of the difference.
Two years later, after the business turned a $300,000 profit and the debt was paid, Smith asked his team during a meeting whether they would have wanted to know that the company was failing. Everyone raised their hands.
From then on, he vowed to keep “the family” in the know, and as the company grew, the team grew closer and the profits grew higher. Smith later implemented an employee stock ownership plan for six years, allowing employees to gain part ownership of SSI.
Smith doesn’t buy into the old adage of separating personal and business—he loves his employees, worries about them. “People say, ‘You can’t really get that involved with your employees,’ ” he says. “Of course you can. They’re not employees, they’re people.”
Nothing brings Smith more joy than talking about My Special Word. The professional demeanor he projects when he talks business softens into a jubilance and playfulness with the mention of his youth-targeted movement.
My Special Word is his passion project, the culmination of all the blessings, light and love he wants to share with the world that aims to teach children that words matter and rewards them by celebrating their positivity. The initiative asks them to choose one word that best describes them and who they want to be and why; how they plan to live out their word every day; and how the program can help them do it.
Smith’s proud to say that the movement’s reception has been positive. The children he met at KIPP Columbus wore their My Special Word bracelets proudly, some insisting on giving him theirs. My Special Word has expanded internationally, landing in a classroom in Vietnam where children wear their bracelets with their uniforms, and Smith is seeking corporate partners in the Columbus region who can help spread his word.
Ultimately, Smith wants to communicate that words matter, so they should be positive. Calvin Cooper, CEO of Columbus startup Rhove and a decade-long mentee of Smith’s, understands that.
“One thing that I hope people would take away from what Dwight has accomplished is that words matter and kindness matters, and you can extend your light into the business, philanthropic and political realms—starting with you, starting with working on yourself and framing your thoughts and your words in a way that inspire you,” Cooper says.
The word that inspires Smith daily is “sold,” as in “sold out to Christ.” When he prays over his business each morning, he asks how he can live out his special word not for himself, but for the children in Springfield that his mother’s foundation supports, the “children” at SSI who work with him, and the children all over the globe he hopes to empower with his movement.
“I run a business, which is a blessing, but I do that to allow us to give back to the community,” he says. “We’re financially blessed, but every day I know that if I can use the business as an asset and a platform to uplift society, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Q&A with Dwight Smith
How has it been running a business in the midst of a pandemic and what challenges have you faced?
It’s probably brought us closer together. I’ll tell you what it demonstrated: how efficient and effective we could be as a team. We talked about the pandemic—I’m going to make up the dates—on a Monday, we made a decision on a Tuesday and we sent everybody home on Wednesday with the exception of a few people. But then because of the business we’re in where we actually run the IT infrastructure for a lot of clients, many of our clients said, “Hey I’ve got 10, 20, 30, 40 employees and next Monday, they need to be working at home. Make it so.” And so I just so much appreciate what our team did, pulling together.
What’s the most memorable moment you and your team had in your 30 years at Sophisticated Systems?
The memories that I treasure the most at SSI are when our employees take care of one another, when they go above and beyond to help one another. I don’t have that one special moment because there are so many special moments.
You understand and even promote that words matter. If you could sum up your last 40 years in business in three words, what would they be?
Caring. Excellence. Appreciation. Final answer.
Why those three?
Well I’ll do appreciation first. No one gets to where they are by themselves. So I appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been given and the people that have helped me along the way. Caring–You know that old saying, “People don’t care [what you know] until they know how much you care”? I don’t think that you can be successful in business or in life if you don’t have the ability to genuinely care about others. Excellence—I don’t think we should ever settle. Complacency leads to failure. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it with excellence.
Tatyana Tandanpolie is a freelance writer.