Athena member Mary Smith is a Native American board member, nonprofit founder, former CEO and lawyer, and advocate for Indigenous girls in STEM. From her civil rights work at the White House to heading a $6 billion national health care organization, Mary’s dedication to uplifting others has driven every decision in her career. Mary has demonstrated that with a bit of opportunity, a desire to do good, and a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, we have the power to make a meaningful difference in the world.
Tell us about yourself and your executive journey.
I’m a proud Native American and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. I’ve had the privilege of helping people beyond what I thought was possible. My most recent role was serving as Chief Executive of a $6 billion organization that provides health care to over 2.2 million people in the United States where I focused on expanding technology and telemedicine to improve access.
Earlier in my career, I served as a trial attorney at the Department of Justice and as Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office where I had the opportunity to advocate for equal pay, civil rights, and economic development for underserved communities. As a senior corporate executive at a Fortune 250 company, I managed a $60 million budget and oversaw multi-billion-dollar corporate governance matters.
Today, I’m consulting in the healthcare space and looking for corporate board opportunities. I’ve also started my own foundation—inspired by my mother and grandmother—to sponsor and support Native American girls in STEM.
What has been your experience as a Native American woman in business?
Native Americans are too often overlooked. In research and media, we are categorized as “Other”—if we are captured at all. No organization exists for Native Americans seeking corporate board positions, which is something I’m aiming to change. Access, pipeline, network, and culture are just a few challenges that Native Americans face in the business world. Thankfully, the Athena community has been incredibly receptive to these issues. I’m hoping that we can work together to foster greater diversity over time.
What is the inspiration and vision for your foundation supporting young Native American girls?
During my time leading a healthcare organization for Native Americans, I saw how few of them pursue a career in healthcare, science, or technology. Around the same time, I was spending 12 hours a day supporting my critically-ill mother at the hospital (who thankfully recovered). These experiences inspired me to launch the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation, an organization named after my mother and grandmother, who didn’t have a lot of opportunity in STEM but supported my STEM passions. I hope to create a culture of giving back—one where the girls in our foundation can someday become mentors and role models to the next generation of Native girls.
What advice do you have for women from underrepresented backgrounds who are aspiring to the executive ranks?
First, meet as many people as you can, especially those who can expand your perception of possibility. Growing up, neither of my parents went to college, and I’d never met someone who went to an elite school like Harvard. Looking back, I probably could have done well at Harvard, but I simply didn’t think it was possible. That’s probably true for a lot of girls of color.
Second, believe in yourself. There will be disappointments, but you learn something from every setback and failure.
How did you get connected to your board seat at the National Women’s History Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History?
For almost every opportunity I’ve gotten in life, I actively sought it out. It was no different for my first nonprofit board at the Chicago Bar Foundation. I believed in their mission to provide funding for social justice and legal pro bono work, so I actively met with people on the team and spent time learning about their work helping lawyers and non-lawyers across the country. Eventually, I decided to apply for the board. My approach was intentional, and I think that many women have to be intentional about their approach to successfully join a board.
In the future, I would very much like to serve on a board where my background in heavily regulated industries, and my experience leading a $6 billion organization, can add value. I hope that my corporate governance and public policy expertise can be beneficial to companies that are facing regulatory challenges or expanding their product line.
Tell us about the new partnership you’re forming with Athena to accelerate Native American women into the C-suite and boardroom.
This partnership began when Coco and I were chatting about the absence of an organization targeted to Native Americans seeking board seats. We immediately started planting the seeds for a community of Indigenous women within the Athena Alliance community. It’s in its nascent stages, but we hope that it becomes a comfortable place for Native American women to gather and for us to start building a pipeline program to the boardroom.
If you want to get involved with the new program, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. We are starting to reach out to Indigenous women leaders, whether they’re interested in a board now, looking to get board-ready, or just hoping to be a part of a supportive community.
As a board member, founder of a nonprofit, and as a C-suite leader, what legacy do you hope to leave as a leader?
Before every career decision, I always ask myself: Am I helping people? Am I improving people’s lives in any way I can? Am I making a difference? Whether it’s mentoring other women or helping with a corporate goal in the boardroom, I believe there is no higher purpose than trying to make a difference.
Athena Alliance members are the top women in business today. Invest in your senior leadership career by joining our global, virtual community. For women of Native American descent who are interested in joining, contact us to learn more about the services and discounts available for you.
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