When global rock star Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, started the sustainable fashion brand Edun, people kept telling them, “If you’re going to do trade in Africa, you really have to talk to that woman at the Gap. She knows everything.” That woman was Tamsin Smith ’84. As senior director for public policy and government affairs, Smith was the driving force behind the Gap, Inc.’s creation of ethical trade ties in the less-developed nations where it manufactures. A graduate of Kenyon College with an advanced degree in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts, Smith mastered trade policy during seven years on Capitol Hill, where she worked as a senior legislative assistant before joining Gap, Inc. Long story short, Bono knocked on Smith’s door and ended up recruiting her to run a new project he’d co-founded with Bobby Shriver, the activist, attorney, and Kennedy cousin. The initiative was called (RED), and with Smith as president it would go on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the fight against AIDS in Africa by partnering with leading international brands—Apple, Converse, Emporio Armani, Gap, Microsoft, and Starbucks, among others—to create (RED)-licensed products. Everyone has seen the now-iconic ads featuring photographs of celebrities captioned by uplifting words: EMPOWE(RED), DESI(RED), INSPI(RED). With (RED) thriving, Smith left in 2009 to launch SlipStream Strategy, a management consultancy that helps brands and organizations develop and implement mission-driven practices. A past president of the Larry King Cardiac Foundation and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, Smith is a published poet (she gives a reading at the Aspen Institute’s annual conference of global thought leaders), an accomplished painter of abstract landscapes, and a mother of two. She lives in the Bay Area.
Senior legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, apparel industry executive, brand strategist, entrepreneur, poet, painter. You’ve been busy. I feel that in my trajectory from Williston I’ve picked up energy from doing different things. I never would have charted this path or even believed that I’d do some of the things I’ve done. But now if you look back, you see these sort of melody lines woven through the different activities. They all sort of knit together.
One obvious thread is corporate social responsibility. Did you consciously set out to make the world a better place? I don’t use that language or even think about it in that way! The possibility of inspiring someone to feel more deeply connected to others is exciting to me in an almost a selfish way. With (RED), for example, I would lead trips to Africa and I would blog about it. I would always begin by thinking about what I could do to make the work we did real to somebody sitting in Easthampton, Massachusetts, or Dubuque or a small town in Kansas. How could I connect a reader to a minister of health or a clinic worker or a mom who has just given birth to a child who is HIV-free thanks to a medicine that was made possible by a (RED) shopper? I wasn’t thinking about being a valiant, charitable person. It just feels good. Something that reaches out and moves us—who doesn’t need more of that?
Many worthy causes vie for attention. What did (RED) do to stand out? We tapped into the notion that empowerment is better juice than guilt. The traditional model for cause-connected marketing had been, “Buy this item with a picture of a sad child or some other string-pulling imagery.” You would buy it out of guilt, but it wasn’t something you really wanted. So we performed a little jujitsu on traditional marketing and tried to make the hero product aspirational. We were driven by the belief, which I think is the correct one, that when something feels good, people do it again and again. This was important because an anti-retroviral isn’t something you buy just once. It’s a long-haul course. So we went to companies and said, “We don’t want just one product. We want a whole capsule collection that is every bit as attractive if not more so than your regular product line.” So you could then buy a regular Gap T-shirt, say, or you could buy a product (RED) Gap T-Shirt. The shirts cost the same, but the (RED) Gap T-shirt would provide two weeks of life for somebody. And you’d be wearing the same T-shirt that you just saw Penelope Cruz wearing in an Annie Leibowitz image! (RED) made it OK for cause-connected marketing to be fun, OK for it to be exciting and dynamic.
You continue to help build brands through your management consultancy, SlipStream Strategy. Is the concept of doing well by doing good a tough sell? I think we’re in a different zeitgeist now than when I first started. Before it became a catchphrase, corporate social responsibility was a question. What is the responsibility of a company in the social sector, particularly when their supply chain involves companies that don’t belong to them? Companies like Gap, Inc. had to create a community of oversighted care in countries where the notion of human resources management didn’t even exist. I think sustainability is now more integrated as a goal for corporate leadership.
How have changing attitudes affected your work? Our strengths are our challenges. With so many companies now telling social impact stories, it becomes difficult to differentiate. A lot of times the work is helping clients find language that is distinct and authentic, so that they’re not overpromising or saying something that’s been said a million times before.
You recently came out with a book of poetry, Word Cave. Have you always written creatively? I’ve always tinkered with poems and certainly read them, but I would never have dared to think of myself as a poet. I considered myself more of a poetry evangelist. I started writing to fill time on long flights to Africa or Geneva. The book is the result of two years of taking the scraps of poems I had written and going through a process of bearing down and editing, editing, editing. For me, each poem, each phrase is something that I hope is its own little echoing word cave. When you step inside, it stirs up emotions that then cast their own shadows on the walls. This maybe is one of those melody lines I was talking about. The branding work that I do comes from a recognition of how powerful it can be to touch somebody through story and to weave them into that story in a way that inspires them. It all circles back to poetry. Communication in any form is looking for those lyrical phrases that move people.
Where does painting fit in? That’s not a talent you can hone on trans-Atlantic flights. Working on Word Cave was a lot of time spent in my head. You know, very sort of intense: words, words, words! I think I really just needed a different outlet. Poetry is my ears and my head. Painting is more my eyes and my body. It’s so physical. It was almost like I was able to give a break to certain senses by putting the energy towards using different ones. I paint a lot with a palette knife because I like to sculpt and carve and create texture.
How did your time at Williston influence what you do now? Coming to Williston marked a major shift in my life. Williston felt like home. I’m not using hyperbole. I arrived with a love of literature but a dearth of feeling like I belonged anywhere. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and went to schools where I just didn’t feel connected with the culture. I got to Williston and all of a sudden I had not just friends but this wonderful family. Kids in whom I was interested and who were interested in me. I had amazing teachers who seemed to like the things I wrote and the things I said. I had never had that before, teachers who not only took an interest in me, but who encouraged me to apply to Kenyon. I mean, there were not a lot of kids in high school in Miami, Florida, who knew about Kenyon College. All of a sudden I felt capable and maybe even intelligent. I became a student. I graduated summa cum laude from college and the first step towards that was Williston, and I’m forever grateful.