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7 Questions with Cameron Smith

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Cameron Smith

Name: Cameron Smith

Current title: CEO & Co-Founder

Current organisation: Bennett Day School

Cameron Smith is the CEO & Co-Founder of Bennett Day School in Chicago. He was inspired to create the school after the birth of his first son in 2010. As a new parent, he recognized that there are very few options for progressive independent schooling in Chicago. Many parents resort to moving to the suburbs when they would prefer to continue to live, work, and learn downtown. Both the motivation to innovate and a commitment to the city inspired the creation of Bennett Day School.

Cameron served on the Board of the Namaste Charter School where he was the Treasurer and Chair of the Investment Committee. A licensed attorney in Illinois, he is a member of the Education Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association. As a member of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, Cameron is energized by the ideas and best practices he observes as a regular participant at educational conferences and gatherings. Cameron was previously a Vice President at private equity firm CHS Capital LLC in Chicago where he focused on investing in education and healthcare services companies. While at CHS, he served on the Board of Royall & Company, the leading provider of strategic enrollment marketing services to traditional colleges and universities. He currently serves on two external boards, and previously served on the non-profit Neighborhood Parent Network of Chicago (NPN) board. Cameron is also a member of the Chicago Chapter of Conscious Capitalism. He holds a B.S. degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as well as J.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Northwestern University.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

As human beings, we are most comfortable with the familiar and things that we know. But, in education, we know that the world is changing so fast that schools cannot do things the way they have always been done if we are to prepare our children for a rapidly changing future. How could we possibly expect our children, who will be working until probably 2070, to be prepared for their adult life if we ask them to sit in desks and rows and we fill their heads with information that we will ask them to memorize, test, and move on to something else just days later. Parents understand this instinctively and they know in their heart of hearts that learning by doing and learning through projects connected to the real world is absolutely the best way to go to school. There is still a small leap that must be made by parents to take the road less traveled for their children, which will make all the difference. But, it takes considerable time and effort to help families see that this is what is best for their children. As parents, what most of us experienced in school is not what our children need today.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I try to go to sleep by 10:00 p.m. and I do wake up at 5:00 a.m. to exercise and have some quiet time to myself. By 6:30 a.m., at least one of my children is awake, and the morning breakfast routine and getting ready for school begins. I'm so thankful that my commute to work means going to school with my kids. I'm usually working then until we have family dinner together at 6:00 p.m. when I work on being present as dad again to play with Legos, shoot baskets, read books, etc. until the kids are in bed around 8:30 p.m. (and definitely, no screen time for the kids close to bedtime so that they get a restful night of sleep!) After the kids are asleep, Erica and I have some quiet time to ourselves to relax until it's time to turn in again.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

Make the hard decisions that are best for the organization. When your instincts tell you that you should head in a particular direction, you should listen. It is highly unlikely that a leader might look back and say they made a decision too soon, but they could certainly look back and say they didn't make a decision soon enough.

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I really enjoyed reading ‘The Future of Humanity’ by Michio Kaku. To run a social enterprise and to be an entrepreneur, now more than ever, you have to imagine a world in your own industry that might not have ever existed before, while also rooting what you do in that which is familiar enough to others so that they will want to come along for the journey. This book was really a primer on all things outer space related, and related to the burgeoning space economy, which made me realize it was as clear as day that my children could not be educated for the future awaiting them by doing things the way they have always been done yet to expect a different outcome. That is the definition of insanity! The book not only inspired me in part to build the school that my children and others deserved for the future awaiting them, it also inspired my own fascination with space. I am definitely a space nerd and a lifelong learner. I have also gone back to school part-time and I’m working on obtaining a master’s degree from the Colorado School of Mines’ space resources program. I love outer space and want to share that interest with our students at Bennett so they can consider a career path here among the stars as well.

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

Educators have been drawn to our mission to create innovative project-based learning experiences connected to the world around us that advance creativity and innovation in education. Our leadership team has been together for a decade and we have added to our leadership pool as well. When you see, support, and experience school as it was meant to be and should be, that is very fulfilling and we stick together.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

Listening is an important skill and craft for leaders anywhere. I'll speak with any stakeholder in our community or any person at any level of the organization because I want to be as close as possible to everyone's experiences. Active listening is key to talking less and listening more.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

I loved visiting one of our kindergarten classes where the children were curious about how you start a school and the history of our school building. Our campus dates back to 1901 when it was a settlement house for immigrants to get on their feet in Chicago and it included one of the first progressive early childhood programs in the world. We renovated the campus completely in 2016 and it is a new building today, but helping kids connect their future to the past was really special.