This article, written by Robert S. Blanchey, was published on April 7, 2012, in the University of Baltimore Magazine.
“Well, I did think about being an astronaut for a little bit when I was young,” laughs Judy L. Smith, M.B.A. ’96, when asked if her childhood dreams had any bearings on her career in aerospace, “but I wear glasses, so I had to go in a different direction.” That direction, however, has still been straight up, and the heights to which her business career has taken her have caused her to break any number of proverbial glass ceilings.
Still, from her lofty perch as vice president of business development for defense industry powerhouse ITT Exelis, she gives much of the credit to mentors who helped her along the way. It’s also why Smith tries so hard to help others in the early stages of their careers. “You can’t just take,” she says. “You also have to reach back and pull up.”
Smith began her career as an engineer, and it was during her summer internships at Northrop Grumman while an undergraduate engineering student at The Johns Hopkins University that she first encountered the power of mentorship. “I was placed in a department with someone who was very caring about my career,” she recalls. “He made sure I was placed in the right job every summer, and then they offered me a position when I graduated.”
Focused on technical prowess, Smith sought out progressively harder assignments. “But in the old days there was a big distinction between engineering and business,” she says. “I thought I wanted to run a business at some point.” She joined consulting giant Booz Allen “because they had an entrepreneurial model that combined engineering with business” and spent nearly two decades there.
It was while she was at Booz Allen that Smith realized she needed a formal education on the business side, too. That brought her to the University of Baltimore’s M.B.A. program. “Engineering is black or white,” she says. “The M.B.A. courses taught me the gray.”
Smith’s best advice for those starting their careers? “What are needed today are people with the right skills,” she says, “so be proactive and take charge. Throughout my career, not doing something was not an option for me. I thought I could do anything I set my mind to.” So far, she’s been right.