Political science alumna Sophan Smith ’02 says she understands the community she serves as executive director of EforAll Lowell, the nonprofit small business accelerator started at UMass Lowell. And she has the data to back it up.
Of the businesses that EforAll has helped launch since 2013, 72% are owned by women, 70% are owned by people of color, 39% are owned by immigrants and 38% are owned by someone who was previously unemployed.
Smith says she falls into all four of those categories.
“I’m excited to be part of an organization that makes such an impact on underrepresented communities. Who knows them better than me?” says Smith, who joined EforAll in February 2021 — nine months after being laid off, due to the pandemic, from her development officer position with Junior Achievement of Northern New England.
After a two-decade recruiting and development career that has spanned the nonprofit, corporate and higher education worlds — including State Street Bank, Boston University School of Medicine, Babson College and UMass Boston — Smith feels like she’s come full circle.
“I’ve worked with so many different types of people, and part of my job has always been establishing relationships and marketing. And that’s what I bring to this role now,” she says.
Smith was born in Cambodia at the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Her mother fled with her and her brother when they were babies, resettled in Lowell and eventually remarried an Irish-American.
“We embodied the Cambodian culture and traditions and food in my family, but I also grew up understanding American culture — like having corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day,” Smith says.
A self-described “club geek” in high school, Smith was elected student government president and advanced to the state championship of DECA, a program that prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
As a first-generation college student at UMass Lowell, Smith minored in psychology and was voted Student Government Association president her junior year.
“One of the things I appreciated about being at UMass Lowell was the diversity. I was able to meet so many different students and share their perspectives on how they saw the world,” she says.
Foreshadowing her current EforAll role, Smith worked for the Lowell Small Business Assistance Center while at UML, helping run monthly workshops for entrepreneurs.
She also landed an internship as an aide to then-Congressman Marty Meehan, now president of the UMass system. Smith provided support to his office’s director of immigration — experience that helped her become program manager for an international staffing firm in Boston just three years later.
With EforAll, which has programs in eight Massachusetts communities and has also expanded to New York, Colorado and Arkansas, Smith is eager to apply the knowledge and experience she has gained over the course of her career.
“I want people to see the beauty of Lowell and how amazing the people are in this city,” she says.
Her first event at EforAll was a Lowell Foodie Venture Pitch Contest at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, where eight early-stage entrepreneurs vied for almost $3,000 in prizes.
“I’m hoping my story will resonate with someone who looks like me, or someone who came from modest means,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t experience success. That should never prevent anyone from going after their dreams.”