Kelly Smith’s accent is hard to pin down. First you get the warm, confident hint of Midwest America. Then a sharper, more intentional tone – East Coast, perhaps? But finally, in creeps something else – that softening of the ‘t’… that upward inflection at the end of a sentence. Australia.
It turns out that Kelly is all of these places. An Indigenous Australian from Armidale, New South Wales, she moved to the US in 2015. While New York remains her “soul mate”, Cincinnati has been base-camp for the last four years, as she continues a progressive and rewarding career with Jacobs, the global design, engineering, construction and technical services firm. She’s quick to tell us that the americanisation of her accent is both deliberate and important – “I need it to be understood here.” Here is a woman used to adapting to new environments in order to thrive.
All change: an unlikely path to architectural design
In 2005, Kelly was a receptionist in Sydney. It wasn’t the path she’d planned, nor the one she’d eventually pursue:
“I planned to do psychology and work with Indigenous kids. I started the degree but only lasted one semester. It was too much theory work; I knew it wasn’t for me, I needed something more practical. I ended up doing reception work with a kitchen company until I could work out what I wanted to do. Over time, they started letting me draft the kitchens. One day, my manager said ‘you’re really good at this’ and encouraged me to talk to his brother, who was an architect.”
Kelly was curious, so she went and spent some time in a design studio, developing technical drawing skills, in Sydney. She loved it. Inspired, she applied for and secured an Indigenous Architectural Cadetship with Sinclair Knight Merz, which was later acquired by Jacobs. She went on to complete a Bachelor of Architecture and then a Master of Architecture, while also developing her experience of the Life Sciences Line of Business. As a purpose-driven individual, she connected strongly with the importance of work in this space. She also had her eye on a move closer to a guy she was dating, in New York. So, in 2015, she secured an opportunity to move to the Jacobs’ Cincinnati Office, to work on one of the company’s largest life sciences projects to date. When we gently ask about the distance between Ohio and New York, Kelly laughs and sets us straight:
“The guy’s long gone but my soul mate is New York. It’s my paradise! It really is the city that never sleeps. But right now, I have an amazing opportunity in Cincinnati. I get to work with amazing teams in an elite office for bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing. The opportunities at Jacobs really are endless.”
Kelly elaborates, speaking with heart of a company which “supports you to be fluid, moving across roles and Lines of Business, and outside of your comfort zone”. As well as the diversity of opportunity (“from educational facilities, labs and hospitals, to aged care, healthcare and defence work”), she also loves Jacobs’ powerful in-house networks. As the lead of a Careers Networking Chapter which oversees in-house professional development events, she’s making valuable international connections. All this, while truly enjoying her work.
“I’m one of those weird people – I love what I do and where I do it. I don’t understand how people can come to work and be miserable every day, just to get a pay cheque. I need more. In biopharma at Jacobs, we design the buildings where life-saving drugs are developed. I get to work with amazing teams on amazing projects delivering amazing outcomes which save lives.”
Disadvantage, diversity and a desire to help
Kelly says she has always wanted to make an impact, and that this desire has intensified as her career has developed.
“There’s a difference I want to make – whether directly or indirectly. People forget how important biopharma is, even on a day to day level. I once worked on a project at a client site in Michigan. I got really sick. The doctor gave me antibiotics, antibiotics of the exact project I was working on.”
It’s no surprise to hear that when she started out in architecture, Kelly’s goal was to design sustainable housing for Indigenous Australian families.
“I grew up underprivileged. The opportunities I’ve worked for, and been given have made me successful in my own right. I’m not currently able to work directly with Indigenous kids back home (which was a huge passion of mine) but I try to do my bit for others.”
Kelly is walking the walk, alongside an employer which does the same. For the last three years, she has been actively involved in a ‘Big Sister’ program, mentoring or “just hanging out with” a disadvantaged teenager in Cincinnati. She’s seen Jacobs engage in plenty of local engagement work of this kind, but makes special mention of their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in Australia which sets out Jacobs contribution to reconciliation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander community in Australia.
“Being Aboriginal, our RAP is close to my heart. I love that ten years after developing our first Plan, the company is still working to evolve and improve it. Whether in Australia or anywhere else, I love that the company looks beyond the money. They open up our core values and celebrate diversity.”
This leads us to a question we’ve been dying to ask the global go-getter: What’s your take on inclusion and diversity (I&D) at Jacobs? She responds with passion and energy:
“Like the wider industry, we’re still not where we want and need to be. But the direction is changing. I saw a video today of our CEO walking for pride. That’s so great to see. Jacobs is a company where diverse genders, cultures and orientations are recognised. We have a lot of I&D networks across our offices, and last year, they rolled out specific I&D training. It really opens up your mind about how we’re conditioned to view the world. They’re giving us the tools and the support to think in a different way.”
Finally, we ask Kelly for her career advice for others in minority or under-represented groups. Her answer is quick and instinctive:
“Be strong-minded, make your education important to you and focus on what makes you happy and successful. But always remember your roots – keep that ingrained in you.”
And what advice would she give to that Sydney receptionist, back in 2005?
“If you see something that interests you, just try it. Whether for 10 minutes or 12 months, there’s no harm in giving it a go.”
Subscribe to our fortnightly Women at Work email to find out about new stories, events and career building resources.