Every year, Women in Business recognizes and celebrates remarkable businesswomen in history and our communities.
Sometimes some of the most remarkable women are in one’s own backyard — or one’s own office.
Without a doubt, Colleen Smith fits the profile of an accomplished, successful businesswoman. Self-motivated with a clear idea of what she has wanted to do with her life, Smith has stuffed more living into her 35 years than many twice her age. As editor of one newspaper and publisher of three, an accomplished thespian, community activist, mentor and public speaker, Smith not only embodies the drive and determination of a 21st-century woman, she does it all with style, panache and humor.
This reporter sat down with our editor recently to learn first-hand how she ended up in publishing, and why she believes local news is vital to the health of a community.
“At 13, I was chomping at the bit to join the workforce and make some money. We lived on Lopez and my family owned a business on San Juan where I attended Spring Street School. That summer I worked as a prep cook in the kitchens of various restaurants in Friday Harbor preparing food and washing dishes,” she said. “The following summer my mom suggested I look for something that was more in line with my interests — writing and reading — and drove me to the office of the Islands’ Weekly on Lopez, where I had an interview with then-publisher and editor Ron Hall.”
Then, she asked the question that would clear a path she still travels: “I said, ‘Do you have anything I could do this summer?’”
Hall suggested she could do typesetting, proofread stories, do some filing and, even be tasked with an occasional story assignment.
Smith laughed, “That’s how it started.”
She continued to work at the Weekly throughout her middle and high school years. As a junior, she participated in the Running Start Program that allowed students to attend college, and earn credits toward both an associates and high school degree. At 15, Smith attended Skagit Valley College full-time. At 17, she graduated with an Associates of Arts degree and her high school diploma. Three weeks before Smith was to matriculate at Western Washington University, fate stepped in: editor Ron Hall left the Lopez paper.
Smith’s voice rose a notch as she admitted: “I realized I really wanted that job. I had just turned 18, and I thought I could be the adult I always wanted to be. I could be editor of a newspaper, be with my boyfriend on the island, have a house, all of it!”
From there, the path was clear.
Smith was hired as assistant editor by Elyse Van den Bosch, former publisher of the Sounder, who had taken over the Weekly. That promotion gave Smith an opportunity to learn — at the hands of her coworkers — graphic design and page layout, managing an office and writing and the ability to juggle multiple tasks. Skills, she readily admits, that have served her well. Smith also continued her college work, majoring in English and women’s studies through Washington State University’s online program.
After five years with the Weekly, Smith was ready for a new challenge. The Sounder was looking for editorial help, and she offered her assistance.
“The first time I got off the ferry on Orcas and drove through town, I knew. When I drove down Prune Alley and past Rose’s and I looked around, I thought, ‘Yup! This is where I want to move next.’ It felt like I had come home, and I’ve never thought about living anywhere else since,” Smith noted.
When the Sounder’s editor left, Smith accepted a six-month interim editor position, which included weekly meetings with Douglas Crist, Sound Publishing’s editorial consultant. He mentored Smith in everything from photography to story organization.
“His no-nonsense and sarcastic way of doing things toughened me up. I learned so much from him,” she said.
At the end of the six months, the 24-year-old Smith was offered and accepted the job as editor of the Sounder with Crist’s approval.
Gaining the approval of the Orcas community was another story.
“When I went to school board meetings, people would look at me and wonder, ‘Who is this child that has come to cover our event?’” she remembered. “In the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle. I didn’t particularly feel welcomed. I think that made me work harder and become more conscientious and methodical in how I ran the paper.”
When Van den Bosch retired, the president of Sound Publishing asked Smith if she’d consider being the publisher. Because she needed training on the business side of the newspaper, she was appointed assistant publisher, and worked under the tutelage of an interim publisher, Marcia Van Dyke.
Over the next several years, Smith was designated as publisher of all three papers while remaining editor of the Islands’ Sounder — a job she loves and takes incredibly seriously.
“I love that it’s a way to feel truly connected to a place and its people, and I believe it makes a difference,” Smith said. “The freedom of the press is so integral to a healthy and functioning citizenship, and I believe doing it in a thoughtful way that honors our mission of truth to power and is sensitive to what our community wants to read about.”
In 2014, Smith commuted to Canada for a year to complete a certificate in management and leadership from Thompson Rivers University, an endeavor sponsored by Sound Publishing.
Marking over a decade on Orcas, where she’s served on nonprofit boards and as the Orcas Island Community Foundation’s 2018 Flat Person and been in a myriad of theatre productions, Smith asserts Orcas will always be her home.
She takes pride in being able to put in front of the community relevant topics and issues that create discussion and need to be talked about. She’s emphatic that a huge part of that comes from the community.
“I am so happy to see that the newspapers continue to be important to the community and that readers participate in its content and support us by advertising and buying papers and keeping this business relevant. Their press releases, story ideas — we could not function without the community’s engagement. I’m very grateful for that,” she said.