By Anna De Cheke Qualls
An elementary school teacher told Lakuan T. Smith (’17 MPS, Organizational Industrial Psychology) that his life would be easier if he used his middle name, Terry. Smith often used both names from then on, depending on the situation.
“My mother wasn’t pleased to hear what happened in school. Of course, my family always called me Lakuan,” said Smith, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at BounceX, a tech company based in New York City.
“But outside of my community, I became more self-conscious. After college, I wasn't getting jobs when I used my first name,” he added. “So, ultimately, I started using Terry again. I think by calling myself Terry I was sort of responding to the ignorance of my audience. And, you know, to this day I still find myself using Terry.”
Smith grew up in the Westbury Hills section of Westbury, Long Island. His mother worked for an airline and his father was a welder and entrepreneur. His family prioritized education; his cousins, who were like his brothers, all went to college, and eventually pursued graduate studies. The men in the Smith family traditionally attended Morgan State University, while the women went to Howard University, so Smith also began his college journey at Morgan.
“I've watched my family go from blue collar to white collar through my cousins and extended family,” he said. “The jobs my parents’ generation held included a truck driver, a nurse's aide, and a correctional officer. In my family we uplift each other, and try to make some sort of change.”
Smith worked at various non-profits after college, including a homeless shelter, a chronic and mental illness support center, and an organization focused on youth in Harlem. He did everything from helping clients with social service needs and housing, to advocating for folks with HIV. Smith also taught social justice and journalism at Brooklyn’s Sunset Park High School. These experiences brought him back to school, and to Maryland.
“I found that in social service, there was a culture of burnout or just under-appreciation,” he said. “I think there were a lot of things that management could have done to lift people up and support them, and they just weren’t doing that. I was thinking of doing something about this by learning how to change organizations, and their culture in a deliberate way.”
The Master’s in Organizational Industrial Psychology at UMD perfectly met Smith’s needs. It complemented his career focus, and the program was highly regarded, affordable and diverse. Smith could also plug into a local support network in Maryland, as two of his cousins were already in D.C. attending medical and law schools.
Dr. Juliet Aiken, Program Director from the program’s inception, intentionally built a diverse cohort and a close-knit learning community, saying that the only thing every student in the program has in common is a clarity of purpose around the pursuit of industrial organizational psychology.
“Lakuan, transitioning from social work into Industrial Organizational Psychology in his late 20's may not have been your typical graduate student for some programs, but for us, he was absolutely the perfect fit,” Aiken said. “With his passion for transforming systems and structures to do good in the world, his enormous heart, and his relentless drive to do what he needs to do to get where he wants to be, he was a clear and shining example of who our program was specifically created to serve.”
Smith started using his first name again for the first time in many years, outside his family, at Maryland.
“Most of my classmates called me Lake, as a nickname. I think I was transitioning back to being who I am, and letting that barrier down,” he said. “I felt like I always knew who I was but the program really encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone. I think for Juliet [Aiken] that was intentional.”
Armed with new information, Smith first landed a job at Uber in D.C., followed by a transfer to New York City. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do, so he continued to search for work that better aligned with his interests and goals. Professionally, Smith still called himself Terry.
A friend recommended Smith apply for a position at BounceX, where they were starting a Diversity and Inclusion team (D&I). Initially hired as a D&I Associate, he was promoted to Manager in just over a year.
“I wanted to work for a company that really believed in its product and doing great things. Some companies wait until they’re very large before creating a D&I group. And here was a company [BounceX] that, at the time, had about 320 employees, and was already thinking about these issues. And that's a place that you want to be. At the time, it was a sign that, BounceX is trying to do the right things, and as they grow, intertwine D&I in their DNA,” said Smith.
Smith now spends much time creating community, developing programming, and talking to prospective employees. BounceX has established seven Employee Resource Groups (ERG) through D&I– Gender Equality, AbleX (focused on folks with disabilities), BlackX, LatinX, BounceOUT (for the LGBTQ community), AsianX, and Generations (for addressing different life stages). The groups meet regularly, and leaders are required to attend a different ERG at least annually, to understand different perspectives and needs. Smith initiated– and is very proud of– this policy.
“To a degree, we all suffer from feeling included or not,” he said. “One thing that I got from working at the homeless shelter and also working with kids, is the importance of listening to each other. The ERG leads have to go in and listen to what that other community is going through, and see how we can all work together to make that right.”
This effort resulted in increasing collaboration among the ERGs. In a recent community service effort, BlackX worked with Gender Equality to recruit and mentor more young black women in a technology-focused high school. ERGs were also able to buy backpacks and a water filtration system for a school with a history of lead contamination. Smith considers these life changing and historic moments.
Prospective employees frequently ask the D&I team about the culture of BounceX – how the tech company might support women, people of color, and similarly underserved individuals – and Smith and D&I help to implement this culture change.
“A potential employee has asked me, ‘As a person of color, do you think this is a good place for me?’,” Smith said. “I tell them yes, trusting that I'm telling them the truth. And I think to get top talent, you're going to have to do that.”
Getting staff to contribute to a company’s community beyond the regular workday is not easy. Smith stresses the importance of buy-in, leading by example, having effective assessment and data, and developing a strategy – being intentional about how, when, why and where D&I programs are offered.
“If our CEO can come, then nobody else can say that they're too busy,” he said, adding that they also highlight the benefits of professional development and leading an ERG, especially for prospective managers.
Smith leads by example, sharing the story of his early difficulty finding jobs depending on what first name he used.
“I used to always go by Terry at work. I share my story of applying for the same job twice (same resume) under [both] Lakuan and Terry,” Smith said. “One company called me back as Terry, and told me that I was qualified. Lakuan never heard back. That’s unconscious bias. Sharing this at work is a very vulnerable place to be. And for a long time, Terry was like a piece of armor to protect me from others’ ignorance. When it comes to these ERGs, I'm not going to ask you to do something I am not willing to do, as well.”
Ryan Lathrum, Senior Director of BounceX’s Diversity, Community and Inclusion agrees that Smith has already made an impact.
“The discrimination Lakuan experienced while applying for a job early in his career sparked his desire to pursue a career in diversity and inclusion,” Lathrum said. “He uses this experience to lead with empathy, and provides opportunities to employees from all intersections to be successful within the workplace. Lakuan took an unfortunate incident and turned it into action for the advancement of others around him.”
C. Larry Jackson, Smith’s uncle and mentor, shares the family’s pride in him and the anticipation that his nephew will continue to be a change agent. Work, for Lakuan, is a labor of love, Jackson said.
“Lakuan’s focus on psychology allowed him to focus on building skills that would give him the knowledge to understand behaviors, and what motivates people,” he said. “In his current position at BounceX, he taps into all of his passions for making a difference, not accepting the status quo, and creating a business environment of equal opportunity for all.”
Aiken says that Smith is making a difference in his career through the skills he acquired at UMD.
“Since enrolling then finishing the program, he has done nothing but pave the way for himself and support others through our program and our field,” Aiken said. “I'm grateful he chose to apply, and then chose us - his honesty, transparency, enthusiasm, and hard work have not only paid off for himself but have also transformed myself and our entire program.”
Smith believes that creating inclusive culture at BounceX builds a better organization, product and business model. He says he’s still the same person he was as a teacher and social worker, now poised to make a difference in a new space.
“I can still give back, and I can still make sure that I can be a voice. I can make sure that feelings of under appreciation, lack of support, or isolation are heard,” he said.
He hopes, through this inclusivity, to retain great people and talent from different perspectives and backgrounds.
“You can only do that if you allow for a variety of perspectives, and work together to erase the blind spots we all have.”
(Photo credit: Lakuan T. Smith)