Brad D. Smith Attends Marshall University’s #WVSolutions Seekers Student Leadership Conference

On November 20th, Brad D. Smith joined Marshall University’s president, Jerome A. Gilbert, for an interview as part of the first #WVSolutions Seekers Student Leadership Conference. The event invited West Virginia high school upperclassmen, college students, and individuals enrolled in professional training programs to engage with local leaders over Zoom. With a shared passion for giving back, West Virginia natives Brad and Gilbert encouraged students to learn about the Mountain State and make lasting connections with fellow attendees.

When Gilbert asked Brad for his most memorable experiences being raised in Kenova, WV, Brad described how he felt blessed and attributes much of his early ambition to his parents. “I had an idyllic childhood,” he said. “My mother taught me to dream big and not to see any boundaries or obstacles [as insurmountable]…my dad taught me to be authentic to who I am…not to hide my accent and not to fear being from a small town.” 

Being part of the Marshall University community also had a profound impact on Brad’s future. In 1970, his community faced a devastating loss when the Marshall University football team lost their lives in a plane crash. At six years old, Brad watched the university and its neighbors “lock arms” and rise from the tragedy together, as a team. As a result of that loss, Brad said, Marshall University brings something to its education that no other institution can match: a sense of purpose in something bigger than yourself and the understanding that life is a team sport. “The way you succeed,” he said, “is not by being a great player, but by being a player that makes the team around you better.”

Brad spoke about his mentors and influences, noting how he had studied successful leaders since he was young. “I tried to make everyone’s best quotes and ideas my own,” he said. In addition to his parents, Brad identified Fred Rogers and his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as one of his greatest influences. Rogers, he said, embodied the most important characteristics of a great leader: he had a bold and clear vision for changing the world, he created an environment that welcomed diverse ideas and voices, and he produced winning results. He used his show to improve the mental and emotional well-being of children, and to talk about some of the most contentious issues of the time including divorce, racial discrimination, and the Vietnam War.

For example, when the U.S. was experiencing civil unrest over pool segregation policies, Mr. Rogers used his show to take a stand against racial inequality. He added a small swimming pool for an episode and invited the character Officer Clemens — played by Black actor François Clemmons — to join him in the pool so both men could cool their feet. The scene showed viewers that we are all the same; we should all be allowed to be in swimming pools and we should all treat each other with dignity. His entire cast was diverse and inclusive, and for 33 years he had the number one rated children’s show. Most importantly, Mr. Rogers’ legacy lives on and people continue to remember him for the kindness he always showed to others.

Throughout his conversation with President Gilbert, Brad underscored his belief that every individual in the Marshall University community and the state of West Virginia has the skills to become a great leader. West Virginia natives, Brad said, have the grit and perseverance to dust themselves off after failure and do it again. A skill that is critical for leaders, and for every company that’s trying to hire great employees. As West Virginia embraces its next chapter, today’s students are on the ground floor of creating the state’s future. We need to take our destiny in our own hands. We need to create the next businesses,” Brad said. He ended by telling students, “You are our hope of today. You are our leaders of tomorrow.”