Michele Y. Smith ’90
If there’s one thing that influenced Michele Y. Smith ’90 during her time at Milton Hershey School, it’s the legacy of Milton and Catherine Hershey’s philanthropy that gave her a chance to succeed far beyond what she thought was possible.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today without their culture of philanthropy,” said Michele. “It continues to give back in multitudes, and what [Mr. Hershey] doesn’t even know is how much he’s driven such a social impact around the world. I am a product of that social impact. You can see it through my career and where I am today, it has shaped everything that I have done.”
Michele enrolled at MHS in fourth grade, joining her brother as a student. Her mother was raising the two on her own in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while working full-time and pursuing a degree. Michele’s mother decided to enroll her children at the school to give them each the opportunity to grow individually and to strengthen their family—even allowing her to earn several degrees.
While at MHS, Michele was influenced by many adults in her life, both teachers and houseparents, many of which she remains in contact with.
“They don’t just leave you when you graduate,” she shared. “They follow you for life through all your ups and downs and achievements. They’re my family.”
One of the adults that shaped her life was Ady Shepard, her business and finance teacher. Through a business audit project—where students created their own business and had to carefully review the financials—Michele developed her love of business.
After graduating from MHS and receiving a finance degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she began her career at a financial firm and later transitioned to United Airlines in the days before 9/11. This required her to tap into a skill learned at MHS—resilience.
“I’ve been through some very life-changing things that have happened to the world,” she said. “When I look back now … I think that’s what a Spartan is. It’s our spirit. It’s our resilience. It’s never giving up—we’re always facing forward. We all come from challenging backgrounds, but what we’ve learned is that our experiences shape us, they mold us, and they make us better.”
With the foundation she received at MHS and her professional experiences, Michele’s excelled in her career in finance roles within the hospitality and travel industry—organizations that enabled her see the world. Eventually, she settled in Seattle, Washington becoming the chief financial officer for the Woodland Park Zoo.
“When I started at the zoo, I was enticed by its mission because it was really focusing on community,” Michele said. “The employees reminded me of MHS students. They were very passionate about what they do. They were a family.”
Michele’s experience in travel and hospitality allowed her to look at things from a different perspective as she reflected on the impact the zoo could have on the community as a whole.
With 1.4 million visitors from around the globe, the zoo is one of the largest attractions in Seattle, requiring Michele to use the perspective she gained while becoming a world citizen to develop the most impactful experience for every visitor. By focusing on bringing animals from around the world to ensure that the global experience is accessible to marginalized communities.
Outside of her formal career, Michele is also involved in her community. She is on the board of Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that helps women and families experiencing homelessness, highlighting a campaign to ensure no child sleeps outside in Seattle. Michele also partners with the Downtown Seattle Association to make sure the streets are safe and works to give back to local small business owners, mentoring women along the way.
“I am a product of philanthropy,” she said. “I understand the importance of this work and for me, the mission of where I am and building a purpose-driven culture that’s going to help spark and change lives for others is following the same work of our MHS founders.”
Continuing her work in nonprofit, Michele has recently accepted a new role as chief executive officer of the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle.
Beginning as the Experience Museum created by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, the museum has grown in its mission to allow Seattle residents and tourists to see and touch various types of culture such as art, gaming, music, and more. Just as she did at Woodland Park Zoo, Michele wants to ensure that marginalized communities have access to the cultural experiences locally and globally through MoPOP exhibits.
“I want to make sure that MOPOP continues to be an example of the future of art and culture, while driving social impact for people to learn from one another and their cultures,” said Michele.
As she looks to the future as the CEO of MoPOP and continuing her work in her community as an advocate and mentor, it all comes back to her time at MHS.
“For the parents that are considering MHS, it is an opportunity of a lifetime to change their child’s life,” Michele said. “It’s an opportunity that they should take, because you can see the product that has come out of MHS. It is also a fierce network of and champions, supported by the mission of a school and its founders.”