Gerianne Smart ’82 Starts a Business and Saves an Opera House
Fueling Vermont’s creative economy one root cause at a time.
by Sarah Godwin
Each year, Gerianne Smart estimates she logs an average of 25,000 miles in her car. What is most impressive about this number is that most of these miles are logged on the winding, one and two lane roads of Vermont. As founder and owner of Smart Communications, Inc., Smart knows that in order to make the largest impact, you have to go out and forge personal connections with your clients, observing them in their own environments.
For 10 years, out of an office in nearby Vergennes and the past several years out of her 1825 farmhouse in Ferrisburg, Vermont, Smart has owned and operated a full service communications company, Smart Communication, Inc. While the company is 10 years young, Smart’s involvement with their largest client,Vermont Life magazine dates even further back. In 1990, a fortuitous camping trip to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont led Smart to meet the then associate editor of Vermont Life. At the time, the magazine was contemplating whether to accept advertisements for the first time in the magazine’s 44 plus-year history. When the decision was made, the company quickly needed a savvy business person who would be able to sell tasteful advertising space in the well established magazine. Having worked in the magazine industry in New York for several years, Smart was the obvious choice. In six years, Smart created a streamlined advertising program forVermont Life that included a steady revenue stream and loyal client base. In 1997, corporate restructuring meant Smart had to essentially re-apply for her job. Rather than being angry or frustrated (Smart describes these emotions as “the evil twins of entrepreneurial success”), Smart recognized an opportunity for increased independence.
A creative individual with many interests, Smart longed for a platform from which to continue her work as a community leader, actress, and public relations specialist. She also wanted to continue to work with Vermont Life. Not quite sure how to handle all of this, Smart did what any creative woman with an entrepreneurial spirit would do: she founded her own company. In 1997, Smart Communication, Inc. became part of Vermont’s creative economy. The company is a full service advertising and public relations firm that served as an umbrella company for all of Smart’s creative endeavors. The first contract the firm landed was advertising representative for Vermont Life magazine. “I didn’t take it for granted that I (or now my firm) would be awarded the contract.” Every four years I still have to bid on the contract and I don’t take that lightly either, it keeps me at my best.”
Being at her best is something Smart was taught at an early age. As one of 14 children growing up in Monmouth County New Jersey, Smart knew the importance of a college education, and as a senior in high school she realized that if she was going to go to college, she’d have to work long summers waitressing at the Clam Hut restaurant to afford the tuition at a nearby community college. And so Smart applied to just a few schools, including one that her chemistry teacher kept bugging her to apply to: the ‘Catholic one in DC.’ “I was never planning to go to Trinity, I just couldn’t afford a private school.” Smart’s chemistry teacher was Mrs. Ann Zarella, Trinity class of 1952. Unbeknownst to Smart, Mrs. Zarella had done much of the planning for her. An active member of the Middletown, New Jersey Rotary, this Trinity alumna nominated Smart to receive a generous scholarship to a four-year accredited school. Smart won the scholarship in the spring of her senior year and Trinity became the de facto choice; it was the only four-year school to which she had applied, using an application voucher provided by “Mrs. Z.”
When she arrived at Trinity, Smart recalls the professors and work as “shockingly hard. There were such high expectations, and we were encouraged to question everything,” recalls Smart. The best professors and classes for her were world literature with Sr. Margaret Claydon, philosophy with Dr. Max Guzikowski and psychology with Sr. Mary Margaret Finnegan. “Getting to class wasn’t enough, we had to actively engage in discourse about the subject, it was difficult, challenging and wonderful all at once.”
Smart’s Trinity experience came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1980. Tuition at Trinity was increasing sharply, and she knew she could not make up the difference by waiting tables. Sr. Mary Margaret Finnegan, her advisor, helped her to transfer to Trenton State to finish out her junior and senior years. Sadly, Sr. Mary Margaret passed away the year after Smart left for Trenton State. She sent a card, cried, and further immersed herself into her studies at Trenton State. “It was okay” noted Smart, “but there wasn’t the community-wide commitment to learning that existed at Trinity.” At the end of summer, just before she was to begin her senior year at Trenton State, she received a phone call from a breathless Sr. Anne Cecilia Coxen, the financial aid officer at Trinity. “Gerianne, you’re coming back to Trinity!” Talking too fast and tripping over her words, Sr. Anne Cecilia Coxen explained that she had been praying for hours and staring at a list for weeks to choose an eligible junior or senior to award the new Sr. Mary Margaret Finnegan scholarship to. None of the names on the roster had made sense and, of course, Gerianne’s name was not on the list. “Then, out of nowhere Gerianne, your name snapped into my head and I’ve just now raced from the chapel to phone you with the good news.”
“I use my Trinity education every day, all the time” declares Smart. “We were taught to boil all questions and problems down to the root cause and key issues. Then attack those. In my communications work today, this is largely what I do.” Smart uses her talents in public relations and advertising to make a living, but she is also engaged in extensive community work.
In 1993, Smart peeked into a dilapidated opera house in Vergennes, Vermont. “My heart broke, I turned around, faced the stage and cried.” Formerly a part-time actress in New York City, witnessing the neglect of what was once such a grand building propelled her into action. Smart immediately recognized the potential for amazing things, “but good PR was needed to excite people about what could happen. The opera house had a PR problem.” For eight years, Smart served as President of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House, overseeing its grand reopening for the centennial in 1997. Today, the Vergennes Opera House is a highly used and sought-after public space in a vibrant small town. Many newspaper articles, local business owners and residents credit the Opera House re-opening with the dramatic turnaround of the tiny city of Vergennes.
The Vergennes Opera House is a dramatic example of the creative economy at work, the underlying philosophy for Smart Communication, Inc. The Creative economy supposes that people are drawn to places for the sense of community, not a job or a specific industry. People are there because they want to live amongst a vibrant community of business people, artists, and entrepreneurs. They are drawn to a particular quality of life. If a major employer leaves the area, residents of a creative economy have connections to the community that extend far beyond employment. Residents are entrepreneurial and find a way to stay within their communities. The concept of the Creative economy is alive and well throughout the state of Vermont. Gerianne Smart is considered an expert on the subject and is often invited to speak about it. She has served on the Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation which studied the creative economy in Vermont and reported their finding to the legislature and Governor Jim Douglas.
It quickly becomes easy to see how the 25,000 miles adds up; advertising for Vermont Life magazine, serving as an ex-officio member of the Vergennes Opera House board, or lately, as a member of the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial Celebration (Smart was appointed by Governor Douglas in 2004 to help plan the Lake Champlain’s 400th Anniversary celebration in 2009) – not to mention the independent film company, Pasture Productions, also under Smart Communication, Inc. What keeps this Trinity entrepreneur, marketing guru, volunteer and mother of an eight-year-old buzzing and smiling throughout her decidedly hectic days? Is it coffee, chocolate or a desire for money or wealth? A seemingly simple root cause: “The opportunity to foster and nurture real live friendships, they are the best fuel in the world”.