Robin West Smith’s journey to empowerment

The little girl stood next to her mother at the bus stop, waiting to go to a second-hand clothes store. The snow gently fell and as she looked to the sky, her sight landed on her mother who had tears rolling down her face. She knew her thoughts. Being on state assistance with her kids, she didn’t know how they were going to survive.

The little girl reached up and tightly held her mother’s hand.

“Ma, you are always gonna be my hero. No matter what we go through,” she said.

As they stood there in silence for a moment, Robin West Smith remembered whispering a prayer to herself, “God if I can keep my brain functioning and my arms and legs functioning, promise, promise, I will never have to do what my mother is doing right now.”

Robin West Smith (Photo by Mick Valentino.)

West Smith gained the strength that her mother had in her childhood and uses it to empower other women. In 2011, she joined Professional Woman Network, otherwise known as PWN, an organization in Louisville, Kentucky, that helps build confidence and teaches women to become trainers and consultants. She aims to teach other women to be strong leaders by sharing her personal life experiences.

At 66 years old, West Smith has had multiple career changes such as a corporate supervisor and an usher for the Fisher Theatre. She is currently a sociology professor at MCCC but found a passion for helping other women through motivational speaking.

Her post-secondary education began at Wayne County Community College, but a job prevented her from finishing her degree. She eventually continued her education at Wayne State University where she earned her master’s degrees in urban planning and sociology.

West Smith was born and raised in the heart of Detroit where the neighborhood was your family and the streetlights told you when to head home. She said growing up and working in this area sparked a need to understand the individuals with whom she had to interact.

West Smith worked at Electronic Data Systems for 28 years until she saw the opportunity for a career change.

“When corporate America told me, ‘We’re done with you,’ for about 30 days I was in the wilderness,” West Smith said. “And then I saw this little advertisement in the back of a magazine I read every month called Black Enterprise.”

The advertisement was titled Professional Woman Network and read, “Would you like to learn how to train people?”

That same afternoon, she was on the phone with a woman named Linda Ellis Eastman, the CEO of PWN, which was the start of a friendship and motivational speaking career lasting over 20 years.

“I really like teaching,” West Smith said. “Because maybe young people out here need to know these things. Maybe people aren’t telling them the things they should be hearing and understanding to help see themselves in society.”

West Smith said too many women are apprehensive in professional settings. They feel as if other people’s needs come before their own. She wants to help them gain confidence and a voice as she used to feel the same way.

“I did not realize the value I brought to different things,” she said. “One day, I woke up and started listening to my own damn speeches.”

PWN Conferences are held once a year with multiple speakers covering various topics from building self-confidence to overcoming toxic relationships. West Smith said she quickly went from an audience member to a speaker and eventually an author.

Eastman is a consistent audience member for West Smith’s speeches. She said West Smith’s knowledge is just one reason why she captivates the audience.

“There is always such a strong, positive response to Robin’s speeches,” Eastman said. “People come up to give her hugs and share their personal experiences with her.”

West Smith’s daughter, Jenifer Daniels, had a similar response.

“I was surprised by the way other people responded to her,” Daniels said. “When I was younger, it would be like, ‘Oh God lady, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but she does.”

West Smith always had strong female role models. She uses them and their words as inspirations for her speeches – especially her mother.

“She is my hero,” she said. “I am who I am because of her and not in spite of her.”

In West Smith’s book, “Transformation: Reinventing the Woman Within,” she wrote a chapter about her mother and the lessons she taught her, earning her the Professional Woman Network Literary Award in 2011 for that chapter.

Today, West Smith walks into class with a designer purse dangling from her arm, boasting you’ll never see her wear the same outfit twice. Her lessons are packed with personal experiences that show students that not every life path will be linear.

“I did not think this is where I’m gonna be, but damn I’m glad I made that right turn,” she said.