Paying it Forward

Blake '88 and Sheri Cutler Smith '87Blake ’88 and Sheri Cutler Smith ’87 support St. Olaf College’s scholarship efforts.

Blake and Sheri Cutler Smith credit much of their success to a solid St. Olaf liberal arts education and through their giving they hope to help provide the same opportunities to others.

When St. Olaf graduates leave the Hill, it’s often the liberal arts aspect of their education that propels them into outstanding careers. That was true for Blake and Sheri Smith. Blake majored in mathematics and Sheri in biology, and they both concentrated in statistics at St. Olaf. When the Smiths started their careers, their employers quickly discovered that they had the statistical chops to succeed, as well as the ability to communicate highly technical information to lay people.

“At St. Olaf, you learn to write, to communicate, to solve problems, and I think that allowed me to move up really fast and get a lot of opportunities and experience in a short amount of time,” says Sheri.

Both thoroughly enjoyed their time on Manitou Heights. Sheri played oboe and English horn in the St. Olaf Band, served as a junior counselor, and played a variety of intramural sports. Blake was a competitive alpine skier for St. Olaf, and he also participated in intramurals.

“It’s a very special place,” says Blake, who lives in Mound, Minnesota, with Sheri and their two children, Hunter, 16, and Taylor, 11. “I’ve learned that life is a lot like college in that you have ups and downs and you have to handle it. St. Olaf also teaches you how to interact with all sorts of different people, and in a business sense, that’s really important.”

The Smiths have been steadfast supporters of St. Olaf, with annual donations for the past 15 years. They also made a contribution toward Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. They are in the process of setting up a scholarship fund at S t. Olaf that will help students finance their St. Olaf education — mirroring their own experiences as scholarship recipients.

Though both Oles are of the same vintage, the Smiths didn’t meet until graduate school at Iowa State University, where they each earned master’s degrees in statistics. After graduate school, Sheri began her career at Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, where she did statistical analysis for the pharmaceutical division before moving into clinical research. When she and Blake moved back to the Twin Cities in 1993, she went to work at 3M in its pharmaceutical group. Sheri next went to MGI Pharma, eventually serving as senior director of clinical operations.

Then, in 2003, Sheri became owner of Courante Oncology, a boutique consultancy that serves pharmaceutical and medical device companies. That life change occurred when a friend who had been running the company asked Sheri to take it over a few weeks before the friend died from breast cancer. Sheri agreed. “It was probably an emotional decision, but, honestly, it’s been one of the best things ever,” she says.

Blake traversed a similar path to success. He started his career at CNA, an insurance company in Chicago, where he worked in the statistical research group. When the Smiths returned to Minnesota, Blake spent fifteen years at MCG/HealthCare, which became Clark Consulting, a company that advises nonprofit health-care providers on compensation, benefits, strategic planning, and more. He started as a financial analyst and quickly progressed, culminating his career as senior vice president of operations.

Toward the end of his time at Clark, Blake worked on consolidating operations and efficiency, which ended up attracting a buyer, a large insurance company called Aegon. He worked on transitioning the public company to a privately owned one, then decided the time was right to move on. Now Blake pitches in when needed at his wife’s company and volunteers heavily in the community, especially with youth sports.

Blake, too, credits St. Olaf for his career success, and that’s one reason why he and Sheri have steadfastly supported the college over the years. As undergraduates, the Smiths took advantage of an excellent education, established lifelong friendships, and enjoyed a St. Olaf experience made possible by the generosity of alumni. They believe that it’s important to pay the gift forward by now establishing a scholarship fund for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend St. Olaf.

“What we received from St. Olaf has really carried through our whole lives and helped us get to where we are,” Sheri says.

The Smiths prioritize their giving to St. Olaf and to philanthropies that support children’s health care. This year, Sheri is serving as co-chair of the gift committee for her 25th class reunion. For her, it’s been a joy to reconnect with classmates while also financially supporting the college they love.

“I think graduate school got me my first job at CNA, but St. Olaf was the reason everything else happened,” says Blake. “It wasn’t until I walked off campus that I realized how much I really loved it there.”

— Reprinted from the St. Olaf Magazine, spring 2012