Alumna leads innovative work to provide fresh food to those in need
Just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Stephanie Tyler Smith ’13 started a new role at Food For Free, a nonprofit organization that works to serve those at risk of hunger across Eastern Massachusetts.
In the challenging months that followed, it was one of the few hunger relief organizations that stayed open.
And Food For Free not only stayed open, but created new pathways to provide fresh, nutritious food to those in need. The organization’s emergency grocery delivery program served an estimated 2,000 households a week at peak during the 2020 lockdown. Since then, Food For Free’s programs have continued growing and innovating.
Smith’s leadership recently earned her a spot on the Boston Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list, which celebrates the career achievements of individuals who give back to the Boston area.
Yet she’s quick to note that the driving force behind her success is teamwork. “This is not my individual win,” Smith says. “The only reason I got this is because I’m leading an amazing team at Food For Free.”
Smith is the vice president of programs at Food For Free, overseeing many of the partnerships and programs that allow the organization to serve more than 150,000 individuals across Eastern Massachusetts annually. The nonprofit acquires rescued, donated, and purchased food from a number of sources and partners with more than 100 community agencies and schools across more than 20 different Massachusetts communities to reach those in need. Smith oversees a team of nine people who, with the help of more than 250 weekly volunteers, execute their diverse array of programs to serve those in need with grocery boxes, frozen meals, and more.
Smith’s path to her successful career at Food For Free was not linear. She studied French at St. Olaf and says that she often worried about how to best use her major in her future — a future that seemed unpredictable.
“I think my goals have never really been accomplishment-based,” Smith says. “I wouldn’t have had any idea back at St. Olaf how my passion for being a force of good would have manifested itself how it is now. Nothing has ever been very clear for me.”
During her junior year, Smith studied abroad in Rennes, France for a semester and in Paris for Interim. A popular trajectory after such an experience for many St. Olaf French students is to go into teaching, first serving as teaching assistants for French teachers in K-12 English classes through the Teaching Assistant Program in France. Smith did this for a year after graduation, but felt lost when she realized she did not want to be a teacher.
“I went back to the drawing board and talked to one of the alumni career advisors,” Smith says. The St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career provides free alumni career services, such as career counseling and assistance with cover letters and resumes. “I think my trajectory after St. Olaf would be a very big encouragement to a lot of current students because it is not linear at all.”
The Piper Center’s Alumni Career Services helped Smith see she was torn between two different career fields with which she had had experience through previous summer jobs: what Smith calls the “helping people sphere” and outdoor education. She decided to explore both part-time for a year by working as a therapeutic mentor at Children’s Friend and Family Services and a senior instructor of outdoor education at Gordon College.
After this year of exploration, Smith still found herself most drawn to careers where she is meeting the tangible needs of others. She began working as the food programs coordinator at the Beverly Bootstraps Community Services food pantry. She says her skills as a former Piper Center peer advisor while at St. Olaf came in good use there, as she assisted many food pantry clients with career counseling.
“I would guide low-income or unemployed individuals through the job search and application process,” Smith says. “I helped them with their resumes and cover letters to get a new job, or the first job they’d had since their lives had been upended by some uncontrollable force. That was directly because of my Piper Center expertise, and I loved doing that — it was so gratifying to not only supply a basic need like food, but to also support people along their long-term vocational journey.”
This initial experience helped solidify her career goals in relation to passion for helping others. Smith leans on what she believes are the central pillars of St. Olaf — being committed to lifelong learning, curiosity, and leading a life of worth and service — in her career. She thinks fondly of the breadth of experience she had at St. Olaf, from playing intramural volleyball and Interim broomball to singing in Chapel Choir, to occasionally participating in musical theater. She says the liberal arts experience leaves her well-equipped to see the value of every person’s contributions and talents.
“Being in a leadership position of a really fast-growing and high-achieving nonprofit, an essential skill is working well with people who are different from you and appreciating people who have a totally different area of expertise,” Smith says. “I think that’s what the liberal arts teaches you to do — it creates a sense of humility by developing a baseline respect for someone else who’s passionate about, or skilled at, something you’re not. This recognition creates a culture of teamwork, which is essential for success.”
Being in a leadership position of a really fast-growing and high-achieving nonprofit, an essential skill is working well with people who are different from you and appreciating people who have a totally different area of expertise. I think that’s what the liberal arts teaches you to do — it creates a sense of humility by developing a baseline respect for someone else who’s passionate about, or skilled at, something you’re not. This recognition creates a culture of teamwork, which is essential for success.Stephanie Tyler Smith ’13
As a native of western Connecticut, Smith felt a sense of adventure in going to college so far from home. She sees the fluidity of her career path as a continuation of the same openness to new opportunity that she felt as a new college student.
Smith recounts her experience on the sophomore Quo Vadis Retreat, a weekend getaway for students to have focused interactions with alumni, faculty, and other students about their career-related goals. Smith remembers resonating with the phrase “There’s no there, there” spoken by St. Olaf Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Paul Jackson ’92, which referred to the idea that you have to lean into the present and cultivate joy in the here and now.
“You cannot live your life thinking some future thing is going to be perfect for you and you’re going to have it all figured out,” Smith says. “Have trust and faith that one decision leads to the next set of decisions. It will all work out.”