On Feb. 20, the Senior Vice President of Olympus Co. Karen Smith ’87 spoke as part of the Alumni Speaker Series. Smith took the opportunity to take her son, who is visiting colleges, on a tour of her alma mater.
Smith studied electrical engineering at Union, received her MBA from Clark University in 1999 and is currently the senior vice president at Olympus. Karen Smith was a competitive figure skater from the age of four to when she graduated high school at 18. She always liked math and sciences in school. She has been married for 25 years with a 16-year-old son.
When Smith arrived on campus. ready to start her freshman fall, she had a bit of an identity crisis. She was always known as “Karen the skater,” and needed to find herself as a person. A friend told her that engineering might be a good field for her to look into, because it has so may options and opportunities.
After the first semester of Smith’s freshman year, she was left on academic warning. Engineering and college was very difficult for Smith, but she was determined to succeed. Smith commented that from the beginning of her time at Union, she had tremendous faculty support, who never gave up on her or told her to pursue something different. In 1987, Smith got her first job as a technical sales engineer for ultrasound products in Waltham, Mass.
During this time, and still to this day, Smith referred to her Union degree frequently. Smith says that a Union degree is immediately recognized as a rich education. In 1988, Smith worked at the American Society For Non-destructive Testing, and was certified in ultrasound. From 1989 to 1998, Smith worked as the global product manager. From 1998 to 2002 she worked as the global sales manager.
Fast forward to 2017, she is the senior vice president for strategy and marketing. Between 2002 and 2017, Smith had four title changes. Her company was purchased twice: once by GE, then by Olympus a year and a half later.
As a senior vice president, Smith is responsible for making sure structures are safe and high quality using ultrasound, eddy current, RVI, microscopes, x-rays and more. Smith’s job requires a lot of travel – about one week per month.
Smith remarks that some pros of the job include her ability to travel to many countries, her frequent flyer miles – which is great for family vacations – seeing the differences and similarities in all people across the world and connecting with customers on a global scale to make vital decisions for the company. Although Smith emphasized that she loves what she does, there are some cons to Smith’s job as well.
One is the limited time she spends with her family, along with how exhausting her responsibilities can be. Smith was once told, “This job is what you make it to be,” which is a qoute to which she accredits much of her success. “Work was rarely a chore,” she said, talking about how it is easy to do work that you love.
Smith claims that she learned a lot from skating, education and friends. She learned how to work hard, learn and persevere. Smith emphasized that Union provided a fantastic foundation for her future, from working with all men, to having many global opportunities.
One piece of advice Smith has for college students is that it is okay to not have a plan. She never had a plan – she just took it one day at a time. She always remained flexible to do the jobs that the company needed someone to do, even if they weren’t exactly what she had in mind. Smith helped to morph Olympus into a large company. They started at $20 million and are currently at $250 million with a recent acquisition.