When Brad D. Smith left West Virginia, he didn’t know he was destined for a 36-year career spanning 10 states and four industries. That chapter of Smith’s career ended in Silicon Valley, where he served as CEO and executive chairman of Intuit, with additional stints on the boards of SurveyMonkey and Nordstrom.
It was a long journey away from his Appalachian hometown of around 3,000 people. Smith and his brothers were the first generation in their family to attend college. After graduating from Marshall University, Smith left West Virginia due to the lack of economic opportunities.
Smith's “heart never left West Virginia,” he said, reflecting on his career. A supervisor once told him to take vocal training classes to get rid of his accent because it “came across sounding uneducated.” Fortunately, he said, it didn’t work — he realized that what made him different was a feature, not a bug.
“What was more important to me was to show that there was just as much talent in these states that many people don’t realize,” Smith told Protocol. “God was egalitarian when he handed out talent — unfortunately, economies are not egalitarian when they hand out jobs.”
While living in Silicon Valley and serving on the Intuit board, Smith received an offer to return to his home state and serve as the president of Marshall University, his alma mater. Already, he and his wife had established a foundation investing in education there. That included $25 million gifts to both West Virginia University and Marshall University. In an interview with Protocol, he recalled making the decision to leave Silicon Valley and return home.
Smith’s story, as told to Protocol, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I stepped down in 2019 as CEO of Intuit. I became the executive chairman and continued to meet with my successor every two weeks. I also led corporate social responsibility efforts, which included creating jobs in overlooked areas. So I was actively involved with my own foundation, but also as executive chair, in opening up offices in Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
As fate would have it, I was very supportive of my predecessor at Marshall when our family foundation was investing in education. We were funding full-ride scholarships to Marshall or Ohio State for kids who were first in their family to go to college from Ohio and West Virginia. My predecessor told me he was going to step down. I tried twice on phone calls to encourage him not to do it. Instead, he said, “Well, why don't we nominate you?”
It was not until 2021 that I entered the process as the president candidate for Marshall. I knew it was going to be grueling and that there was no guarantee.
For the presidential search, they ended up with over 100 candidates. They invited 16 candidates to do off-campus interviews in Lexington, Kentucky, and narrowed it down to five candidates. I was the only non-traditional candidate, meaning the other four had Ph.D.s and had grown up in academic institutions. About 22% of the nation's universities are now led by non-traditional candidates: either generals, ex-CEOs, ex-governors or ex-senators. The deeper I got in the process, the more excited I became.
I reached out to 18 university presidents — either sitting or former — to help me understand whether I bring value to this role. They said there's nothing more fulfilling, and it's going to be incredibly hard work. In private industry, you learn to scale your leadership one to many — you meet with large numbers of shareholders. In a university, it's one faculty member, one student at a time, one parent who wants to speak to you, one potential donor. So you have to think about how you manage your time differently to be accessible and yet scalable.
Their last piece of advice was to enter with two ears and one mouth and use them in that ratio. I have learned so much from our faculty and students. Now I'm starting to see the patterns between that and what we did in private industry. I'm starting to feel the intersection coming together.
I'm going to sound very cliche, but there was a quote by Ted Kennedy, who [basically] said, Sometimes you don't choose the moment; the moment chooses you. I decided I want to serve the next generation and help them understand that they and their peers can do amazing things right here in West Virginia.
When I got off the plane and smelled the air, heard the accents and saw the mountains, it was as if I had flashbacks to when I was growing up. I knew viscerally I was home. The campus has grown so much since 36 years ago when I came here as a student. I saw the area, which has gone through some pretty tough times. The economy in West Virginia has definitely shifted out from under our feet. We've dealt with some of the challenges other communities have, whether it's the opioid crisis and others.
After about two weeks here and talking to the people, I stopped looking at it as a setback. I started looking at it as an unbelievable opportunity. What sits before us is a strong foundation with great communities and tremendously talented people — just imagine what we're capable of being! That was the dichotomy I went through: When I first showed up, I saw the broken windows — then after a couple weeks, I saw the emerald castles that we can build together.