Introducing our Capacity Building Practice Area Leader: Maurie Smith
Maurie Smith is a West Philly native with deep roots in the neighborhood where U3 Advisors got its start. She uses that perspective to help clients think deeply about how history and opportunity intersect.
WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO U3 ADVISORS?
I grew up in University City in West Philadelphia. My sons are fifth-generation West Philadelphians; we’ve been there a long time. It was really during my grandfather’s time that the University City District as an idea and its coalition of anchor institutions came together. All of that is part of my history and part of my DNA, but it wasn’t until later, after I graduated from college, that I heard about urban planning and got reintroduced to my neighborhood through that. A lot of my papers in grad school had to do with anchor institutions’ impact on planning and infrastructure investment, and that took both a community and an institutional lens.
I ended up graduating from Penn and worked in more of a community planning and infrastructure project management role in Camden, New Jersey – right across the river – and George and Omar were actually my consultants on a downtown institutional plan that I did there. When U3 was starting to expand, they reached out and said they needed a junior project manager. I thought, “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. This type of work still really energizes me – so yeah!”
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT WEST PHILLY?
We have this wonderful farmer’s market, which is also this flea market, that kind of pops up in a carpark. We do a lot of outdoor time there. For me, it’s all about walkability. When we opened the office out here in West Philly, it was a point for me to move because I was living in South Philly at the time. My house is a 25-minute walk from that office. I feel very lucky to be able to be in a neighborhood that affords me that. For others in our company, it’s about being able to bike everywhere or being able to take transit everywhere. So I think that that sustainable, locally-focused element to our work is borne out in some of us how we live our lives. My commute is part of my daily exercise – it’s part of my recharge.
WHAT ABOUT THE PRACTICE OF CITY PLANNING FIRST APPEALED TO YOU?
It’s the confluence of history and planning: thinking about how real estate can be impacted and how you invest in the built environment. When you attract different families or developers to a neighborhood, how does it change? My undergraduate degree was very conceptual – it was an economics degree – so you’re constantly dealing with hypotheticals and widgets and all this stuff. With city planning, there were physical and very tangible examples throughout; you could walk through the neighborhood and you’d be able to see it and experience it. That led to a light bulb going off and me thinking, “Oh, you mean, my life doesn’t have to be crunching numbers and creating graphs all the time?” Although of course we do crunch numbers and create graphs at U3.
WHAT KINDS OF NEW CHALLENGES ARE CLIENTS COMING TO YOU WITH?
The fact that we’re more established means that people see us as content experts – not just that we are a dynamic consulting firm, but that we are also a resource and have this wealth of knowledge based on multiple client engagements that we can offer. In the beginning, when Omar launched the company, I think he pulled a lot on his Penn days, but now we pull on the Detroit story, the University of Maryland story, or Memphis or Goucher College or Drexel University stories, or some kind of combination of them all. Using that to knowledge to tailor the project scope feels like we’re giving better even an even better kind of deliverable to our client.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT U3 ADVISORS DOES TO A YOUNG PROFESSIONAL LOOKING TO ENTER THE FIELD?
When I talk to folks, I tell them that they need a blend of the hard skills – the technical skills, the analytical skills – and this softer approach to strategy and thinking through how you impact decision makers and push them to be more impactful in their communities. Working with hard data, and marrying hard analytics with the visuals and the storytelling – that’s what allows decisions to happen: when you’re sitting at that executive table, and you have not only kind of like the foundation of information, and then analysis, but you’re able to tell it in a compelling way, in a visual way. That’s what leads to a project actually getting done, as opposed to it being a report.
WHAT CURRENT PROJECT EXCITES YOU MOST RIGHT NOW?
The University of Pittsburgh. Through the spring and summer, we’re helping them look at their entire business and operations portfolio and say, “How are you – or how are you not – executing on the vision that’s laid out that we’ve helped you craft? How can you actually execute on this?” To better do this, we need to carve out real estate, we need to resource it, and we need to think about streamlining capital planning and projects and approvals so that they can actually go through the process and be approved and not get gummed up.
If I had to pick one project from the past, it would definitely be either Goucher College or Drexel University. Those were the two instances where I really saw on the belly of the beast, what it means to move projects forward within an administration. That’s both a big university and a small college setting. The great thing that we get to do is we get to say, “Here’s your dream – and guess what? You actually have the resources to potentially be able to execute this.” And whether that’s a program or whether that’s an actual development project, working with an anchor institution affords you the ability to do that if you can maneuver through the administration, and that’s both for large institutions and small nonprofits.
We also just did the executive search for Rory [Thomas] and for Abby [Sheridan] at the Memphis Medical District Collaborative. Whenever I go through one of these executive searches, there’s somebody who emerges – there’s something that clicks and you think, “These are going to be the people that can really push this through. They’re the exact staff that this institution needs at this moment to move forward.” That for me is really meaningful work. I love working with an institution to help set them up for success. I think that’s what makes us a different company. Because we aren’t going to just hand you a plan and say, “Good luck!” or hand you a plan and say, “Now we’re going to charge you but we’ll run the entire thing.” Part of what we’re going to try to roll out is: How do we get you to a place where you are running your plan?
WHAT MAKES FOR A REALLY GREAT CLIENT ENGAGEMENT?
Is our contact there dynamic? Are they flexible? Are they willing to have this be an iterative and collaborative process? If so, we can take that and we can run with it. It’s going to feel great and going to feel fulfilling, The best type is when you have that connection with whoever you’re engaging with, whether that’s the senior manager, the executive vice president, or whether that’s with this individual project manager and you can do this back and forth, and keep whatever we’re working on moving forward.