WASHINGTON -- A promise to herself more than 30 years ago helped Audrey Smith chart a career path that would eventually lead her to managing the Army’s billion-dollar business portfolio.
As a young girl growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Smith had modest aspirations to attend a community college.
Born into a blue-collar family, her father served as a chauffeur at a Mercedes Benz dealership and her mother worked as a janitorial supervisor at the local school district. Her two older brothers entered the workforce after high school.
Elizabeth Merkerson, Smith’s great aunt, wanted something more for her grandniece.
“She instilled in me having a hard work ethic to get to where you want to be in life,” said Smith, chief of policy and governance for the Army Office of Business Transformation, who recently earned the 2020 Women of Color Joint Women's Leadership Excellence Meritorious Service Award. “And she was [big] on education. I live by that to this day.”
Smith pledged that she would become the first member of her family to finish college and have a successful professional career.
After graduating from Voorhees College in 1999, Smith taught business courses at Midlands Technical College on Fort Jackson, where she met her husband, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Smith. She then served as a South Carolina internal auditor, creating the state’s first rural behavioral health services program.
Impact on the Army
Smith entered federal government service in 2007, serving as the family programs chief for the Eighth U.S. Army at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, South Korea, before holding leadership positions in the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.
Today, Smith manages the Army’s Business Mission Area portfolio, or BMA, overseeing the domains of acquisition, financial management, human resources management, installations, energy and environment, logistics, and training and readiness. In 2017, Army senior leaders asked Smith and her team to reduce the Army’s 706 defense business systems in an effort to divert $500 million toward readiness and modernization.
Smith is on track to cut those business systems to 423 by the end of fiscal year 2023. Smith used her business acumen to examine legacy systems and look for redundancies, or areas where two or more information technology systems performed the same capabilities, and eliminate unnecessary systems.
“What we did was we looked at redundant capabilities and saw how we could reduce our footprint for our investments,” she said.
Smith’s work as a policy and governance chief helps the Army build its annual budget, making funds available for its modernization efforts.
The data gathered by Smith’s assessments helped assist Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy’s “night court” sessions, where senior leaders re-examined service programs to divert funding toward modernization programs. Last year, Smith briefed the Army’s undersecretary and vice chief of staff on the investment health in each portfolio within BMA’s six domains.
“Smith and her team members identified legacy capabilities that could be subsumed into an enduring solution,” wrote Robin Swan, director of the Army Office of Business Transformation. “This produced the benchmark for aggressive portfolio rationalization efforts, which yielded elimination of redundancies and identification of cost avoidance and cost savings opportunities.”
Smith also led the publication of the Army’s first Business Capability Acquisition Cycle, a measure that increased efficiency and transparency of business systems while cutting costs of those programs across the Army in the areas of doctrine, organization, training, personnel, facilities and policy.
“The leadership characteristics that really make Ms. Smith’s contributions stand out are mastery of communication in a complex environment, balancing change under strict timelines, and supervising and mentoring military and civilians,” Swan wrote in Smith’s award nomination letter.
Great aunt’s legacy
The Odenton, Maryland, resident credits her work ethic to her great aunt who passed away 20 years ago.
Merkerson, who operated a daycare service out of her Columbia home, paid for Smith’s tuition through college.
Smith never forgot her great aunt’s penchant for hard work and how she valued education, she said, adding Merkerson herself never had the opportunity to finish college.
And Smith still hasn’t stopped her academic pursuits. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in business administration at the University of Maryland, the same school her son, Lamar, takes online classes. She said she continually seeks to improve her abilities as she takes positions of greater responsibility.
Smith is also an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and a life member and dedicated volunteer of both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Smith continues to serve in key leadership roles within these organizations, which Smith said is a testament of the work values instilled in her from her great aunt.