Linda Smith, a talent experience advisor in Human Resources, came to the U.S. from Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia in 2001 with one suitcase, $500 and a letter describing a summer jobs program for housekeepers.
Suitcase in hand, 21-year-old Smith walked into a Kissimmee, Florida hotel. She needed to find the man in charge of the program.
“Oh, he hasn’t been here for three months,” the night auditor said. “He’s gone.”
The outlook for a summer job and a new life in the U.S. was less than brilliant for Smith that evening. She went to sleep despondent about her prospects.
Smith, however, who was born in communist Czechoslovakia, possessed a tenacity of spirit that nudged her forward in difficult times.
Winning the lottery
The day after her encounter with the night auditor, Smith’s gloom lifted when she explained her predicament to the general manager.
“Well, we can use your help,” he said.
Smith worked the front desk, speaking to guests in a self-described thick accent. Yet her grammar and syntax, practiced in English classes in Slovakia, were proper. When she felt frustrated and wanted to quit, she engaged in a little self-talk.
“Nope, I’ve got to keep going,” she said.
Smith tried to absorb American culture quickly. “Everything was new,” she said. “I remember taking pictures of random stuff.”
Among the random stuff, Smith took a photo of an Italian restaurant across the street from the hotel where she worked. She sent the photo to her mother. “Food was everywhere,” Smith said.
Eventually, the hotel closed, and Smith took a job at a luxury hotel with an excellent reputation. “I thought I’d won the lottery,” she said.
Something for everybody
Smith accepted a promotion in 2007 and moved to The Peabody Memphis, where she worked for 11 years. She married Memphian Bennie Smith, a FedEx employee. They have a daughter and son.
Smith’s hospitality career required her to be available 24/7. She remembered getting ready for work one Saturday when her 4-year-old daughter asked a simple but gut-wrenching question: "Mommy, can you play with me?"
“I don’t want to be that person who says, ‘Well, I missed playing with my child because I was at work setting up for New Year's Eve,’” Smith explained.
She applied for a job at St. Jude, the one place she said could pull her away from The Peabody. Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in organizational development and a master’s degree in Human Resources, was hired in December 2018 for one of two positions as a talent experience advisor. She partners with Meghan Stuthard to help recruit and retain top-tier talent, competing against employers in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other cities.
“The role I’m in now pairs perfectly with my hospitality experience and HR passion,” said Smith, who extends red-carpet, white-glove treatment to job candidates, spouses and their families.
“There's something in Memphis for everybody,” she added.
Picturing the possible
As a child, Smith relished summers, weekends and holidays at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Banská Bystrica. She picked apples, pears and plums with her grandmother.
“They had a huge garden with trees,” Smith recalled. “I could play outside from dawn to dusk.”
In the city, however, Smith waited in line at the grocery store for peanuts, oranges or other delicacies behind the counter. In school, she could learn any language, as long as it was Russian.
“This is what you do; this is how you do it; you don’t have a choice,” Smith said, describing Czechoslovakia’s regimented system.
She wondered about life beyond the country’s closed borders. “I wanted to get a bigger picture of what’s possible,” she said.
The peaceful overthrow of the Czechoslovakian government in late 1989 marked the beginning of a Western-style democracy. A few years later, Czechoslovakia was divided into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
With cross-border travel permitted, Smith decided to explore what’s possible; she decided to forego the usual, nearby places – England, Germany, the Scandinavian counties. She decided to go big and move to the States.
Smith, who had the grit to make it in a land 5,000 miles from home, helps St. Jude hire outstanding job candidates from near and far who want to contribute to the hospital’s mission.
Without a doubt, she’s well-prepared for the challenge.
A few of Smith’s favorite things:
- Spending time with my kids and husband at the Memphis Zoo, Children's Museum of Memphis, events and festivals. “When I was a kid, I was always doing something. I was never idle.”
- Halusky, the Slovak national dish (gnocchi with sheep cheese). “Now, my mom is here for a month, so I can get my halusky fix.”
- Christmas markets, such as ones in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest that feature arts and crafts, apple cider and delicious food.