Jennifer Smith learned a lot from her parents, from being an avid supporter of the Vikings to running a business.
Now the CEO of Innovative Office Solutions* and also a *Vikings Women Advisory Board member, Jennifer recalls observing the way her mother – whom she termed a “die-hard” Vikings fan – efficiently ran a nursery school and how her father’s office-supply business functioned on a day-to-day basis.
“They both had that spirit and taught me at an early age that you really could do whatever you wanted to do,” Jennifer said. “It was just fantastic to grow up in a household like that.
“I saw both of them running and creating and having the vision to be successful in their own fields,” Jennifer added. “That was really inspiring to me.”
It wasn’t long before Jennifer realized that same drive within herself.
After double-majoring in business management and psychology, Jennifer started out working for Dayton-Hudson Marshall Fields in the buying office.
“I had this entrepreneurial spirit back then where I treated it like it was my own business, that shoe department,” Jennifer said. “I ran it that way, so when the opportunity came up to start my own business, I always had that vision that I could do something like that.”
Jennifer’s familiarity with her father’s business helped build the platform for launching her company.
She identified three “major opportunity gaps” in the marketplace, and they centered around customer service, technology and building a better logistical model.
“We thought if we could nail those three things, we would have a huge differentiator in the marketplace and we could scale the company,” said Jennifer.
She and 20 other people decided to jump in feet-first, and in June 2001, Innovative Office Solutions was started. The company took off quickly at the beginning but was derailed in September when 9/11 occurred and rocked the nation.
The economy was greatly affected, and an even great impact was felt by Jennifer and the company, when clients were suddenly less willing to switch suppliers or take any sort of risk.
“It was literally paycheck to paycheck in the beginning,” Jennifer recalled. “But what that did for our company is that it really formed us from a humble beginning. We still are working on the principles that formed us early on in 2001, of every single thing that we did needed to be super-efficient and bring value to our customer, or we would not be here today.”
Although the office-supply industry is one that’s generally declining, Innovative Office Solutions has increased its business each year since 2001.
“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves over the years to stay relevant,” Jennifer said. “But I think being from that humble beginning, of having to survive, really formed us and formed our culture to be the company we are today.”
Connecting with the community
As passionate as Jennifer is about her company and the clients it serves, she is equally dedicated to her surrounding community and giving back in a variety of ways.
Perhaps at the top of Jennifer’s list is her involvement with Committee of 200, a nonprofit that seeks to “foster, celebrate and advance women’s leadership in business.” Jennifer explained that the organization works with women from high-school age all the way through retirement on various stages of business.
“It kind of runs the whole gamut, and I just have a passion around giving back and mentoring in those different paths you can take,” Jennifer said.
Through her commitment to Committee of 200, Jennifer now encourages young women to connect with a mentor in the workplace. Although Jennifer is incredibly grateful for guidance she received from her parents, she does feel as though she missed out on the other piece.
“When you own your own business, you’re kind of on an island when you start,” Jennifer said. “So it’s a big piece of advice that I love to give women: when you’re in a company, find a mentor in that company. One, they’re going to think it’s an honor. And two, you just learn so much and can navigate so much quicker if you have somebody on the inside that’s showing you the ropes. And I wish I would have worked that network a lot earlier in my career.”
Another way Jennifer connects to the community is through sports.
From the grade-school level up through the professional echelon, Jennifer finds so much value in being part of a team and said that athletes often acquire skills that can help them succeed in the workplace.
Jennifer’s son, Max, started his own nonprofit organization, the InSports Foundation that works alongside Innovative Office Solutions and has partnered with the Vikings on a number of occasions, including through the “Minnesota Football Program of the Year” initiative. The program focuses on helping youth play sports “while becoming confident and proactive members of their community.”
In four-and-a-half years, InSports Foundation has helped more than 27,000 young people.
“It’s just been an absolute joy to watch him succeed in something that’s his own,” Jennifer said. “There were so many things in the first couple years I think that he learned, that have really catapulted the organization and why it’s really taken off the past couple of years.”
Added Jennifer: “I’m such a proud mom knowing that he’s doing great things.”
Having grown up rooting for the Vikings with her family, Jennifer said it’s now been “such an honor” to partner with her hometown team through the “Minnesota Vikings Field Goals for Charity” program that donates to a different local charity organization each year.
Jennifer defined the collaboration between the Vikings and Innovative Office solutions as one that just made sense.
“The goals of the Vikings mirrored the goals of Innovative, and then later on the InSports Foundation came in, and working all together, you can be so much more impactful in your community than working alone as a certain brand,” Jennifer said. “So it’s been really fun to watch that grow.
“And that’s why I was so excited to be asked to join the Vikings Women Advisory Board, because it’s another way that I felt like I could give back,” Jennifer continued. “I just loved the mission, and I thought if I could help other women in their own goals, I was just honored to be a part of that.”