Ellevate, a networking group for women in business, normally hosts speakers from the business community. But on December 6 they had a guest who quit her business career several decades ago and has since taken up a greater cause.
Nicole Smith, a Basking Ridge resident, earned a business degree at the University of Texas and was working as a sales trainer in St. Louis when she met her husband, an accountant. Raising five children kept Smith busy, but when they got older, she began to think about ways to work outside the home again.
She learned about Room to Read from another mom at her children’s school. The other woman worked for Goldman Sachs, a major supporter of the charity, and asked Smith and the other moms to form a group.
Room to Read was founded in 1999 by Microsoft executive John Wood, who traveled to Nepal where he visited local schools and was shocked by their lack of resources. He quit his job and founded a charity to build schools and libraries.
Something about Room to Read clicked with Smith. She said she is a lifelong admirer of great businesspeople. “I don’t follow celebrities, I follow business icons,” she said. “It all just resonated with me.”
Smith had never been a big reader growing up, but she had always engaged in volunteer work, and she knew a good cause when she saw one. “If you know how to read, that’s a basic skill everyone should have,” she said. “That’s the jumping off point where you can set off down your own path and have access to education and books. The sky’s the limit. You can go to another planet, learn a skill, enhance your own knowledge.”
She also appreciated that the group was focused on educating girls. Smith said her own mother was lucky to have gone to college — her parents initially had told her they could afford to send her brothers to college, but not her.
Before long, the other women in the Room to Read group dropped off, but Smith stuck with it. In fact, she has been the head of Room to Read’s New Jersey fundraising chapter since 2011.
She offered advice for anyone who wants to similarly support a good cause: “Basically, turn something you love into a fundraiser,” she says. “I’ve spoken at churches, at business groups, and at schools. I love cooking classes and learning new skills, so I created a community cookbook where moms, chefs, and restaurants contributed recipes. We raised $10,000 by selling the cookbook, and I got a sponsor to fund publishing the cookbook. We are now on our third edition.”
She is selling the books as gifts for the holidays now. “That was kind of a thing that just keeps evolving. We say that the cookbook is the hostess gift that gives back. We got a lot of little mom-and-pop stores around central Jersey to sell them.”
The book is called “Recipes Worth Reading” and was published in 2014, again in 2017, and in 2019, each time adding several recipes.
Smith says that volunteering and fundraising have been excellent for building skills as her kids get older (two are in college now) and she looks to re-enter the workforce. “It’s allowed me to build an entirely new skillset. I’m doing marketing, social media, and speaking all over,” she said. “Before I was doing back-office work, now I’m doing front-line public relations.”
She has also kept in touch with the business community, since her chapter is a member of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce.
She is looking forward to next year when she will finally see the results of her fundraising in person, when she joins a Room to Read trip to Cambodia.
In addition to heading Room to Read’s New Jersey chapter, Smith hosts a podcast called “Happy to Help,” where she interviews philanthropists and nonprofit leaders from the region. She recently interviewed a psychologist about the mental health benefits of giving.
“We thrive when we have a sense of purpose in our lives,” Smith said. “It behooves you to find a cause you care about and get involved. Start with an hour a month. Just make the move because you think you’re going to help someone else by giving back, but you benefit 100-fold from the time and care that you give. As humans we are pre-programmed to help one another. That is the true path to happiness.”