Graphic reading: 2021 Kelly Award for Business & Education Partnership, Harper Smith

By Shelby Stills

Harper Smith, senior manager of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Foundation, was presented with the Kentucky Board of Education’s Kelly Award for Business and Education Partnership at its Oct. 5 meeting. 

The Kelly Award honors Joseph W. Kelly, who served as a member of KBE from 1989 until 1998 and provided exceptional leadership as its chair for seven years. He was a strong leader in the fundamental early years of implementing Kentucky’s nationally recognized school improvement efforts.

The award is given in the fall of each year to a Kentucky businessperson or business who has partnered with a public school or district to provide outstanding leadership that promotes school improvement and student success.

Smith joined the Kentucky Chamber team in 2016, shortly after graduating from the University of Kentucky. At the Workforce Center, she has led marketing and operations efforts and directed the Bus to Business program, a statewide initiative focused on connecting students with employers that have reached 20,000 students over the past two years. 

“Harper has been a vital part of the Workforce Center since its inception, helping to support the Workforce Center’s mission to build employer-led workforce initiatives,” said Beth Davisson, executive director of the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. “Harper was the second employee we were able to hire at the Workforce Center. Without her, the Workforce Center would not be able to serve Kentucky businesses and our workforce to the extent that we do today.” 

Her nominator said that Smith’s work on the Bus to Business program “helped turn an idea from their board of managers into a reality.” 

Through the program, which launched in 2019, students are given the opportunity to tour businesses in their local communities, complete hands-on, work-based learning activities and speak directly with employers and industry leaders about career pathways available in their organizations. Students learn about what careers are in demand in Kentucky and what it takes to attain them.

Smith said the idea for this program came out of the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center’s Board of Managers.

She said the board did a pilot field trip with students from Taylor County High School and Michael Rodenberg of Murakami Manufacturing in Campbellsville.

On the inaugural Bus to Business Day, she led the coordination of field trips across Kentucky for students to see what businesses were doing close to home. She also organized field trips where more than 1,200 students from 30 schools visited 32 businesses statewide.

For the 2020-2021 school year, she helped the program pivot to a completely virtual program. Through the virtual shift, she organized, directed and produced over 40 virtual live sessions and videos. Students were able to tune in live and participate directly with employers or watch the recordings later. 

“My favorite part about working on this program is seeing the impact that it has on Kentucky students. Through the in-person field trips and virtual live sessions, it is so cool to see and hear from students who are learning something new about the jobs in their state,” Smith said.

Smith also created the Critical Job of the Week social media campaign, which highlighted a different critical and in-demand job in Kentucky. These graphics outlined the basic job description, education, credential requirements and average pay, and highlighted a Kentucky employer hiring for those positions. 

“I have worked with the Workforce Center and the foundation for almost four years now. The Chamber is such a fun and fast-paced place to work. No day looks the same, but you know that each day you are working to help better Kentucky and its people,” Smith said.