Jefferson Smith: The Man Who Chose Principles Over Profit
In a world where success often seems synonymous with wealth and power, Jefferson Smith stands as a shining example of someone who chose principles over profit. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University, he was recruited by a prestigious New York law firm, promising a six-figure salary that could have easily lured anyone into the world of corporate law. However, just two weeks into the job, Smith decided to walk away. It wasn’t the allure of money that kept him there; it was a matter of principle.
Smith’s brief stint as a corporate lawyer in New York may have been a short-lived chapter in his life, but it played a pivotal role in shaping his values and ultimately defining his life’s mission. His first assignment was to defend tobacco companies, a task that clashed with his deep concern for the people addicted to nicotine and the predatory practices of these corporations. With a wink, Smith recalls, “It was the tobacco that did me in. I wasn’t addicted to nicotine. I don’t smoke. But I worry about the people who do.”
This pivotal moment marked the beginning of Smith’s journey towards prioritizing the greater good over personal gain. It became the cornerstone of his philosophy that doing good is more important than doing well.
Returning to his roots in Oregon, Smith decided to make a difference in a way that aligned with his values. He co-founded The Bus Project in 2001, an organization dedicated to engaging young voters throughout Oregon. Smith and his team bought an old bus and began traveling across the state, helping young people register to vote and introducing them to progressive politics. Their slogan, “not left, not right, but forward,” reflected Smith’s commitment to transcending political divides in the pursuit of positive change.
While Smith has moved on from The Bus Project, his legacy lives on through Next Up, an organization dedicated to building a more just and equitable Oregon. His impact as a state representative during the 2008 and 2010 legislative sessions was significant, as he championed initiatives such as statewide water strategy, energy-efficient school retrofits, and online voter registration. He also made headlines for humorously “Rickrolling” the legislature, showcasing his unique ability to connect with people through humor.
Smith’s gift for public speaking further solidified his role as a charismatic leader. His 2012 commencement address at the University of Oregon made NPR’s list of “Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.” He used his speeches to inspire others to get involved in politics, emphasizing that positive change is a collective responsibility.
Over the past decade, while maintaining a lower public profile, Smith has remained true to his grassroots activism and proud Portland roots. He served as the Executive Director of the non-profit progressive talk radio station XRAY.FM and hosted a daily program for seven years. Additionally, he has contributed to the Board of Wayfinding College, a school reimagining higher education, and serves as an Advisor at World Oregon, an organization promoting public awareness and understanding of international affairs.
Smith’s commitment to creating a better world extends beyond politics and education. As a Founding Board Member of Portland Forward, he is part of a coalition striving to transform Portland into a “sustainable, equitable, liveable” city. Their goals encompass eliminating homelessness, reducing income inequality, improving education, enhancing public transportation, addressing displacement, ending police brutality, and significantly reducing carbon emissions.
In recent years, Smith ventured into entrepreneurship by becoming involved with Tryl.ai, a software development company focused on improving the accuracy of clinical trials. By merging technology and behavioral science, Tryl.ai seeks to minimize dropout rates, increase reporting, and better represent underrepresented populations. In February 2022, Tryl.ai was acquired by cloud-based eClinical solutions company YPrime.
Throughout his career, Smith has maintained his affiliation with the Democratic Party. However, he has expressed a desire to move beyond traditional political labels, emphasizing the importance of values and ideals over tribal affiliations.
Jefferson Smith’s life story is a testament to the power of choosing principles over profit. His unwavering commitment to doing good, whether through politics, education, or entrepreneurship, serves as an inspiration to all who believe in making the world a better place. In a society often driven by material success, Smith’s journey reminds us that true wealth lies in the positive impact we have on the lives of others. Jefferson Smith is more interested in doing good than doing well, a sentiment that is indeed priceless and worth celebrating, even if it’s not for sale.