In the movie The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn, two salesmen go toe to toe with young whiz kids during Google’s internship program, vying for a tech job.
In a way, the movie is a perfect combination of executive producer Sandra Smith’s interests: technology and storytelling. But there’s yet another parallel: Smith moved to Philadelphia eight weeks ago — mainly to be with her family — where she’ll seek to make her way through the hustle and bustle of the Philly tech scene.
Smith grew up in Glenolden, Delaware County. She moved to Colorado to study computer science at the University of Denver, and then kicked off a winding path through the U.S. and the world.
She worked for startups that failed. Worked for startups that made it. She did sales and business for tech companies in Silicon Valley. She produced a documentary about the conflicts in Ireland. She produced movies and comedy tours with big names like Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson and Jason Bateman.
Fast forward to 2016 and she’s back in Philly, as a partner at dev and design shop Gradient Labs, to help put together a series of sport-related apps. What’s her take on what she’s found so far? How does the Philly tech scene look like to someone who’s coming from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood? She explains in this installment of our Entrance Exam series.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What brought you back to Philly?
I came back for family reasons. It was just time to be back home.
How does it feel to be home after all this time?
I’m excited to be back. You know, I brag about this city all the time, and it was time to put my money were my mouth was. My career in tech started out as an assistant engineer in IBM, then moving to smaller companies. I then moved to Silicon Valley to do product marketing and business development for startups and then I got into entertainment.
Yeah, after working for a couple of startups, one very successful and one a complete failure, and after backpacking through South America for a while, I went to go work for the movie business. I went from being an executive at a software company to be literally an assistant [Smith is credited as an assistant to actor/producer Vince Vaughn in the 2006 flick The Break-Up] because I knew nothing about the entertainment business. I then went on to other producing stints and eventually became the executive producer for The Internship, for which we got Google’s approval to be in the movie.
How’d that come about? Was it a process?
It took me months to get into Google. We did a table read with Vince [Vaughn] in L.A. and there was a lot of back and forth on the script before they gave their approval. It was a pretty big land. I had to bring back all my sales skills, using as many connections as I could.
And where did you go after that?
I produced a comedy festival in Nashville and a 15-city tour in the East Coast with Kevin James. The whole time I was doing that I was looking for a way I could get back with technology, and that’s how I met Jason Simmons [a Pittsburgh-based product designer], founder of Gradient Labs. At the end of June 2016 I was back in Philly working as a partner in Gradient.
After all of this trajectory, you certainly come into the scene with fresh eyes. How’s Philly’s tech beat looking?
Having been in L.A., Silicon Valley and now Philly, I think people here are far more engaging, responsive and helpful to each other. It feels like we’re all in this together. There’s a lot more cooperation. The first night I went here I went to a tech meetup and met four VCs in one night.
What did the Hollywood years teach you? How have they come in handy?
The production experience in getting things done. Every film is a brand-new experience and you constantly have to figure out how to get things done.
Do you have any technical chops? Can you code?
Actually, my first job was writing an electronic claims entry system for Blue Cross Blue Shield. But that was a few languages ago.
Where do you see the tech scene headed from here?
Well, what I’d like to see is more support for early-stage entrepreneurs. I’d like to see more accelerators, incubators and infrastructure to support us. They seem sort of risk-averse here in Philly, and speaking to some founders I’ve heard the same complaint.
Have you hit any walls so far in Philly? Ever had a moment where you wondered if this was the right move?
Not so far. I moved here mainly because of my family, but I also moved here knowing that the tech scene was growing. I also looked at NYC and D.C. and I realized that there was enough of a growing community here. Also, I liked the fact that I could zip to New York to meet with investors as needed. I’m just surprised it hasn’t been moving faster,