Getting in the Family Business

A business owner with entrepreneurship in his blood puts a modern twist on his family’s craft.

Small business owner Mike Smith is passionate about the power of solar.

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Business innovation is about more than making a living. It’s about giving back to your community and beyond.

The co-founder of Smith & Sons started his general contracting business with his father in the 1980s, when the two began rehabbing homes in low-income neighborhoods on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

His company now provides off-grid clean energy solutions for people without access to electricity. Smith is now shipping his solar product, e-Hub50, to Africa, all while creating jobs and opportunities in D.C.

Smith doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. He traces his entrepreneurial roots back to his great-great-grandfather.

Photo: Early-century ice vendor

Henry Smith escaped from slavery at the age of 12 and sold ice in the streets of D.C. from a horse and wagon.

Mike’s aunt was one of the few single, black women in the 1940s to become a self-made multimillionaire.

Mike grew up listening to his father, a Baptist pastor, preach about the importance of revitalizing the community “East of the River” in D.C. through entrepreneurism.

He is fueled by the notion that business innovation is about more than making a living. It’s about giving back to your community and beyond.

Read our Q&A with Mike below:

Longitudes: How did you and your father start your business in 1984?

Mike: The movement in the late 1960s to empower communities through business really influenced my father, a Baptist pastor.

Our beginnings were humble. We bought and rehabbed a four-unit building, putting in new plumbing and electricity, and leased it to subsidized tenants.

We did this about six times during two years. We created jobs for people in our community, and they became our crew.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry gave us the opportunity to procure government contracts.

Photo: Pastor Raymond Smith (L) and Mike Smith (R), 1984

Soon we were taking on larger tasks for the city, from plumbing to roof repair to window installment. I’m proud that I brought in local tradespeople I knew from East of the River in D.C.

Growing up on the “other side of the river” we saw things differently because we were treated differently. I wanted people to hold their heads up high and say, Yes, I’m from East of the River!

Longitudes: Why did you pivot to renewable energy and solar in particular?

Mike: Our company eventually became an LLC specializing in utilities. We started doing installation of underground water systems.

I envisioned developing some type of water purification device for use in developing countries, especially in Africa. I wanted the device stamped, Made in D.C., and distributed throughout the developing world.

As fate would have it, I met Mr. Benjamin Wells through our mutual friend, Ms. Diane Onwuchekwa. Ben introduced the eHub50 to me. Immediately, I knew that what I planned for my water device I could now do with this solar device!

Photo: Mike Smith greeted by Warren Buffet.

Water isn’t the only utility needed in the developing world. People need affordable electricity, too. Globally, 1.3 billion people don’t have access to electricity, including 620 million people in Africa.

I think the better angels of us understand where we are going environmentally. The future is with alternative fuels.

Longitudes: How does eHub50 work, and what’s next?

Mike: It is a solar device that supports high intensity LED bulbs that cover a massive area. The device is about the size of a box of tissues.

When you hook it up, it asks you how much power you need and cuts off power distribution to stay within that range. You can plug it into the wall or power it with solar energy. It’s perfect for first responders or for anyone who needs portable solar energy.

So far, we’ve shipped 1,000 units to countries including Chile, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Ghana and Germany. We’re now building the next iteration, which can power a refrigerator or air conditioning unit.

Longitudes: You come from a long line of entrepreneurs. How does your family inspire you?

Mike: My father had 13 brothers and sisters, and when I was growing up, the family would get together and tell stories. My father’s grandfather, Henry Smith, escaped from slavery and supported his family by selling ice in the streets of D.C. from a horse-drawn cart.

My Aunt, Lillian Smith, was the matriarch of our family and a self-made multi-millionaire.

Photo: Mike’s mother and Mom and Aunt Lillian Smith

It was unheard of for a single black woman to buy and sell real estate, but Aunt Lil was no ordinary woman. She was a force of nature! Her integrity and discipline and inspired me.

Longitudes: How has UPS changed the way you do business?

Mike: Being a part of the UPS ecosystem will help us get this product out across the world. We’re not just shipping from point A to point B. We have a relationship with UPS that will bring connections and logistics expertise together – these are the things that we will need to compete globally.

[Top Photo: Benjamin Wells]

Mike Smith is CEO of Smith & Sons LLC, a general contractor based out of Washington, D.C., that specializes in site utility and plumbing work.

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