Anna Smith holds a BA (Hons) in English language and literature from Memorial University, where she was actively involved on campus with Oxfam Canada and Radhoc Youth Leadership. After graduating, Anna paired this leadership experience with the communications skills of her degree to work with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Toronto, ON. Since returning home in 2014, Anna’s worked as a facilitator, event planner, and communications professional, working with community organizations and (social) entrepreneurs making NL a great place to live. In 2016, she started FreeForm Events with Mica McCurdy to continue this work with the freedom to decide how and where these skills were used.
More details at www.facebook.com/FreeFormNL
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?
I’ve never had a definitive sense of what I wanted my ‘career’ to be. I see the benefit now, but in high school, it made me think that I should stick it out at home for first year while I figured myself out. I ended up quickly finding a home among the community organizers and writing centre staff at MUN, and decided to stay.
What drew you to do a degree in English?
I received two pieces of advice in my last year of high school: do your degree in the subject you love the most; and do not do a degree in English, because it will ruin reading for you. I think both pieces of advice came from the same person.
With the hovering threat of ruining reading, I started Memorial in anthropology, but soon found I wasn’t connecting to the content. In my second year, I went with my gut – believing storytelling, analysis, and language would always be the things I’d love most – and transferred to English.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate/graduate student?
In my third year, the MUN Squareball Society organized a Guinness World Record attempt for the longest squareball (foursquare) game in the world. Eight of us played squareball for 28 hours straight as a fundraiser for Oxfam Canada; we held the Guinness title for approximately two weeks.
The event taught me that you can do incredible things for your community by starting with what you love, and it inspired a workshop on creative event planning that I’ve been delivering for almost a decade.
If you could do any course over again, what would it be?
I’m asking for it, but: Grammar. That course challenged me to work and think differently than I did in my other courses, and it unlocked an ability to learn new languages while at MUN. I’m struggling now to pick up Bangla to communicate with my husband’s family, and I think a refresher might just make a difference!
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
In second year, our Oxfam Canada Campus Club hosted Bill Hynd, Oxfam Canada staff for NL. Perhaps it’s more of a lesson, but he said (paraphrased):
“You’re walking down Rennie’s River Trail, and you see a baby in the river! Naturally you save the baby, but to your horror, you look up to see that the river is full of babies. You have two options: do you scramble to pull all of the babies out of the river, or do you run to the mouth of the river to find out who is putting them in in the first place?”
It’s an extreme example, but that’s why it’s stuck with me. Whether I’m dealing with a crisis in the middle of a conference, a difficult client relationship, or anxiety over the business, it’s a reminder to look for the root cause and try to solve it at the source.
How did you go from a BA in English to becoming an entrepreneur and launching FreeForm Events?
Everyone thought I was studying English to become a teacher, and while I hated that assumption at the time… in a way, I did. The communication skills I developed in my degree brought me to facilitation and training work, and I’d wager that my immersion in story and narrative is what gives me the ability to see the learning arc of a multi-day event. While I enjoyed doing that work for other organizations, choosing my own projects and having complete creative control was an opportunity worth going for with FreeForm Events.
What was your biggest challenge in getting your business up and running?
The lack of constructive feedback. We complete 17+ years of school with teachers showing us how to improve, and if we’re lucky, we work with supervisors who then do the same. As an entrepreneur, you’re entirely responsible for evaluating yourself (and as we know, we’re not the most objective self-evaluators), and for making sure you’re still learning and improving.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Running the business is essentially four tasks: administration, marketing, proposals/prospecting, and delivering on projects. A typical day includes work in each, with the exception of days spent designing a workshop – on those days, I like to hide away and spend the whole day drawing and talking to myself while I design content.
Where did the idea of the #Adulting sessions come from, and how has St. John’s responded to that?
#Adulting is a series of sessions to make life easier. They are designed as workshops to build skills and understanding on a variety of subjects (lieg. exercise, home repairs, personal finance), all intended to help attendees feel more confident and independent navigating the challenges of growing up.
I’ve always believed that learning should be fun and that anything can be taught – and I have very high standards for learning environments! I suppose the #Adulting series really is the manifestation of all that: we’re giving a platform to awesome local people with expertise to share, in the hopes of helping folks find more independence, confidence, and happiness in a casual environment.
The response has been unreal. It seems to be a very common experience to feel like you weren’t prepared to face all the challenges life is throwing at you, and people are really responding to the opportunity to change that.
How did your arts degree prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?
My degree meant a lot of non-class time, during which I was responsible for managing my own productivity. Learning that skill is essential if you’re going to pursue your own business. It’s not just about getting the work done, either: it’s about understanding your energy; understanding when Thursday actually needs to be the day off so that you’re twice as productive on Saturday morning.
What in your opinion is something the province of NL can do right now to improve the situation for young entrepreneurs?
There’s a cultural hierarchy of entrepreneurship in our province that looks something like technology > tourism > service-based > arts, and it’s reflective of the time investment, financial resources, sophistication of training opportunities, and celebratory platforms available to each.
We need to work on equalizing the importance given to each – not to reduce the privileges given to technology companies, but to think more critically about what it means in practice when we refer to the business empire of Marie’s Mini Mart as a ‘Mom & Pop Shop.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d love to see us bring on specialized staff; I have dreams of new branches of the company that plan weddings, birthday parties, or other special events that we don’t currently do. I’d love to provide an exceptional work environment for smart people to bring FreeForm’s “built-from-scratch” approach to more traditional events.
What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?
It baffles me why we still definitively comment on other people’s choices. I think the point of learning is to grow and change; to take steps forward. We grow best in environments that match our interest and needs. If the analysis, content generation, and conversations of an Arts degree work for you, grow there. You’ll be fine.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
I’m still so insecure. I started this company; I’m often front-and-centre stage; I share my opinions publicly; it’s not hard to find my face or something I wrote online. People often think that means I’ve got it all together. I think the great secret might just be that nobody does.
What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?
There are a lot of forces that will tell you that you should go to University as soon as possible; that you should know exactly what you want to do with your entire life; and that there are “right” and “wrong” choices when it comes to what you want to study.
University is an enormous investment in all senses of the word. If you work to clear away the noise, maybe the choice that’s right for you (a general year; a subject you love; putting off University) becomes more clear.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
Anywhere I can hold a book and see the ocean. Preferably without cell phone reception. Bonus points for a hot tub.
What are you reading these days?
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. After years of focusing on professional development books, I’ve brought fiction back into my life this year, and have been trying to read content by folks who don’t look like me.
What are you most looking forward to within the next year?
We’re finding a sweet spot with FreeForm in which we’re hosting events to bring people together just for the sake of making people happy, and that feels great. In the first two years of the business, I was preoccupied by insecurities of needing to appear “serious” and “professional,” but our audience has really responded to the provision of smart, new, positive experiences that make them feel great.