Melissa Ann Smith Gentry

January 25, 2010 

Her job: Public works director, city of Columbia

Age: 38

Family: Husband, Russ; three children, Russell and Rachel, 3; Clinton, nine months

Education: Bachelor's degree in engineering and an MBA, both from USC

Community/professional involvement: Awards chairwoman, S.C. American Public Works Association; member of the City of Columbia Climate Protection Action Committee; graduate of Leadership South Carolina, Leadership Columbia

Her story: The former intern in the city's utilities and engineering department went full time as an engineer after graduating college. She has been public works director for five years. She recently worked to consolidate and expand the animal shelter with Richland County and helped form the city's Climate Protection Action Committee to work on green issues. The committee runs a program to honor green businesses and hosts a conference.

She received the national American Public Works Young Leader Award in 2005; the USC College of Engineering and Information Technology Outstanding Young Alumnus in 2004; and S.C. American Water Works Association Young Leader of the Year in 2004.

What saying does she live by? "Bloom where you are planted." To her that means "use your ability, training and knowledge to make a difference in your current position in life instead of always wishing you were doing something else."

Her life changed when ... She interned with the city. "I had never imagined I would work in the public sector for my career. ... There is definite gratification in helping others, serving the community and working for the city where I live and raise my children."

How did she recover after failing at something? "I had to sit for the professional engineering examination more than once. ... I know that having felt the disappointment of not passing it the first time resulted in my determination to do what it takes to accomplish my goals and not let temporary failures keep me from reaching my full potential."

She has to keep a lot of people happy - customers, regulators, politicians. How does she manage that? "Always be honest and diplomatic. Treat everyone with respect but also be firm when delivering a message, especially one that the other party may not be in agreement with. It is important to also be consistent and treat everyone and every group of stakeholders equally."

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