2013 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW major: Journalism and Mass Communication
Age: 39 • New York, New York
Producer, HLN's Showbiz Tonight
By the very nature of her job, Natasha Haynes-Smith works behind the scenes. As a producer for the popular cable television program "Showbiz Tonight," she's often planning upcoming show segments, editing video or writing about the day in pop culture.
It's in her role as a mentor where Haynes-Smith takes center stage. From an early age, she learned how giving back can transform young lives. "I was 14 years old when I left Brooklyn and headed 250 miles north to Manlius, New York, to start 10th grade as an A Better Chance scholar," Haynes-Smith recalls.
A Better Chance (ABC) is an organization that places promising students of color into college prep schools, or communities with exceptional public high schools.
After graduating from high school, Haynes-Smith earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland-College Park. From there, she set out to do her graduate studies at the UW because she saw Madison as a great place to start her career.
Madison became more than a stepping stone, however. Shortly after arriving, she became the minority adviser for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She passionately sought out students of color to offer encouragement to continue pursuing careers in journalism — an industry where minorities are significantly underrepresented. "My office was a safe haven to laugh, cry and talk when being a person of color on the mostly white UW campus seemed overwhelming," she says.
Those chats helped her adjust to Madison, too, and propelled her to getting her first TV news job. While maintaining a full course load, volunteering with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and winning the UW's Advanced Opportunity Fellowship, Haynes-Smith was also the producer of the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekend newscasts on WKOW-TV in Madison. She moved on to Madison's WISC-TV after graduating, and by age 24 she was a newsroom leader.
In 1998, her dream of working in New York City became a reality. She started working at NY1, New York's 24-hour news channel, and then worked for ABC Television's World News Weekend.
Since 2008, Haynes-Smith has been with HLN (formerly CNN Headline News) as a producer for Showbiz Tonight. The network recently chose her for its "future leaders" program, which is grooming Haynes-Smith and 12 others to become the next generation of network executives.
"But my biggest career thrill was yet to come," says Haynes-Smith. In 2011, she became a member of UW-Madison's board of visitors for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "I can't believe that after all these years, I will be able to contribute to Madison and the UW once again as a mentor," she says.
In her own words
What is the one thing every UW student must do?
Every UW student should get off campus to explore Madison and beyond. I remember great adventures to Taliesin, checking out spots in my South Madison neighborhoods and a road trip to Green Bay.
What is your proudest UW achievement?
Getting my graduate degree was monumental. Although only my mom attended my graduation, I felt that it was an important goal that my entire family achieved with me.
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?
You might hate your first job. You might hate your second job — that's okay. But when you hit your groove — even if it has nothing to do with your degree — then you'll know it all paid off.
What's your favorite quote?
"Who runs the world? Girls!" — Beyonce
Who is your hero?
My mom is my hero. She came to this country as a young woman for a better life. She got her undergraduate degree the year before I graduated from high school. She got her master's degree the year I graduated from college, and a few years later, she got her doctorate in nursing. This is while she served her community, her country as part of the Army Reserve and raised me. She is a rock star!
If you could trade places with any person for a week, with whom would it be?
I would trade places with Oprah Winfrey — not the media mogul but the philanthropist. I admire how she gives generously of her time and her wealth. And it wouldn't be so bad to kick it with her good friend, President Obama, for a while, too.