Go To Where The Learning Is: An Interview With Richard Smith
The pathway to a meaningful career isn’t always linear. But at Seed Your Future, our mission is to support individuals throughout their career journey, ensuring they have the resources to pursue fulfilling jobs working with plants.
We recently sat down with Richard Smith, the Director at the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, to learn about his role and how he got there. Every day at SYF we work to help people like Richard accomplish their education and career goals!
Q: Tell us about yourself, Richard.
A: I was born in a small rural town, Belle Glade, FL, also known as Muck City for its rich, sapric organic soils; they're produced by draining of the wetland. In Florida, I had a variety of experiences in horticulture, from master gardener working in public and private gardens, an FNGLA-certified horticultural professional, a biological scientist with the University of Florida working with specialty crop production, and even owning my own plant nursery. And prior to coming to the New York Botanical Garden, I ran a horticulture program at a high school for approximately 1200 students.
Q: It sounds like horticulture has been a nice thread throughout your education and career. Can you go into a bit more detail about what you do for work at the New York Botanical Gardens? Maybe walk us through a day in the life of your career?
A: As the Director of the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, I'm responsible for all aspects of the school, including curriculum development, student recruitment, instructor relations and the day-to-day administration of the program. I work to build an inclusive program that engages and expands representation of underrepresented communities in horticulture and academia.
And once the student graduates – and we have hundreds of graduates from all around the world – we’ve helped them secure positions as gardeners, landscape designers, directors of horticulture, executive directors, entrepreneurs and business owners. And we're proud to say for the past 13 years, we've had 100% job placements for students pursuing horticulture careers. So very exciting to be a part of that.
Q: That’s incredible, and so important for the industry. So what attracted you to your education and career in horticulture?
A: I never sought a path in horticulture until 2008, so I am a career changer. But I've always been interested in plants. I thank my family for that gift. I remember in elementary school working in our school garden and staring at this gigantic sunflower, and its flower head just was just ginormous just hanging over me. I've admired and been inspired by great plantsmen such as William Moss, Will Allen and of course George Washington Carver. I felt that there could be a possibility, of course with focus and opportunity, that I may make some level of impact as they have.
Q: What motivates you to come to work every day and keep going?
A: What I really enjoy is introducing people who may not have a ton of experience in horticulture to the possibility of working in it. You know, I've constantly heard people say, “I wish I could work with those plants,” not realizing, you can have a career there. So, I give them this opportunity to pursue their dream or passion very similar to how I did.
And seeing that sense of discovery is astounding. I feel that I'm contributing to healing our planet by helping people realize that they can gain the necessary skills and knowledge to be impactful and have a positive influence on our changing climate. They can have this impact in areas like conservation, ecological landscape design and management, and more. And helping those people find fruitful, prosperous, and flourishing careers in horticulture for me, reflects a job well done.
Q: Have you personally faced any challenges in getting to where you are? How did you get through it?
A: I think everyone has faced challenges in their journey. There are many things that I once considered obstacles or challenges: my age, my background, or even being neurodivergent. But in order to reach my goals, I could not let those things stand in my way.
Having strong mentors throughout my journey to offer support and perspective was also a saving grace. Often when I am faced with a challenge or difficulty or I am unsure or how to approach it, I can lean on their wisdom and know that they can give me some direction from their experience. So, I always say everyone should have a mentor and everyone should be a mentor when they're ready.
Q: Speaking of support, how did you learn about Seed Your Future?
A: I learned about Seed Your Future as a student at the University of Florida. I didn't want to take a loan for my education, so I sought out scholarship opportunities. I came across Seed Your future, which provided access to a list of scholarships that I could use to support my endeavors. It was really a relief to know that I potentially had access to funding for my education.
The scholarships reduced the burden of having to pay for education, and that helped me focus on my studies, and that eventually helped me be in a position where I can give back and support scholarships. So, without that support, I'm not sure where I would be. I do believe my growth would have been delayed as I probably would have needed to focus on balancing work, life, and studying. More than likely, I would not be where I am today and the prospects before me would not exist.
Q: Why you might recommend Seed Your Future as a resource to educators?
A: One thing I gained from Seed Your Future I think is important to know was the access to resources. Not only did I use Seed Your Future for my own educational pursuit in horticulture, but when I taught horticulture in high school for an FFA program, I used See Your Future to serve as a primary resource to expose students to horticulture careers, and that was exciting. I think if you go to the website now, you click horticulture, you’ll see a guy in a red hoodie. And that related very well to many of my students; in a sense, they could see themselves in that position. So, I found it a necessity that my students become familiar with the site. And even now, at an adult vocational career school, I encouraged students to use the site for their benefit, to search for scholarships or any other opportunities that might exist in horticulture.
Q: That’s great to hear. Why do you think horticulture is so important today?
The importance of plants to people, their influence on the environment and the increasingly important role that public gardens play in maintaining the quality of urban life – those are all indicators that a larger, well-trained workforce will be needed in the future to produce, to care for our plants, both in private and public settings. And being that we are seeing an increased demand for high quality horticulturists, I'm glad to be able to make this type of contribution.
Q: What would you say to a young person looking for their career path? What advice would you give them?
A: One thing a graduate of the School of Professional Horticulture knows is how to build a network. Networking transfers knowledge, it builds bridges, and it can help a young person develop the skill set that would make them more attractive to potential employers. And often networking is overlooked and has been in many programs in the U.S., I think because of the anxiety it can cause meeting strangers. But knowing how to network is such a vital skill – For the simple fact that it builds brand recognition, your brand. Because in the end, that is what you're offering to employers.
Q: What would you say to people in the horticulture industry looking to encourage interest in their career paths and horticulture as a whole?
A: I would say to go where the learning is happening. Support communities, schools and organizations involved in horticulture-related activities by simply getting your hands dirty – by leading workshops, giving presentations and understanding the challenges communities face in building interest in horticulture. Simply being there is exposure for students. There are a lot of talented people that never make it to horticulture simply because they weren’t exposed to it.
I’d also say invest in education. It’s the most powerful investment in our future. It can make a lasting difference. Scholarships, internships – these things can help us eliminate financial barriers to an education. Programs like the School of Professional Horticulture have any immediate impact for swaths of underserved, underrepresented communities and open doors for so many people to have prosperous and fruitful careers in horticulture.
Your path is really incredible. And thank you so much for sitting down and sharing it with us today.
I'm very humble to do this. So, thank you so much.
If you would like to learn more about the School of Professional Horticulture contact Richard Smith at [email protected]. Follow The New York Botanical Garden on Instagram or visit their website nybg.org