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Gwendolyn Smith Iloani

Investment Executive Gwendolyn Smith Iloani was born in Jamaica. Iloani came to the United States with her family at the age of six. Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Iloani received her B.A. degree in sociology from Colgate University and her M.B.A. from the University of Hartford.

Iloani worked in a variety of insurance and financial firms before founding her own investment company. Iloani began her career as a math analyst at New York Life in the late 1970s and then moved to Connecticut Mutual as a management trainee. In 1980, Iloani moved to Aetna, Inc. where she worked for fifteen years. Iloani worked in the investment department as an investment analyst and ultimately rose to the level of a managing director at a very rapid pace. In 1994, she persuaded senior executives at Aetna to invest $2.5 million in Smith Whiley, the Hartford, Connecticut investment firm she founded and owns. After two years, Iloani bought out Aetna’s interest and Smith Whiley is now owned by Iloani. Iloani is the chairwoman, president and CEO of Smith Whiley & Company, a private equity firm that specializes in providing mezzanine debt and private equity for management buyouts, recapitalizations, acquisitions and growth capital. Smith Whiley is among the largest black-owned private equity firm, and has managed in excess of $600 million. Iloani directs the firm’s investment advisory and asset management business, and the investment and portfolio management activities.

In 2000, Iloani's younger sister Jaleith died of leukemia at age thirty-six and left her three children to Iloani, who now makes time for all the demands of motherhood. In addition, Iloani has a long history of civic involvement with a wide variety of organizations and has received numerous community service and business leadership awards. Iloani is a board member of the NAACP Special Contributions Fund and The Crisis magazine. She was named one of the “75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street” and one of the “50 Most Powerful Black Women in Business” by Black Enterprise Magazine. Iloani is a Trustee of the University of Connecticut Foundation and after serving nine years on the Board of Trustees for Colgate University, she is currently an Emeritus Trustee.

Gwendolyn Smith Iloani was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 29, 2010.

Accession Number

A2010.009

Sex

Female

Interview Date

4/29/2010

Last Name

Iloani

Maker Category
Middle Name

Smith

Schools

Colgate University

University Of Hartford

International High School At Prospect Heights

P.S. 182

P.S. 299, Thomas Warren Field School

Speakers Bureau

Organizations

First Name

Gwendolyn

HM ID

SMI22

Favorite Season

Fall

Favorite Vacation Destination

Cruises

Favorite Quote

The Only Helping Hand You Have Is The One At The End Of Your Arm.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Connecticut

Birth Date

11/19/1955

Speakers Bureau Region City

Hartford

Country

Jamaica

Favorite Food

Goat (Curried)

Short Description

Investment executive Gwendolyn Smith Iloani (1955 - ) was the founder, chairwoman, president and CEO of Smith Whiley and Company, the nation's fourth-largest black-owned private equity firm.

Employment

Smith Whiley and Company

Aetna, Inc.

Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co.

New York Life Insurance Co.

Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Gwendolyn Smith Iloani's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her mother's upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her family's migration to New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani remembers the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani remembers her parents' occupations

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her early awareness of divisions in the African American community

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Gwendolyn Smith Ilonai recalls her early education

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her early career aspirations

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani remembers her family's entrepreneurialism

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her experiences at Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls her decision to attend Colgate University in Hamilton, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her academic experiences at Colgate University

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls working for the Aetna Life and Casualty Company

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her start as an investment analyst

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls the Aetna Life and Casualty Company's investment in BET

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes the early business model of BET

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about black business ownership

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani remembers her marriage

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about the challenges of her marriage

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls the founding of her investment firm

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes the origins of Smith Whiley and Company's name

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her investment strategy

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her investment clients and specialty

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her business partners

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her success at Smith Whiley and Company

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes the challenges of entrepreneurship

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani talks about her nephews

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her charitable board memberships

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani reflects upon her concerns for the University of Connecticut and Colgate University

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls her interest in establishing an office in South Africa

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani reflects upon her life, legacy and how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Gwendolyn Smith Iloani narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$3

DAStory

3$1

DATitle
Gwendolyn Smith Iloani remembers her family's entrepreneurialism
Gwendolyn Smith Iloani recalls the Aetna Life and Casualty Company's investment in BET
Transcript
Sometimes, you know, they had individuals, you know, positioned as role models in those, you know, for different things. I just wondered that--it should be--to go into business in those days it seems like there would be somebody--$$But I didn't know what business meant. I just knew I couldn't be a doctor. So I knew I had--it had to be business but I had no clue as to what that would entail.$$Okay. Were any of your relatives entrepreneurs?$$No.$$That's interesting that I think, you know, a lot of pe- people see Jamaicans and, and people from Barbados as- as entrepreneurs?$$As entrepreneurs. Now my dad [Woodrow Smith], you know, he--we started out with my house, and then he bought like five, six other houses. So you can say that he had an entrepreneurial spirit--$$Yes he did (laughter).$$--and a lot of my relatives did the same thing. But when you think of a true entrepreneur who is running a company and employing people, they didn't go that route, but they knew how to build wealth. And just about every aunt and uncle did that, own multiple homes and in my--in our case, when you have eight children that--that we became the demolition crew (laughter). So we would go in, get the houses ready, when people would move out we would go--like I became a, a excellent painter by the time I was in tenth grade [at Prospect Heights High School, Brooklyn, New York]. I loved to paint and my father taught me to paint. I didn't love to paint before he taught--but I could paint houses, do ceilings, walls, fixtures.$$So you didn't have all free time to ride your bike, you, you did have to do some--$$Well as I got older we began to take on responsibilities like that. So my job was painting. So I would paint the stoops, like in Brooklyn [New York], you know, everybody has a stoop. I'd go paint the stoop, paint all the, the, the metal fencing and then go into houses that we owned when people moved out or if we had little projects to do. He wouldn't hire painters, he'd have the kids, so it was me and my--one of my brothers we'd go in and do painting.$$Okay, now I have neglected to ask you the names of all your brothers and sister, so and, and where you fall in the order so, so?$$My oldest brother is, is Wendell [Wendell Smith] and he's about five years older than me. Then I have another brother Ivanhoe [Ivanhoe Smith], who you met, and he's about--almost two years older than me, and then I--then it's me. Then I have a sister named Princess. She's actually named that--her name is Princess Grace [Princess Smith Sally], she's named after Princess Grace [Grace Kelly], and I have an aunt whose name is Princess Grace, and she's about three years younger than me. And then I have twin brothers--a brother and a sister, and they are four years younger than me. And then I have a sister, Jaleith [Jaleith Smith]--well the twins are Patrick [Patrick Smith] and Yvonne [Yvonne Smith], then I have a sister Jaleith who is se- seven years younger, and then I have the baby brother, his name is Arthur, Whiley Arthur Smith [Arthur Smith] and he's ten years younger than me. So I'm the third oldest child and the oldest girl.$$Okay, okay.$Do you remember where you left off, you wanna pick up from there?$$I think I was talking about--oh you're ready (laughter) okay.$$Yeah, we're rolling, yeah.$$So I worked doing analysis in the utility group for about three years and then I wanted to learn a different sector. So I requested to be moved into the banking group where I would be investing in banks, insurance companies. I was doing solvent risk analysis, basically looking at different countries and investing in, in, in these countries. And I did that for about three years. And then I moved over to run the media group. I became a managing director and I was investing in radio, TV, cable companies, any kind of entertainment companies on behalf of Aetna [Aetna Life and Casualty Company; Aetna, Inc., Hartford, Connecticut]. And I made a very good investment in BET [Black Entertainment Television] at the time. We were their first institutional investor (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) So this is--this is what 19?$$Nineteen eighty-eight [1988], '89 [1989]. I invested in BET in '88 [1988] and invested fifteen million [dollars] of Aetna's money--I think it was ten million of Aetna's money in BET, and ended up owning a part of BET--so Aetna owned a part of BET. And then two years later, the company went public.$$Now how did BET, for instance, convince you to invest in them?$$What happened was, I was at a cable show in Dallas [Texas] and I met Bob Johnson [Robert L. Johnson]. He was checking into the hotel, we were staying at the ho- the same hotel and we started to talk. And he said that he had been to every bank and every venture firm and private equity firm in the D.C. [Washington, D.C.], Virginia, and Maryland markets trying to get this money. He needed the money to purchase a satellite--a transponder which is on a satellite and--which would transmit signals through cable headends and ultimately through either fiber optic or coaxial cable down the street into your home so when you turn on your TV you'd get a picture, you'd get the BET show. And the transponder that he had had reached the end of its useful life and he wondered whether or not I would consider such of a transaction. I said I don't know what a transponder is, I don't understand the risk involved in launching a satellite. What happens if you launch it and it goes off course, it's a lot of money.