When our former director of operations, Joel Smith, passed away in 2018, his family and friends donated to the Institute to establish a leadership award in his honor. The award has recently been endowed thanks to our Development team’s efforts and the support of donors. The University of Arkansas Foundation now manages the endowment.

Joel was a unique person with an authentic leadership style. He genuinely and wholeheartedly cultivated the potential of others by recognizing individual strengths and helping them be the best at their jobs, regardless of position or department. The award is chosen based on nominations submitted by Institute employees. 

The fifth Joel Smith Leadership Award was presented to Design & Production Officer Venita Berry on Nov. 28, 2023.

“Everyone who has had the pleasure of working with Venita on any project knows the speed, efficiency, and quality of her work. If you didn’t know better, you would think that she had support staff helping her, but no, she’s just that hard of a worker. She is a pleasure to work with and always happy to help anyone. Her creative abilities and attention to detail show through in all her work. She is an asset to the Institute and an inspiring example of what made Joel Smith a great man and leader.” 

Joel Smith Leadership Award Nomination

Those are just a few lines from one of many nominations for Venita Berry, who has been part of the Institute’s marketing team for the last six years.

“I was shocked but honored to discover that I was the recipient,” Venita said. “Though I only had the opportunity to work with Joel for about eight months, I quickly learned that Joel was a humble leader who considered the needs of others above his own. He continually searched for ways to grow his team to their full potential, and it was inspiring to see the way he used positive reinforcement to build people up.”

It’s because of what she saw in Joel that Venita strives to be an encouraging voice to those around her. “You never know when one kind word can make a difference or even turn someone’s day around,” she said. 

Other nominations highlighted Venita’s “superpowered ability” to analyze and brainstorm solutions to complex problems, as well as her consistency in pitching in wherever it is needed.

“I truly believe in what we do,” she said. “Nothing is ever ‘just a conference’ or ‘just a meeting.’ Our people and guests become better individuals by being here. Any group that comes up, even just to have fun, gets something out of the Rockefeller Ethic and atmosphere Petit Jean Mountain offers. We all leave better than how we arrived.” 

Venita, who lives in Morrilton but is originally from Southwest Arkansas, studied graphic design at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton while working at the local Petit Jean Country Headlight newspaper. She most recently graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, as well as the Project Management Institute with a Certified Associate in Project Management. 

“I am blessed with the opportunity to use my skills to ensure our work is not only aesthetically pleasing but actually helpful and engaging for our guests,” Venita said. “Without thoughtful design, many things can become difficult to understand or retain. I always want our products to be accessible so they can be shared across the state, just like our mission.”

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