For interior designer Beth Diana Smith, the path to home décor began with numbers. Math came easily to her and by age 10, she said, “I knew I wanted to become an accountant.”
She received a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s in professional accounting from Seton Hall University. “I like understanding the rules, processes and definitive answers,” said Ms. Smith, 41, who grew up in Montclair, N.J. “No one in my family is creative.”
At age 23, she bought a two-bedroom townhouse, in part because becoming a young homeowner seemed financially astute. Another incentive: Her mother, who had recently become ill with dementia and heart issues, could come live with her. Ms. Smith gravitated to corporate finance in her mid-twenties, while working at
Johnson & Johnson.
“It’s more strategic than accounting,” she said. “I had to figure things out, and I liked figuring things out.”
In 2008, she joined MTV International’s finance team, based at parent company Viacom’s New York headquarters. “It was a step up from what I was doing, and it sounded interesting,” Ms. Smith said. She became director of finance for international digital media in 2010 and less than a year later became director of finance for MTV’s international programming. Ms. Smith hesitated before accepting the position because her mother had just died. But she threw herself into the job and soon was working with MTV International’s CFO and president as well as traveling the world. “I was staying in hotels enough that I started to miss my home,” she said.
In her scant spare time, Ms. Smith redecorated, indulging a passion for interior design that was kindled by home-ownership. “With my mother gone, I felt like I had to change the feeling of the house,” she said. “This is a common thing, I’ve learned. Whenever someone loses someone in the home, they’re inspired to redo things.” Poring over design blogs and magazines, she realized she could do something useful with her knack for organizing small spaces. In early 2009, she hung out her shingle as a professional organizer. Over time, clients began to ask for help beyond their closets and pantries, and by year’s end the business evolved into an interior design firm, which Ms. Smith ran alongside her corporate career.
Though she still aspired to become a CFO, she stopped taking clients and enrolled part-time at the New York School of Interior Design in 2011. “That’s my technical brain,” she said. “If there’s something I want to learn about, I need to go to school for it.”
She put aside her organizing business to focus on work and school. Three years in, “I was exhausted,” she said. She was working too much to have time for friends—and wasn’t happy at work. “More and more, I was upset by the cutthroat behavior of the people around me, from the V.P. level and up,” she said.
During a staycation in May 2014, she decided to quit. “I immediately started to feel this sense of peace,” she said. “The stress was gone, and I thought: This is how normal humans are.” It was scary to resign and close the door on her corporate career at age 34, but doing so freed her up to spend the summer and fall completing her degree—and catching her breath. The following January, she began taking clients as a full-time interior designer.
Her first client was a referral from New York interior designer Sheila Bridges, whom Ms. Smith met through the Black Interior Designers network. Former colleagues began referring clients. “It was slow,” Ms. Smith said of her initial growth. “I had been making six figures, and this was not near that.” She marketed her design services, in part by beefing up her presence on social media.
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As demand grew, she developed her exuberant, colorful style. “I think you need to know the rules and understand them before you break them,” she said. Ms. Smith folds in skills learned in finance, such as managing budgets and creating top-notch presentations for clients. She charges a flat fee. “It’s much simpler,” she said. “I’m not a big fan of keeping time sheets.”
Her days are filled with conducting in-person consultations with potential clients, drafting proposals and creating designs of rooms in progress on AutoCAD software. She also sources furnishings, follows up with vendors and tends to social media. Business has picked up since the pandemic hit, thanks to the Covid home-decoration boom. Ms. Smith usually juggles about half a dozen projects at a time. Prospective clients have to wait four to six months to begin a project with her.
Her income is still less than her corporate salary, when factoring in the year-end bonus and 401(k) match she used to receive. There are no paid sick days and the work is harder. “I never drank hard liquor until I became an entrepreneur,” Ms. Smith said. “Once I started doing this full-time, at cocktail hour I didn’t want wine anymore. I wanted bourbon.”
She has been trying to take better care of herself. “If I don’t take a weekend, I am going to be cranky and I’m going to be tired and that is not how I work at my best,” she said. Other musts: time with friends and monthly facials.
Meet the Designer
Name: Beth Diana Smith
Location: Irvington, N.J.
Education: B.S. and M.S., Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.; Associate in Applied Science in Interior Design, New York School of Interior Design
Former job: Director of finance for MTV International at Viacom
Current job: Interior designer
Aha moment: Ms. Smith was already attending night school for interior design when she took a staycation to reconsider continuing up the corporate ladder. “I immediately started to feel this sense of peace,” she said. “The stress was gone, and I thought: This is how normal humans are.” She gave her two weeks’ notice the day she returned to the office.
Advice on switching careers: “If you want to quit your job, make sure you have at least 12 months of monthly expenses put away.” And hold off on buying things that aren’t absolutely necessary. “Do you need 5,000 business cards now? You don’t.”
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