Storm Smith Didn't See Deaf Women of Color Making Films, So She Made Her Own — Now, She's Changed the Ad Industry Forever

Storm Smith
Storm Smith

Storm Smith has had a journey unlike any other. As the first deaf woman to work at leading advertising agency BBDO, Smith spends her days transforming big ideas into creative content — always reflecting her ideals of inclusion and representation — for a whole host of well-known brands.

But while Smith's incredible storytelling savvy has propelled her to the top of her chosen field, she began adulthood on an altogether different path — until 2011, she was a grad student in psychology, studying to become a counselor. Now, it's that background that propels her forward; as a woman of color and art director at the global agency she works for, she's on a mission to make the world of media more inclusive and diverse, and to inspire other aspiring creatives to pursue the life of their dreams.

In February, POPSUGAR sat down with Smith for a wide-ranging conversation about her past, the present, and our collective future.

On Her Roots and Her Origins in Psychology

I'm originally from California, born and raised in LA. I moved to Washington, DC (where I lived for about 11 years) to study at Gallaudet University, the only deaf and hard of hearing university in the world. Honestly, at first, my career goal was to become a school counselor. I thought I would become a psychologist or a therapist. I wanted to advocate for deaf and hard of hearing youth, especially youth of color. But in terms of media and film and filmmaking? Well, that never came to mind.

From the age of five I knew that I was a creative person. I did dance, was in theater, and knew that I had creativity in me when I was in high school, but at that point I hadn't tapped into it as a career. There's this vocational rehabilitation — it's financial aid and it helps deaf and hard of hearing people go to college — but it only offered certain careers. So I thought, "OK, I have to be realistic and I've got to go into something run of the mill, be a psychologist, I need to get a good job." I remember being irritated by the lack of choice, the strict limits.

Fast forward a couple years; I started making some films, and doing photography on the side for fun. It wasn't something that I thought of as a career until 2010, when everything changed for me. I had a mentor, Dr. Jane Norman, who approached me one morning and said, "The film you have, the story you have to tell — I've just seen it, and it's everything. You should submit this film to this festival. Do it now — you've got a week." At that point I was a graduate student so I didn't really think I had time to pursue it. I had things to do at home, I had papers to write, I had tons of work — but she really planted that seed in my head.

So I just thought, "OK, I'll try it!" And I made a short film in a week; shooting, editing, captioning, sound, audio . . . all of it. And while I had no background in film, and no formal training or anything, I knew I could do it all in a week because had this innate fire inside of me and I was excited about it.

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On How She Began Her Journey Toward Becoming a Filmmaker

It was a huge moment of growth for me, that I had a story to tell. I only knew of one woman of color who was also a deaf filmmaker – but I had never felt that connection, or thought it was an option for me. But I still decided, "Hey, you know what, I'm going to take this risk." A month later I was accepted into the film festival, and came in fifth place. Shortly thereafter, after thinking long and hard about it, I decided to resign from my graduate program.

It was both the best and hardest decision of my life. I flew home one weekend to tell my parents, and I was really nervous — I'm the only child and my parents have high expectations for me, so I told my mom first. My mom is my heart, my role model, my best friend, and she said, "Mhmm, OK, well make sure that whatever you start, that you finish it. No matter what you do I'll be here to support you, all your dreams and passions." It was important to me not to lose that sentiment — and I haven't.

So I began making films — film after film, producing content, telling story after story. I became the main specialist, producer, and director at Gallaudet University in their communications and marketing department. For two years, I produced content for them and the last year before I moved, I was appointed by the new president of Gallaudet — the first female president in 152 years — to build out more visibility for the deaf and hard of hearing community around the world. I took that opportunity. It allowed me to build my craft as a storyteller, and because of that, BBDO recognized me and recruited me last year. And that was lifechanging for me. I'm an art director now, and the first deaf female ever to work for BBDO.

On How She Uses Technology to Power Her Creativity

I learned how to edit with iMovie — I got a Pell Grant and I was a PC user at the time and thought, "OK, I want to advance my craft somehow," so I bought a MacBook Pro and a Canon T2I Rebel and that's all I needed: my camera and my computer. I eventually moved on to Final Cut Pro X for about five years, and used that consistently — it was so easy to pick up and use and figure out how to add captions and develop the fundamentals. Then I was able to introduce the iPad Pro for when a person was signing, or sometimes I used my iPhone.

Honestly, if I want to just capture something in the moment I will shoot on my iPhone and just edit it right there. I'm always telling my clients, "I'm a really fast editor, I have a really quick turnaround — the next day, if not a few hours," and these products really helped me to do just that.

Storm Smith

On Her Artistic Process and Her Quick Turn Around

I'm a really curious person, and I ask a ton of questions. So the conversation about what the goals are, what a client wants me to produce, what the vision is — that conversation is key.

To be a deaf person talking to a hearing person, sometimes it can be a challenge to explain your vision and not have a person fully see. And sometimes, they'll be speaking in a very linear fashion and I'll find myself elaborating details in sign language, visually, that take a lot of work to explain. But we always make it work, and then we go through our shoot, and then we do the editing and take it to the client. If they love it, then there you go, it's yours!

I can make music videos, ads, campaigns, PSAs . . . you name it. But it's always the vision first, then the story — and from there, the details always become a lot less complicated. Telling a story is allowing people to connect with a human experience, and that's always, ultimately, what my clients want.

On the Rule of Representation That She Lives By

My rule is that my films have to be with and for people of color. That's a must for me. Representation is key — and everyone always wants to talk about representation. But at the same time, people need it to feel inspired, to see that there are others out there. Whether you're young or old, the more representation the better.

There is no norm — and that's really the point. You can be found out there, and I'm especially excited about the times that we find ourselves in right now. As women, as people of color, as people with disabilities, deaf and heard of hearing, LGBTQ+, we are all growing. We are all progressing.

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On the Advice She Gives to Other Women and People of Color on How to Make an Impact

To be honest, anyone could easily say, "Go ahead and do it, take the risk," but it does require a lot more than that. First, you have to know who you are, what you stand for, and what your philosophy is on things and what you want — because its your life. You have this one life, and you need to ask yourself, "How did I come up with that philosophy that got me through to where I am today?"

Even for myself, at one point I even felt like I wanted to kill myself on the freeway out in LA because of all the struggles of being a woman, struggles with sexuality, struggles with a whole host of things. I was too busy trying to match society's expectations of what I should be. But fortunately, I can say that I was woken up by that experience, from being on the floor, from learning, from talking, from speaking up for what I wanted, and from taking more risks.

Just imagine me, since that time that I was gearing up to be a counselor, and how far I've come from there. It all comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what you stand for, and continuing to celebrate who we are as women, as talented women, everywhere. We need to constantly express our stories through our work, and that work will speak for itself.

Maybe not everyone will like it, but as long as you're producing it and putting it all on the table — that's all that's required. You can walk away then with a smile on your face, because you know who you are and you put it out there.

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On the Future and What She Hopes to Do For Others

True inclusion for everybody. For people who are women, for deaf women, for deaf disabled women, for deaf disabled women of color. With all the new media platforms we have available to us, we're able [to] consider full inclusion and full immersion.

By being an art director, I've been able to advance to the next level in my work, but my dream is to become a producer and director for studio work. I want to incorporate representation and the human experience that really reflects all of us. I want that to be on screen, for that to inspire people — especially deaf youth, deaf youth of color, deaf youth who are girls of color — to have them to see that and go, "Wow, I can go just as far as you can, Storm."

Many of the youth right now in our community feel limited. They want it, they're hungry, but they're limited, and they don't know how to get in. So part of my work is inspiring the next generation — and I see myself doing that going forward.