PROFILE: Kai Smith overcomes adversity to become successful businesswoman
Published 10:32 am Thursday, March 9, 2017
By BRIANA HARRIS / Staff Writer
Kai Smith’s pleasant demeanor is apparent as soon as you walk through the door at Kai’s Koffee House in Pelham. She spends her workdays tending to her first business, KTL Insurance Services, so it’s a rare treat to see her behind the counter tending to guests.
On the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2016, a Hispanic woman, holding her child in her arms, walked into the coffee shop and stopped in the doorway, seeming a bit apprehensive.
“Hi, how are you today? Come on in,” Smith said.
The woman still seemed unsure, so Smith immediately switched gears and asked her in Spanish if she could speak English. When the woman replied no, Smith began talking to the woman in Spanish, putting her at ease.
As a California native, she learned to speak Spanish at a young age. She has a natural way of relating to people. Perhaps it’s because she’s experienced so much herself.
Although she’s been the owner of KTL Insurance Services for 13 years, she’s known by most Pelham residents for the always fresh brewed coffee served at Kai’s Koffee House, which opened three years ago.
Today, Smith is the successful owner of two small businesses, but it’s a far cry from where she started. Smith knows that her success is against what some would consider insurmountable odds.
Smith has been on her own since she was 15. Her Cape Verdean mother decided to move back to her native country, leaving Kai behind to live her stepfather who was a drug addict.
“It started off as a visit and then she just didn’t come back right away,” Smith said. “She said she just wanted to go home. I kind of lived a rough life afterwards.”
Smith lived with her stepfather until he committed suicide, and then she moved around, living with friends until she graduated high school. At the time, her father was in prison, so living with him wasn’t an option.
“It wasn’t as bad until my stepfather passed,” she said. “When that happened I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m really by myself.’ I was just bouncing around back and forth from people’s house. At 15 you don’t really know how to process all of these things happening to you.”
Smith said it wasn’t until she was an adult that she started to think about her mother’s departure as abandonment, but she’s not the kind of person to feel sorry for herself.
She understood what it meant to be independent. At 14, she began working and when her mother left she stepped in to help pay the bills at home.
“I knew what I needed to do to survive and that’s what I did,” she said. “My thought was, ‘How can I keep this going for as long as possible?’ I wasn’t looking for a handout.”
Smith said nobody really knew what was going on in her life because she made it a point to fly under the radar.
At 17, she found herself facing another challenge when she became pregnant with her oldest daughter. At that point, the family of her daughter’s father took her in and she worked at K-Mart to support her child. Attending college was far from her mind.
“I didn’t want to go to college,” she said. “I didn’t have the grades. I barely got out of high school.”
It was through the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco, California, that she received the opportunity. A middle school teacher by the name of Dr. Joseph Marshall Jr. started the Omega Boys Club in 1987 as a way to help boys and girls realize their potential by attending college.
“A friend convinced me to go to one of their meetings and they asked me if I wanted to go to college and my response was, ‘No.’”
The promise of stability, shelter, food and clothing is what convinced Smith to take advantage of the organization’s offer. She moved to Montgomery in 1993 to attend college at Alabama State University and the Omega Boys Club paid her tuition, room and board and all of her living expenses.
It was there, in Montgomery, that she would one day meet her future husband. While she was away, her daughter lived with her paternal grandparents.
She received a degree in accounting in 1997. Smith said the nurturing environment she found at Alabama State University helped her make it through.
“I was never a bad kid. I was just a kid who was lost because of their circumstances,” she said.
But a few years later, Smith was dealt another tragic blow.
Her father, with whom she had a close relationship, died of AIDS.
“I was the only remaining family on my father’s side, that I knew of at the time, so I had to take control of the burial plans,” she said. “We had no one to come.”
Several years later, she took care of her paternal grandmother, who she never knew, after having a stroke, and cared for her until she died.
But her experiences dealing with tragedy and heartache would later be perceived as an asset in her career.
For the love of coffee
For six years after college, Smith worked as a Spanish teacher at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery. It was there that her coffee business gained roots.
She turned her classroom closet into the Coffee Closet – grinding her own coffee and making it available to teachers who could smell the aroma coming from her classroom, and would stop to grab a cup on their way to the front office.
“Teachers would put money in my cup and I guess that was my first little coffee shop,” Smith said.
Culturally, Smith grew up around coffee. Her mother is a native of the West African nation of Cape Verde, where one-third of the country’s population are farmers, with coffee being a popular crop.
In the summer of 2005, she got the opportunity to travel to Honduras with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help coffee farmers digitize their bartering process.
“To be honest, I don’t really know how Honduras happened,” she said, laughing. “I think I put my resume online after college and U.S. AID contacted me and told me that my credentials fit the needs of the assignment. I had a degree in accounting and I spoke fluent Spanish, so it just fit.”
This is just another example of how God’s hand has directed her life.
“I spent a month there and when I came back I just had it in my head that I was going to open a coffee shop,” she said. “So I quit my job in November and went off to open my own shop.”
But she ran into a bit of a problem when banks wouldn’t loan her money to start a business.
“I tried for about a month,” she said. “At this time I had two small children and no job so I decided to move to Birmingham to fall back on my accounting degree from ASU.”
When she called her life insurance agent to change her address, she also received a job offer.
“He talked me into coming to work for him and I needed a job, so I took it,” she said.
New England Financial paid for Smith’s schooling and licensing fees. She was told that all the death she’d dealt with at a such a young age enabled her to relate to what the person on the other side of the phone was going through.
The power of having faith
God had a plan for Kai Smith’s life. That’s the only way to explain to how a teenage mother can grow up to become a successful business owner, times two.
“Faith got me here,” she said. “I’ve always been a person of faith, even when obstacles seemed too big to overcome. I don’t have the pretty house with the white picket fence life story, and I know that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for God.”
Ten years into her career with New England Financial – it’s National Coffee Day and someone at a car wash is telling her to try the coffee at a little shop connected to Poppa G’s Billiards on Chandalar Place Drive, but when she got there the shop was out of business.
“So I decided to go into the pool hall to talk to the owner about putting insurance on the business and he shows me this vacant space and says that it makes a great little coffee shop,” she said. “Then he says, ‘Do you know anyone who would be interested in opening a coffee shop?’ I couldn’t even speak, I just raised my hand.”
Two weeks from that day, Kai’s Koffee opened.
“It was all in order for me. Somebody on Facebook suggested that I go to a coffee shop in Tuscaloosa that was closing to look into purchasing some equipment and that owner sold me everything – coffee makers, furniture, everything.”
All of her previous failures prepared her for this. For three years after college, before becoming a teacher, Smith tried her hand at several different business ventures.
She worked at Regions Bank, started a marketing business, a web design business, a bookkeeping business and a computer repair shop. All of them failed.
“Now each of those things I do for my businesses. Since I know how to do it, I don’t have to pay anyone else to do it,” she said. “It’s tough being a business owner. I’ve learned that just because you have a talent doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be a business owner.”
Kai’s Koffee has since relocated to 2953 Pelham Parkway and it’s thriving.
Just above the door hangs a cross, and words on the wall read, “Life’s too short to drink cheap coffee,” and “Faith beyond what the eyes can see.” A few tables line a wall while couches provide a cozy spot to sit and read a book, and there’s a more private room where business meetings or private parties can be held.
“Three years is a really big milestone for a small business,” she said. “We have a great following throughout Shelby County.”
The business was voted Shelby Living’s 2016 Best Coffee Shop in Shelby County. It’s coffee the southern way, Smith says, with hospitality and good conversation. Coffee is shipped in every week to ensure freshness and the food sold there is bought from local restaurants.
Along the way there have been doubters. Some said her coffee shop wouldn’t last because she’s sandwiched between Starbucks, and still, some wait for her to tumble. However, Smith doesn’t let the negativity bother her.
“I love people and I’m so happy when I see people happy, having conversations and connecting, that all of the negativity doesn’t matter. Insurance is my profession and the coffee is my passion.”
Stacie Noss, manager of Kai’s Koffee, described Kai as a mentor and the type of leader that others want to follow.
“If you do something wrong she doesn’t get upset or scold you, it’s always a teaching moment,” Noss said.
But the two knew each other long before the coffee shop even opened. They became friends when their sons played soccer together for about five years. Noss started out working at KTL Insurance but switched over to the coffee shop when Kai was short-staffed at one point.
Noss said she fell in love with the shop and its cozy environment.
“People say you’re not supposed to work with your friends, but Kai and I were friends first,” Noss said. “It works for us because we have a common love for the coffee shop and that desire for the coffee shop to be successful allows us to work together in a business sense.”
Bruce Smith, Kai’s husband, said his wife’s success is a testament to her character.
“It takes a strong person to persevere through certain situations,” he said. “She had a lot against her, but she knew what she deserved and what she wanted in life and she didn’t stop until she got it.”
In the midst of it all, Smith finds time to give back to give back to her community. She volunteered on the Pelhambration board in 2013, started the Pelham Business Alliance and is the chairwoman of Pelham High’s Business Academy.
Love and family
Now a married mother of three, she said she used her businesses to help instill a good work ethic in her children. Her oldest daughter, who is a graduate student studying to become a nurse practitioner at UAB, worked at a coffee shop to earn extra money in college and taught her mother how to make espresso drinks.
Her younger daughter learned the ins and outs of the coffee shop quickly and could open and close the shop on her own at 15. Her youngest child, a son, has yet to show much interest in the coffee business.
But Smith said juggling family life and work can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.
“Some days are better than others,” she said. “I try to include my kids in the businesses, and I tend to drag them to business events with me so we can spend some time together. I don’t want them to feel like I’m absent in their lives.”
Her husband, a captain in the federal firefighter department at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and owner of Birmingham-based Rescue Me Home Inspection, said he and Kai make it a point to be home by 6 p.m. every evening and try not to miss any of their children’s extracurricular activities.
“To keep us grounded in each other, every three months we leave and go somewhere,” Bruce said. “Sometimes it’s for a weekend and sometimes it’s for a full week – even if we just get in the car and drive and talk until we get tired and then get a hotel somewhere.”
Their trips have included visiting places such as Hawaii, New York, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Mexico, the District of Columbia and the Bahamas.
“We’re both hustlers and if we have something to work toward it makes us grind even harder to make it happen,” he said. “And we never bring work with us when we go. When we get back, we refocus and start again.”
Above all else, Kai said she and her husband have a strong spiritual connection and belief in God.
“As long as we keep God in our marriage and in our lives we can make it through anything – achieve anything,” she said.