Sunday, April 18, 2021

Disney Dreamer Talks Dreamers Academy and Landing Mentorship with Richelieu Dennis, Owner of Essence Magazine

Kynnedy Smith from Shaker Heights, Ohio shows off her violin talent during Disney Dreamers Academy commencement at Walt Disney World Resort on Sunday, March 24, 2019. The 12th annual Disney Dreamers Academy, taking place March 21-24, 2019 is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the U.S. (Todd Anderson, photographer)

*Briefly meeting Kynnedy Smith at Disney Dreamers this year, it was simple to decipher that she exudes humble confidence and at the tender age of 16 years old, she is a young girl who is keenly aware of her purpose.

As a sophomore at Hawken School in Northeast, Ohio she is a classically trained violinist who is also an avid STEM participant and is an adept software developer.

She enjoys coding and has designed gaming consoles, virtual reality simulation sand websites according to her bio.  With all the spectacular gifts she maintains she also operates in the spirit of altruism and founded a non-profit called I Art Cleveland.

The organization addresses the disparities in arts education that impact underserved youth of Northeast Ohio.  The non-profit provides students complete access to art programming, community education, funding sources, and advocacy.

During Disney Dreamers, they hosted a segment similar to Shark Tank where several dreamers pitched their ideas of their companies and non-profits to prominent judges like Richelieu Dennis, founder of Shea Moisture and the current owner of Essence Magazine, as well as, award-winning Chef Jeff, creator of Food Network’s reality series, “The Chef Jeff Project,” host of “Family Style with Chef Jeff,” and the star of the TV series, “Flip My Food with Chef Jeff.”

EURweb caught up with Kynnedy to discuss her experience with Disney Dreamers 2019.

Tell me about your background.

I am from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I live with my mother and we have an amazing relationship. She is my biggest supporter and fan. She has always been supportive of my dreams and goals and has sacrificed so much in order for me to have exposure to opportunities and culture.  When I was growing up we did not have a lot, but my mother never made it appear as if we were struggling. She always made sure that I knew that I can have anything I wanted and could be anything I wanted. I am an only child, so I have always been involved in a lot of out of school activities.  I grew up taking dance, music, and art classes. In Cleveland, we are surrounded by the arts and culture and a lot of colleges and my mother made sure I had access to them all.  I was a Girl Scout and a member of the citywide cheerleading team all throughout elementary and middle school years. One of the most significant experiences I had growing up was that I spent my time every day after school at the Heights Youth Club, an affiliate of our local Boys and Girls Club.  I was exposed to so much and being there allowed me to really explore my potential, it was a safe space and it gave me so much inspiration, I loved going there.

Academically, I am a junior at Hawken School, an independent private school in Gates Mills, Ohio. I finished my last school year with a 4.12-grade point average, and I am an A Better Chance Scholar.  At school, I am a member of the Speech and Debate team, a founding member of the Black Student Union, a member of the Diversity Club and the Multi-Cultural Club, a member of the Strings Ensemble and I am entering my 3rd year on the volleyball team. I am also working to help develop an arts council at my school.  Outside of school, I am a volunteer at the Cleveland Playhouse Square, and a member of the City Club of Cleveland Youth Forum, the Youth Sustainability Leadership Program, the Teaching Cleveland Student Challenge, Excellence of A Pearl Youth Group, and I am beginning my third year as a member of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra. This summer I completed a STEM Internship at our local community college focused on computer gamification and I will be participating in the Black Girls Lead Conference, a program of Black Girls Rock at Columbia University. Also, I [was a] guest speaker for At the Well Conferences at Princeton University in July.

What sparked your interest in coding?

I was first introduced to STEM when I was in elementary school. I attended a yearlong Saturday STEM program at the local community college when I was in first grade and continued through fifth grade. I also attended a summer STEM camp through idtech. Then a few summers ago, my mother signed me up for a free summer class at the same community college and we designed and programmed robots. Since that time, I have taken and attended a few coding courses and camps.  I realized that I wanted to pursue coding as a career last year when I had the opportunity to program for VR and AR devices. I fell in love with being lost in what felt like an alternate universe, and I was charmed by how these programs had the capacity to not only entertain people but create supportive communities, give people a canvas to be creative, and even serve as educational tools. Currently, I am a second-year member of a program called Indeed We Code, which offers exposure to careers in the STEM field to African-American girls. Each summer we build websites and design online gaming.  This summer I completed a STEM Research/Internship at the local community college in the Advance Technology Department focused on computer gamification.

Tell me more about the games and consoles you have designed and the virtual reality simulations and websites.

Most of the websites, web-apps, and consoles games that I have made were inspired by projects I have completed in various coding programs.  Some examples of my work include adventure games where you choose your own destiny, pet simulation games, virtual reality mini-games about physics, and online blogs sites, quizzes, fortune tellers, and websites about the importance of African-American presentation in STEM.  I am always brainstorming new games/websites that I would like to develop.  One of my dreams is to have my own software company.

Kynnedy Smith playing her violin at Disney Dreamers 2019.

What drew you to play the violin and how do you plan to use this gift in the future?

My mother listened to a lot of jazz and instrumental music when I was little, so I instantly became fond of the many ways one can create music out of different instruments and sounds. When I was five, I first saw and heard a woman playing the violin at a community dinner. It was then that I told my mother that I wanted to play that instrument.  However, it was not until almost four years later, when I was in the fourth grade, that I had the opportunity to play.  I was gifted my first violin by my local Boys and Girls Club.  From there, I joined my elementary school’s orchestra and began taking music lessons at Cleveland Institute of Music. I later joined a program called El’ Sistema, a daily afterschool program that taught us orchestral basics in playing and performance.  I ended up having access to all types of scholarships and grants to further my studies. I have performed in a chamber and small ensemble groups, solo, and I have studied at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music, the Music Settlement, and the world-renowned Interlochen School of the Arts. I love the different sounds I can create with my violin.  Many people think that the violin is for classical playing only, but my favorite genre is jazz and gospel. I am a member of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra and it is such an amazing program.  We have traveled internationally to Ireland and Scotland to perform and have performed with musicians such as Jason Mraz and Kenny Loggins. For me, making music is so liberating it is how I create my own peace. I plan to continue to study music as I move on to my post-secondary education.  Music will be my second major along with Computer Science.  I want to use my music to teach and entertain. I also want to be able to encourage others to invest in the arts.

What led you to start your own non-profit?

When I was first learning to play the violin, I received many scholarships and grants for my studies.  I received most of them because of my skill, but I also received many because of my family’s social-economic background.  I attended many camps, classes, and programs, and in these environments, I noticed the disparities in the makeup of students. Specifically, there were not many students of color, and many times I would be the only person of color in my class or camp. I knew the lack of diversity in these classes was due to many reasons including cost and accessibility. Art programs can be expensive and having access to information, funding, and programming is a huge barrier for many families.  I thought it was unfair that many students were not aware of or were not able to take advantage of the same opportunities that I had. I wanted to help create a way to connect more students and their families to arts education, programming, and funding sources. That is how my nonprofit, I Art Cleveland, started.

Kynnedy Smith’s non-profit organization I Art Cleveland.

Describe the success of your foundation.

I Art Cleveland is still a work in progress.  We have been able to establish partnerships with some local art programs to help students attend various art programs. We mainly have been an education source thus far. Our long-term goal is to be able to support more youth artists by providing access and education to and about the arts, creating programs, and providing funding to participate in arts programs both locally and nationally. We not only want to create artists, but we want to create cultured leaders. Cleveland has a rich culture of arts and it is one of the things that I love about the city. I believe that almost everyone who lives here can say that in some way, “I Art Cleveland.”

What did you think about when Richelieu Dennis said he would invest in your foundation/business?

I was so shocked when Mr. Dennis invested in my non-profit. I honestly could not believe it.  I am so grateful. I believe in my mission and when Mr. Dennis told me that he believed in me and my organization’s mission too, that meant so much to me. It makes me work harder to ensure that the vision of I Art Cleveland comes alive.  Coming to Disney Dreamers, I never expected to receive that type of gift and support. It is truly a blessing to know that when you live out your purpose in life, you help others live out their purpose too.  That is what Mr. Dennis did for me, and that is what I plan to do for others.   I want to be like him, in that I want to own businesses, both in the arts and field of STEM.

Richelieu Dennis with Kynnedy Smith at Disney Dreamers 2019.

 What do you expect to learn from your mentorship with him?

I will work with Mr. Dennis soon and become more connected to Essence Communication Ventures and their efforts in supporting young entrepreneurs. I hope to learn more about marketing and communication, networking and partnerships, financial management and investments, but most importantly the personal side of entrepreneurship that touches on humility and strength.

What was the most impactful lesson that you learned or took away from Disney Dreamers?

“Be the Hero of your own story” is one of the statements that I think about just about every day. I have it written on my mirror in my room, and on my notebooks.  It reminds me that I get to write this story and live out my journey and it’s up to me decide the happy ending. Another lesson is, “anything is possible when you have passion, good intentions, and the right support group around you.”  Attending Disney Dreamers was a life-changing experience.  Also, realizing, understanding, and taking advantage of your “Destiny Moment” was a standout for me. I have never been inspired so much until my experience at Disney Dreamers.  It truly changed the way I navigate each day.

The deadline to apply for Disney Dreamers Academy is October 31, 2019.

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