Susan Naylor, Founder, The Will Smith Foundation | Powering Inspiration
December 27, 2019
After the Loss of Her Young Son, Susan Naylor Built a Nonprofit To Help Children Around the Globe
Susan Naylor started her nonprofit in the wake of tragic circumstances: the unexpected loss of her 8-year-old son. This indelible moment spawned The Will Smith Foundation, an organization Naylor started to honor her child’s life by giving to children around the world to make their lives better. From the start of her journey to now, she has learned countless lessons about how to create an organization from the ground up and how to remain true to one’s mission. She has learned how to build a business-driven by purpose.
The idea for The Will Smith Foundation was born while Will was on the operating table. It was a Sunday afternoon in Hawaii during a family vacation when Susan and Will were hit head-on by another car on a two-lane highway. Naylor was not seriously injured, but Will needed immediate medical attention and was brought to a local hospital.
Waiting for Will’s treatment, Naylor was saying prayers, when “the thought popped into my head. That's pretty much how I operate, listening to my gut and my heart — The Will Smith Foundation just came out, to help kids,” Naylor recounts. She expected Will to live and they would build the foundation together. Unfortunately, he did not make it.
Determined to create the Will Smith Foundation, Naylor called her lawyer as soon as she returned from Hawaii:
"I want to start a nonprofit. What do I need? I need a board, three members? There you go. I need a mission statement? Let me get back to you."
The mission statement that would drive her company for the next decade is a reflection of Will’s spirit. Naylor explains that most nonprofits in her arena choose a narrow focus, but Will was a generous, compassionate boy who always wanted to be a part of the action.
“Will was into everything,” Naylor says, “and therefore, our mission statement became to provide positive life experiences to children, which goes on into sports, the arts, medical, anything—anything that makes a child's life more positive is what we do.”
The hardest part has been realizing that she can’t help everybody, but working every day to impact the lives of children is all that matters to her. With a broad mission, what this help looks like takes many different forms, whether it’s financing the Witte’s new dinosaur exhibit that will educate and excite the imaginations of countless San Antonio youths for years to come, or simply visiting and sitting with and holding children. Naylor says, “The important thing to me is that we’re really making a difference.”
Her organization’s success and longevity are rooted in the fact that her heart is in it for the long-haul. Starting off in the nonprofit world, there was a steep learning curve about how it operates. Naylor realized early on that only a handful of people do it for the right reasons. Some people enjoy it as a career, while others enjoy it because they believe in their cause. This taught her the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people and learning to listen to your gut. It also forged her grit to keep fighting for what she believed in.
“Don’t be afraid and don’t ever give up,” Naylor says would be her first piece of advice to others thinking of starting a nonprofit or other philanthropic endeavors, speaking with The Bank of San Antonio for their Business Heroes Podcast. Naylor learned at the start to draw on those around her for their strengths — like web design, for example — which quickly accelerated her organization’s capacity to scale and realize its potential. Naylor’s unwavering commitment to her beliefs alongside the team she has built created the foundation to make her organization a pillar of the San Antonio philanthropic community.
After all, Naylor explains, “a nonprofit is like a business.” You need to define your values and align your company’s practices around them. It’s also about telling your story in a compelling, honest way. “You have to market yourself to people,“ Naylor says,” but if you’re not genuine, they’re going to bust you on it.” Making a nonprofit like hers thrive takes long-term dedication.
“You’ve got to really want it and it’s not easy...you’ve got to just keep coming back.”
Naylor’s journey with The Will Smith Foundation has been centered on an idea she borrowed from her friend’s grandmother from South Texas: show me, don’t tell me. Quit talking about what you’re going to do, and find a way to do it. This adage, for her, tied in with another quote from Amelia Earhart, “the best way to do something is to just do it.” And that’s what Susan Naylor did, and continues to live by.
Her commitment to bettering the lives of children across the world makes Naylor a hero in the San Antonio business community. From day one, she has persevered against the odds to make the world a better place, showing San Antonio what someone can accomplish if they follow their heart and guide their work with sound business beliefs. Everything she has achieved and every child’s life she has positively impacted all comes back to her late son, Will Smith, and his legacy. As a businesswoman, Naylor does what she says she will—and so much more—continuing to live the motto at the center of The Will Smith Foundation: will do.