Chris Smithka, Zendesk

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Chris Smithka, senior corporate counsel, Zendesk.
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What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

As senior corporate counsel, I support the Worldwide Channels and Partners team from a legal perspective. This is a high-growth area for the company as we expand our partner ecosystem and utilize partners to reach more customers across the world with our products. Legal negotiations with these global partners, who are often much larger organizations than Zendesk, are lengthy and complex.

I enjoy the excitement that comes when a big deal is signed. It takes a whole team from different departments at Zendesk to accomplish this and it’s satisfying to know that I played a part in it. The fact that we achieved $1 billion in annual revenue in 2020 — a goal we had set in 2016 — is a testament to our teamwork.

Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

Although not a business leader, as an attorney, I greatly admire Shirley Abrahamson, the late former chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chief Justice Abrahamson was a trailblazer — she was the only woman in her law school class (graduating first in the class) and the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — and had genuine empathy and compassion for those she served.

In the summer of 2015, I had the honor and privilege of traveling to Thailand with Chief Justice Abrahamson to conduct trainings for Thai judges. I learned so much from her in the week we spent together. One thing I distinctly remember was how respectful and warm she was in all of her interactions — she treated the hotel and restaurant staff the same way she treated the president of the Supreme Court of Thailand.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

In my first year at Zendesk, I was the recipient of the “Connect and Collaborate Award” in recognition of my efforts in supporting the Go To Market organization. I was proud to have received this award as I try to epitomize Zendesk’s values — practice empathy, focus on relationships, and be humblident (a portmanteau of humble and confident) — in my work and interactions with others.

Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

To quote the late rapper, Nipsey Hussle: “Dedication, hard work, plus patience.” I believe that all three are key to success. I would tell my 21-year-old self to keep looking until you find a job that you truly love. Then, put in the work and be patient — a career is a marathon and not a sprint.

What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

I grew up in a small town in Indiana and have lived in New York City, and I can say Madison is the right size for me. My wife and kids enjoy the abundant green spaces — favorites include Lake Wingra, the UW–Madison Arboretum, and Capital City Trail. Being a capital city and having a world-class university and vibrant startup culture also makes Madison an exciting place to work. I love showing people around Madison for the first time.

At the same time, we must be aware of and take action to address the racial disparities that exist here. My wife and I are proud to support several organizations, including the Urban League of Greater Madison and the United Way of Dane County, that are working to make Madison a place where everyone can succeed in school, work, and life.

Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

I’m a big music nerd. Like many others, I miss live music and going to concerts. I would say I enjoy sharing different types of music to others, although the format has changed over the years. In high school I had a CD burner, so I would make mix CDs for friends. In college and law school, I enjoyed making mixes on iTunes. I still have a “classic” iPod with some great mixes. Most recently, I hosted a show on BBZ Radio, Zendesk’s radio hour for employees.

What are your guilty pleasures?

I would have to say falling asleep on the couch. After our kids go to bed, my wife and I enjoy watching a bit of TV. I’m so tired by that point that I usually fall asleep before watching an entire episode (to my wife’s annoyance) and have to finish it the next day. Recent favorites include Pose, Queen’s Gambit, Watchmen, and The Crown.

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