Alumni Profile: Elizabeth Smith Small ’81

Small

Theatre major plays leading role in business and civic affairs

By HELEN PLOTKIN
Editor

Elizabeth Small has played many roles since graduating from Hendrix in 1981 with a degree in theatre arts. Most of her roles haven’t been on the stage, but they have won her rave reviews and kept her and the company that she leads in the spotlight.

Since 1998, Elizabeth has been the President and CEO of PDC Companies, a real estate development, property management and construction company in Little Rock. The company is certified as a Woman-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE). Elizabeth was the first employee hired by PDC and spent 14 years working her way to the top.

How do you make the jump from the college theatre stage to the board room? Elizabeth says it takes “being in the right place at the right time, having the drive, being able to see possibilities and feeling that things are limitless.”

“I’ve always believed that if someone else can do it, I can do it too,” she said. “You create or find the expertise you need … and you listen – a lot.”

Elizabeth credits her belief in herself and her commitment to her alma mater to her earliest role model – her mother.

“Mother was an influence for me. She never limited me. And I saw her love for her alma mater. She loved Millsaps (college in Jackson, Miss.). She gave her time and her concern and she believed in her school,” Elizabeth said. “It’s the same thing I feel for Hendrix.”

Elizabeth said she is intrigued by the Odyssey Program, the new component of the College’s curriculum that ties together critical thought and action.

“We each have our own Odyssey and we can keep having them,” she said, noting that the Odyssey experience was one of the best parts of attending Hendrix for her daughter, Cary ’08. “Odyssey is one reason we want to support the College – we really believe in what they’re doing,” she added.

Elizabeth said her Hendrix experience prepared her for success as a business leader.

“Theatre allowed me to use all my creativity all the time. The experience influenced my life and still does,” she said. “There are so many aspects in life where theatre comes into play.” The study of theatre, she explained, involves learning about good writing, understanding human emotions and motives, working with teams of actors and technicians, and developing organizational, communications and management skills necessary to direct a play or lead the technical team. Many of these skills translate directly to the world of business.

Two Hendrix professors had a profound effect on Elizabeth’s life: Dr. Rosemary Henenberg, Willis H. Holmes Distinguished Professor Emerita of Theatre Arts, who she describes as her first mentor, and the late Dr. Tom Clark, professor of biology, who inspired in her a lifelong love of botany – and left her with the ability to identify most of the plants on the Hendrix campus.

“She was such a friend to me as well as a teacher,” Elizabeth said of Dr. Henenberg. “She made me think beyond what I saw in front of me. Her love of Chekhov was a huge influence of those of us who had done nothing but musicals before coming to Hendrix. Her deep understanding of the authors added so much to her teaching. You learned from her and you didn’t even realize it at the time.”

Elizabeth said she had a hard time choosing a major; she enjoyed all the classes she took. She fully embraces the idea of a broad-based liberal arts education as the foundation for a well-lived life.

“I think the theatre arts degree is the best degree there is,” Elizabeth said. “I would recommend it for anyone who is thinking of going into business. I also think everyone should take a business course. It is good preparation for whatever you chose to do in life.”

Elizabeth took her own advice about taking business courses, when she enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“It was the first time that I studied and put into the context the things that I had taught myself over the years,” she said. A 2000 graduate of the MBA program, Elizabeth received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the UALR College of Business in October 2008.

Today she supervises more than 100 employees who have developed and manage 63 apartment complexes, operate a commercial real estate office in Hot Springs, develop unimproved land and housing in Arkansas, Missouri and Kentucky and manage PDC Construction Inc., the company’s construction arm.

The company’s construction arm gave Elizabeth another chance to reconnect with Hendrix. PDC Construction Inc. was the general contractor on The Hendrix Corner, a student apartment complex at the corner of Front and Mill streets that opened for the Fall 2008 semester.

Elizabeth has maintained a close relationship with Hendrix since her graduation, serving on the Alumni Board of Governors, including a term as chair of the board. She has also stayed involved with the theatre department, including participating in staged readings of winning plays in the annual playwriting competition sponsored by the Hendrix-Murphy Programs in Literature and Language. She frequently attends events and lectures on campus and is actively involved with the Parents Council.

In the past 18 months, she has played an active role in civic leadership, serving as president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, the largest chapter in the state, and as chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. The two positions overlapped for the first six months of 2008.

“This has been the most exciting year of my life. I’ve volunteered for the chamber for a long time. Being chair this year has been a privilege. Leading the Rotary Club of Little Rock was also a highlight,” Elizabeth said. “It has just been marvelous. I wish everyone could have both of those experiences.”

So, what role will Elizabeth step into next? The options are limitless, but service is on her mind.

“I’m thinking of joining Peace Corps when I retire,” Elizabeth said. One thing is sure, she’ll keep active and stay involved. “I have to keep up with Mom and my sister, who is a Methodist minister in Memphis. Those two women are what I have to live up to.”

Bio:
Name: Elizabeth Posey Smith Small ’81
Degree: B.A., Theatre Arts
Professional role: President and Chief Executive Officer of PDC Companies
Hendrix Connections: Husband – Thomas J. Small ’76; Daughter – Cary Small ’08
First visit to Hendrix: “I remember the clothes I had on, where we parked … It was early spring and the campus was just gorgeous. It was one of those things: when my right foot hit the pavement getting out of the car and I knew I was coming here.”
Senior Project: Directed a 13-character, one-act play based on Eudora Welty’s short story Lily Daw and the Three Ladies. “That’s an example of how I sometimes think bigger than I can produce. Most people selected plays with two or three characters. But not me!” Elizabeth’s mother, an English teacher, knew Eudora Welty.
Perfect vacation: Seeing five plays during a four-day trip to New York City.
Giving back: Elizabeth and Tom Small are generous supporters of Hendrix, donating their time to serve on the Alumni Board of Governors (2001-2007, Elizabeth was chair for the 2005-06 academic year); helping to establish the Henenberg Scholarship Fund; and supporting the Odyssey Program, among other priorities of the College.
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