Kidney Ball Chair Paul Smith Talks Awareness, Prevention and Corporate Citizenship

Paul Smith presents National Kidney Foundation Executive Director Michele Anthony with a donation check Sept. 12, 2019.

Paul Smith didn’t know the widespread impact and reach of chronic kidney disease until he was asked to chair this year’s annual Kidney Ball, conducted his own research, and until the disease hit so close to home.

Smith is senior vice president and general manager of public sector at Red Hat, and is serving as the chair of the National Kidney Foundation’s 39th annual Kidney Ball.

The ball, held Nov. 23 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., recognizes the strides made in awareness, prevention and treatment of kidney disease. It’ll feature a cocktail hour, gourmet dining, auctions, inspiring missions and entertainment.

And along with defeating kidney disease, the foundation’s mission is to spread awareness. One in seven adults are estimated to have chronic kidney disease, but most don’t even know they have it — and diabetes and high blood pressure only increases the risk.

So, when Smith was asked to chair the ball, he couldn’t pass it up, especially after learning about the disease’s impact, early testing prevention and the foundation’s special evening.

WashingtonExec asked Smith about his role in the ball, how to get involved, what differentiates it from the rest and his commitment to corporate citizenship. Plus, Smith shares why this particular cause hits so close to home.

How would you describe your role in this year’s gala? What are you most looking forward to?

My good friend and business associate over at Attain, Manish Agarwal, currently serves on the executive committee for the National Kidney Foundation. Manish is just an outstanding businessman and an unbelievable philanthropist, not only of his money but of his time. So, recently he recruited me and asked me if I would chair the Kidney Ball Gala.

They usually take on some executive to help turn out more sponsors in the form of tables and other ways to participate in terms of the other sponsorships and adding things into the auction. I’ve known Manish for a long time in both business and personally, and couldn’t turn him down.

We have a lot of cool things going on, and I’m really looking forward to the evening. Washington is not lacking for a lot of black-tie events. But this one has particular resonance for me because kidney disease impacts so many people. I wasn’t even realizing how extensive it was. One in seven adult Americans has some type of kidney disease, 37 million people have Chronic Kidney Disease and 80 million of us are at risk. This is something that reaches all families and all communities. Just look around. Somebody’s probably got it.

So, the big thing about this ball for my job is to make sure the technology field in and around the Beltway is a little bit more aware. I’ve been here for a while, I’ve got a lot of friends and partners and other associates around the Beltway. We have to create more sponsorships so we can get the education and awareness out in the community. There’s a lot of prevention that can take place to help people in the early stages.

How have your fundraising efforts been going for this year’s gala?

I’ve only been involved since September. These guys are really good in terms of setting up milestones. So far in September, we’re on our targets and we’re very excited about that. We’ve got some sponsors from last year that have renewed, and we’re attracting some new sponsors this year.

We met our August goals and now September and October are going to be pretty much a big push. So far, I believe that we’re in a very good place. There seems to be a lot of interests with the people that I’ve been talking to — some friends and cohorts in the technology community, both at the government level and at the systems integration level.

Suppose you are a smaller business interested in getting involved with this year’s ball. What are ongoing ways to get involved?

The most conspicuous way is to buy a table. That’s fun in a lot of ways, because the event will be at a really fun venue with inspirational speeches and live auctions with unique offerings in terms of political and sports memorabilia, some vacation giveaways and some trips.

For example, last year was Red Hat’s first year actually participating, and we got in on a table with another partner. So, we turned it into a fun business social evening. And the band will be really great, it’s a recognizable band that a lot of folks will really enjoy.

So, you can buy a full table or partner up with your manufacturer or other systems integration partners or resellers in our industry and have some fun that way. And we’re also looking for folks that may want to contribute to the live or silent auctions. So, anything of interest that may have some unique value that could be donated. We’re looking to raise about $60,000 or $70,000 from that event alone.

What differentiates this National Kidney Foundation gala from other black-tie events we will see this season?

First of all, the venue is great. I love the Washington Hilton; the ballrooms are excellent. The egress is easy, in and out, so I love the venue. The ball falls just before the “busy season,” not only the holiday season but the Washington black-tie season, being the week before Thanksgiving.

And the main differentiator is the mission of the National Kidney Foundation. As I mentioned, kidney disease impacts 15% of the adult population, and 90% of those people don’t even know they have a problem. And the proceeds of this feel good, serotonin moment of the gala go directly to support more research, education and testing. The tests for this stuff are so easy.

We’ll be able to support KEEP, which is an acronym for the Kidney Early Evaluation Program, and just focus in on folks that maybe have diabetes or high blood pressure, maybe obesity, or maybe it’s a family history. But the test is like this: see your doctor, get your blood pressure checked, get your [body mass index]checked. The easiest thing we do in this KEEP program is your urinalysis.

And the mission is really easy to understand, and the impact is so widely diverse. It’s just amazing that so many people can be potentially impacted by this. It makes it, for me, something that’s got a good purpose.

Why is corporate citizenship important to you?

Red Hat has a long reputation — 26 years in business now — as an open source company that’s really dependent on community activism. Everything that we do in the business, in our DNA, if you will, is to work in large communities to innovate new technologies. And that goes across the board.

We actually live the tenants of this open source world, which is about participation, collaboration, transparency and meritocracy. So, committees are really important to us. You’ll see a lot of Red Hatters in particular actually participate in a lot of things that reach outside the company at the local level in terms of economic and social outreach.

Anything that we can do to make the world a better place, that is kind of the intrinsic motivator. That makes a lot of us here at Red Hat tick. We love this stuff.

Do you have a particular story you would like to share about this particular cause?

Before Manish asked me to chair, the gala, this, to me, was one of these other Washington events. And of course, you pay attention to a lot of these programs that are treating a variety of different diseases. But kidney disease was one of those things that I didn’t think of all that often. And then I did more research in terms of how this is impacting so many people — and by the way, it’s hugely preventable with testing early stage.

On a personal side, because I have been paying attention to this and getting into the impact, I’ve got a future family member that is diabetic. A future son-in-law that was recently diagnosed as Type 1. He’s treating it well, he’s doing awesome. Technology today for that is incredible.

But now, I have a higher level of awareness that he’s a potential risk and has to watch these signs carefully for kidney disease. And another family member is on dialysis right now and awaiting a kidney transplant. I kind of knew that was going on, but now I have a whole deeper understanding and empathy toward the impact.

At the workplace or even when you go on vacation, wherever you go, you probably can find in a group of 10, somebody that’s going to or has an existing issue. It’s really clear and present. And it’s really, really touched me in a way that I’m very grateful for being asked to do what I can in a very small way to help this great cause.

To become a sponsor or purchase tickets for the ball, visit the event’s website here.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

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