Social entrepreneur Tamsin Smith creates sustainable business opportunities for entrepreneurs in Africa and Central America, a career she has built from her work at Gap and experience as a panel member at the Harvard Business School and the International Aids conference. When she’s not travelling to promote her various causes, Smith spends most of her time in San Francisco, where she lives with her two children, Scully, aged nine, and Tabitha, six, in one of the city’s most unusual properties: a 19th-century barn house.
In 2006, Smith was appointed president of (RED), an initiative co-founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver, that engages the private sector to raise money for women and children with Aids. Smith collaborated with a number of global brands to create one-off products, from iPods to Converse shoes made from African mud cloth, all of them coloured red. For every (RED) product bought, the Global Fund receives part of the profit to invest in Aids programmes in Swaziland, Ghana, Lesotho and Rwanda. So far, (RED) has generated over $150m.
In 2008, Smith left (RED) to spend more time with her children. She now heads the consulting company, SlipStream Strategy, from her office at home.
Her projects include Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign that encourages US girls to raise money for school supplies, clean water and health services for underprivileged adolescent girls around the world. “I work on the communications surrounding a project, whether it comes from a non-profit, the private sector or a community organisation,” says Smith. “I help implement creative strategies to increase visibility and awareness on the part of the general public.”
Smith lives in Noe Valley, a residential neighbourhood in central San Francisco surrounded by flower markets and restaurants, including her family’s favourite, Haystack Pizza. The house, whose pink and blue barn door makes for an unusual facade, is a rarity among rows of Victorian and Edwardian houses, for which San Francisco is famous. Built in 1887, it is one of the few buildings to have survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. “From the moment I walked in, I was drawn to my house in much the same way as I was drawn to this city,” says Smith. “It had so much character and history and yet it was modern and light like a new-old soul, which is a little how I feel sometimes.” From her beach-blond hair to her passion for surfing in the Pacific Ocean, Smith is quintessentially Californian although she was born in England to a half-Chinese, half-English mother, a prominent cell biologist, and an English father who was a lepidopterist and Hope Professor of Zoology at Oxford. Smith moved to Florida as a child after her parents took teaching positions at the University of Miami. From an early age, she discovered that her proclivities were not for science but stories and poetry.
“When I graduated with a literature degree from Kenyon College in Ohio, I knew only that I wanted, at some point in my life, to live in northern California,” says Smith. “The stories and music from Big Sur [a region in central California] and San Francisco always had a special lure for me.” After completing an MA in international law and diplomacy at Tufts University and working as an assistant on Capitol Hill to members of the US House of Representatives, Smith moved to San Francisco shortly after her 30th birthday to lead the government affairs department of Gap.
She fell for the barn house largely for its storied history. She bought the property in 2007 after growing weary of carting children up to a home on Potrero Hill. The barn house, originally built as a carriage house for the larger Victorian home next door, has housed a variety of tenants from ironworkers to animals to neon sign manufacturers. The first proprietors, the Axford brothers, came from Scotland to make cannon shot for the Union during the American civil war. Later, the Strahls family arrived. They worked in the meat business and filled the barn with livestock. The original pulley, once used to haul up hay, still hangs outside Smith’s bedroom window, although it now serves as a hook for Scully and Tabitha’s ghost forms on Halloween.
“I remember worrying about the fact that the house had virtually no closets, a serious problem given my love of apparel, or storage space to speak of,” says Smith, who made an offer for the house several hours after viewing it and two days before embarking on a surfing trip to Costa Rica.
Smith transformed the two-storey barn into a family home. In the downstairs kitchen, she replaced closed white cabinets with open shelves of solid maple so she could peer into the open-plan living and dining rooms. Upstairs, she punched into walls to create more cabinet space and added a window in her bedroom. She converted an attic into a “pirate/princess” nook with sky-blue walls that her children access via a ship’s ladder. Up there, they have a telescope for studying the stars.
Smith painted the walls creamy yellow, perhaps inspired by the yellow buds that drop from an old pepper tree and blanket the front porch. She incorporated splashes of pink, blue and green throughout the house, including her living room’s orange sofa and jars of sea glass, to reflect the tones of the small garden.
Paintings and sculptures by local artists hang beside her children’s Snoopy drawings, a swelling collection of surfboards stands next to a dining table she purchased in one of her favourite shops on Valencia Street in the nearby Mission District. Books, from the poetry of Yeats to her father’s book on butterflies of the West Indies and South Florida, line the shelves and rise in stacks from her office floor.
“I think this house feels like an outward expression of what I find most attractive in other people,” says Smith. “It’s exposed but intimate, quirky but solid, simple yet full of character. I’m drawn to its openness, the way you can see right into its heart from a big wide window, but I also love its secret nooks and unexpected details. It’s a free spirit with gravitas, if that makes any sense at all.”