In Tribute: Gwendolyn Smith Iloani ’77

Winter 2020

Nov. 19, 1955 – Dec. 31, 2019

Gwendolyn Smith Iloani headshot

Gwendolyn Smith Iloani lived by the adage “the only helping hand you have is the one at the end of your arm.” 

Her family emigrated to the United States from Jamaica when Iloani was 6 years old; her father, who worked on houses, lent her his entrepreneurial spirit. After earning a Colgate degree in sociology and anthropology and an MBA from the University of Hartford, Iloani worked her way up in the insurance business, starting as a math analyst at New York Life. Decades later, she rose to the top, starting the investment firm Smith Whiley, named for her father and grandfather, respectively. Under her leadership as president and CEO, the firm became one of the nation’s top minority-owned private equity firms. For her work and steadfast leadership, she was named one of the 75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street and one of the 50 Most Powerful Black Women in Business by Black Enterprise.

Before making strides in the business world, Iloani made the most of her student life at Colgate, participating in student government, drama, pep band, and marching band; she was also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She continued her devotion to her alma mater following graduation. A member of one of the first coed classes, she mentored alumnae and students of color. In addition, she was a charter member of the 1977 class gift committee and a member of the Board of Trustees from 2000 to 2009. “When the opportunity came to serve on Colgate’s Board of Trustees, I saw it as a way to give back,” Iloani told the Scene in 2001.

In honor of her contributions to the University, Iloani received the Maroon Citation in 2007. “She has left a handprint on this university for women and students of color and an even larger imprint on the world with her contributions,” says her son, Brandon Biney ’19.

“Businesswoman” was her main title, but when her sister died of leukemia in 1999, leaving three young sons, Iloani made room for another name: mother. “Gwendolyn was the best mother and friend that I could have ever asked for. She taught me how to love myself and others, to love loudly, to be grateful for the people in my life, and to act with impact and intent,” Biney says. Her niece, Jaleith Gary ’09, remembers that her home “was like a hub for fun times and fond memories.” Iloani was renowned for her Jamacian curried goat and loved to take cruises. She was tough on the outside but, “once you got to know her, she gave you a good belly laugh,” Gary says.

Until her death, Iloani gave her helping hand to others. She taught financial literacy to women and children, brought awareness to community issues, and was a trailblazer for women and people of color in her field. For her family, she was the go-to counselor for tough life decisions, never sugarcoating her advice. “I will decidedly remember her as the aunt who taught me all the business savvy I know and the many ways you can pour back into your community,” Gary says.

Iloani died at the age of 64. She is survived by her husband, Alex; mother Doreen Smith; nephews Brandon ’19, Byron, and Corey Biney, whom she raised; niece Jaleith Gary ’09; and siblings Ivanhoe Smith and Princess G. Sally. She was predeceased by siblings Yvonne, Jaleith, Arthur, Wendell, and Patrick Smith; and father Woodrow Smith.