LOCAL NEWS

Meet the couple trying to revitalize Salt Lake City: Ashley and Ryan Smith

Jul 8, 2024, 10:28 PM | Updated: Jul 9, 2024, 11:07 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan and Ashley Smith are Utah’s new power couple. As owners of the Utah Jazz, the Utah Hockey Club, Real Salt Lake, and more, they find themselves in a position of influence.

When the two bought the Arizona Coyotes to bring an NHL team to Utah, they said they saw an opportunity to enlarge their vision — to reshape a key area of Salt Lake City.

“It’s about the state’s legacy and the legacy of downtown,” said Ryan Smith, chairman of the Smith Entertainment Group. “It’s going to really help set our downtown up for the future and be different than a lot of the downtowns around that are struggling. And so that’s a worthy mission. It’s a worthy cause.”

“We’re not going to let fear or uncertainty be what stops growth,” said Ashley Smith, co-owner of Smith Entertainment Group. “I think the live entertainment is such an opportunity to better our state, to bring people together, to unite, despite our differences, and whether it’s sports, whether it’s the arts, we want it all to work down there.”

Ashley and Ryan Smith speaking to KSL TV's Carole Mikita about their drive on creating a new downtown Salt Lake City.

Ashley and Ryan Smith speaking to KSL TV’s Carole Mikita about their drive on creating a new downtown Salt Lake City in July 2024. (KSL TV)

A similar childhood

The duo said their confidence comes from decades of resilience, starting with challenging childhood years. Ashley Smith’s parents divorced when she was young. She and her siblings lived with her mother.

“We lived in very small quarters. She always had two jobs and it was definitely, it was a grind. All of us just kind of brought everything we had to the table, which is such a blessing now,” she said.

Ashley Smith credits her childhood to what she is like today and the characteristics that define her, which she is proud of.

“I’m really thankful for my childhood, and I’m thankful for abnormal experiences and not having a playbook or watching my friends and trying to do what they were doing,” Ashley Smith said.

Ashley Smith talking about how her childhood helped her shape her worldviews as an adult.

Ashley Smith talking about how her childhood helped her shape her worldviews as an adult in July 2024. (KSL TV)

Ryan Smith’s parents also divorced. He said his father wasn’t the type to “come in and rescue you” when you failed.

“He has a lot more patience and foresight to let his kids fail,” he said. “And you know, I was one who failed a lot, especially in high school in those years, and dropped out of high school, and here you have two parents, who are academics and Ph.D.s, saying, ‘OK, I’m going to let my kid learn the hard way.’ That’s really hard, but for me, that’s what was necessary.”

Learning the hard way required Ryan Smith, at 17, to figure out life alone in South Korea after plans with friends fell through. He said his friends ended up leaving him in the county after a week, forcing him to figure out how to earn money by himself.

“I remember calling my dad, and he’s like, ‘Well, do you know anyone there?’ ‘Well, I met some guy in this room.’ ‘Well, go see if you can crash at his place. And, well, I’m not, I’m not bailing you out,'” Ryan Smith said.

Ryan Smith said his father’s resilience and patience with his failures helped him figure things out on his own when he needed to.

“I think his philosophy was like, ‘Well, it can only go up there. We’re going to see how far this can go,’ ” Ryan Smith said. “And you know, I don’t think anyone intended that I would be there for 15 to 18 months as a 17-year-old kid.”

Ryan Smith recalling his time in South Korea..

Ryan Smith recalls his time in South Korea during a July 2024 interview. (KSL TV)

He said that time in South Korea shaped his life.

“I ended up actually meeting a bunch of people. Ended up living with four people from Utah randomly that I ended up meeting three months along my journey — after sleeping on floors and sleeping on couches and not seeing anyone who spoke English for a really long time.

“These individuals who I ended up living with impacted me and our whole future, forever,” he said. “Coming home from Korea, deciding to serve an LDS mission, went to Mexico City, came back, and then really started life as a 21-year-old.”

An accounting class at BYU

Ryan and Ashley Smith met in an accounting class while at Brigham Young University. She said the two connected really quickly.

“We were very much intrigued with each other and interested in each other the second we met,” she said. “I think both of us, because of our childhoods, perhaps, were not convinced on the institution of marriage as a whole.”

She said the two were very driven individually and wanted to grow based on their own work. She thinks their similar childhood and upbringing contributed to their attraction to each other.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking about whether or not that has to do with the way we were raised, and we have very hardworking parents, both of us exceptionally hardworking parents,” she said.

A photo of the Ashley and Ryan Smith when they were dating.

A photo of Ashley and Ryan Smith when they were dating in this undated photo. (Courtesy Smith family)

“I think we saw those things in each other, and we did date for a long time, five years, especially in this culture. It’s abnormal, but it was incredibly perfect for us and it was definitely part of the stepping stones of what we’re doing today. So, what do you think?” she asked Ryan Smith.

“I could hear you talk all day,” he said with a smile. “No, I think Ash is right. We ended up studying together, and I was like, ‘You’re super smart, way smarter than I am!’ We ended up going through the process, and we became really good friends. I think we both really just wanted to get to know each other as much as we could.”

A wedding photo of Ashley and Ryan Smith.

A wedding photo of Ashley and Ryan Smith. (Courtesy Smith family)

Building personal goals and supporting each other

Building their partnership started with separate goals in two basements — one where Ryan Smith and his father were creating Qualtrics, a multi-billion dollar tech company, and the other where Ashley Smith taught dance and built her own business.

Ashley Smith said the love of the arts came from her parents. She developed her own passion for dance, and her partner supported her.

“We were raised kind of to appreciate the arts. It’s a big passion of both of my parents, and I think I started dancing once we moved to Las Vegas, and it was definitely a safe, safe space for me, a place to emote, a place where I knew I was a part of something, and I had trusted teachers and mentors,” she said.

A photo of Ashley Smith with her students.

A photo of Ashley Smith with some of her students in this undated photo. (Courtesy Smith family)

While the dance world is not always a healthy environment, Ashley Smith said, it was a “safe place” for her.

“Whether it’s music or it’s dancing, the arts have always been a way for me to feel and emote. So yeah, it was something I wanted to always be a part of my life. I didn’t know it would turn into a career. And I have Ryan to thank for that because he’s the one who encouraged me to go after where my passion was,” she said. “As I started having my own children, I realized that it is such an incredible vehicle for growth.”

After all the hard work, Ashley Smith became the owner and creative director of Smash Dance Academy. It’s a studio with 16 employees and 600 students.

Ashley Smith in her studio teaching her students.

Ashley Smith in her studio teaching her students in this undated photo. (KSL TV)

Meanwhile, Ryan Smith said that Qualtrics was an overnight success that took 17 years, but his wife believed in him.

“There was nothing there, nothing on year two, on year three, on year four,” Ryan Smith said. “She never asked any questions like, ‘ You don’t have a job?’ ‘ You’re turning down other jobs to do this?'”

Eventually, Qualtrics sold for $8 billion. The Smiths said neither one of them ever took the easy way ahead — and they don’t now.

A photo of Ryan and Ashley Smith with their five children as it goes public on the Nasdaq. (Courtesy The Smith Family)

“Oftentimes, the path forward or the step in front of you is the easiest step to just take,” Ryan Smith said.

“We saw kind of the important values under there that are such an important part of our family and who we are today and decisions that we make today. I’m not afraid of risks,” Ashley Smith said.

That forward movement has taken the Smiths into team ownership in the world of sports and as community leaders who are proposing an idea to reshape a capital city.

On Tuesday, the couple will discuss how they started on this journey to team ownership and the drive to change Utah on KSL TV at 10 p.m.

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Meet the couple trying to revitalize Salt Lake City: Ashley and Ryan Smith