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 Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman
Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman | Show Photo

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Champions For Change: Not Your Average Speakers

"Not Your Average Speakers" Champions for Change in St Petersburg. - Julie Busch Branaman
"Not Your Average Speakers" Champions for Change in St Petersburg. - Julie Busch Branaman
By the time audience members settled into their seats at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg Nov. 17 for 83 Degrees Media's second "Not Your Average Speakers'' event, the sun was beginning to set on a day marking change in the Tampa Bay region's new economy.

Many had driven over from Mahaffey Theater, where innovation reigned at startup incubator Gazelle Lab's first Demo Day. The creative competition among six startup companies there -- AutoIQ, Kngroo, Dropost.it, Leads Direct, Red Hawk Interactive and Teburu -- sparked the interest of about 350 investors and other observers eager to see what's next for employing technology to improve lives.

On stage at freeFall, Moderator Nathan Schwagler, creative-in-residence at USF-St. Pete, set the mood for transitioning the audience from the creative juices flowing at Gazelle Lab to a discussion by four "Champions For Change'' with a quote from ancient Greek Philosopher Heraclitus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

The panelists agreed: Change is happening on so many fronts in the Tampa Bay region, it's time for a new narrative reflecting the new economy.

Panelist Tom McLain, CEO of Claro Scientific in St. Petersburg, points out that while agriculture and tourism remain "long-standing pillars" of Florida's economy, a much more diverse work environment will be required to sustain Florida in the future.

What's next? Biomedical science will be a big part of the diversity, he says, if we can find additional ways to attract and retain talent.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in Florida's economy," he says. "Florida has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in biotech research, yet the jobs and opportunities are moving outside of the state."

That loss means a multiplied effect, he says, because people working in bio-tech tend to have higher incomes than average and thus tend to invest in the community as home owners, parents, taxpayers and charitable givers. When they leave -- or if they never arrive -- so goes the financial wherewithal they represent.

If Florida can ratchet up its attractiveness and stem departures of its best and brightest, biomedical research and bio-technology will "become one of the legs of the stool that becomes Florida's economy," McLain says.

Embracing Diversity

To keep up with and compete in the changing global economy, Florida's workforce must evolve and embrace people from all around the globe as well as of all ages.

"Sometimes it's better to have 10 diverse people than 10 bright people," adds Tim Dutton, founding executive director of SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans For Excellence) and the Institute for the Ages in Sarasota.

Creating community connectivity among diverse people, Dutton says, often serves as the catalyst for change to emerge from the inside out. If you want to see a change on a larger scale, he says you must be part of the change at a local, neighborhood level.

Stacie Blake, executive director of Community Tampa Bay, concurs. Her agency promotes dialogue and respect for all cultures, religions and races by cultivating leaders, as young as 14 years old, who will help make changes in their communities.

Through peer modeling and a year-long diversity education exercise known as the "Anytown'' program -- now in its 20th year -- Community Tampa Bay is stepping toward its goal of "a community free from discrimination for any of its members" one youth at a time.

How else can you ensure whether your company or community is reaching its potential?

"Leading change involves taking a look at my own beliefs and whether they're matching up with where people are going," says Sean Davis, co-Founder and CEO of Red Hawk Interactive, one of the presenters at Demo Day earlier in the day.

Davis talked about what it takes to create changes in technology and how change is often driven by observing what people need and want, and then coming up with the technology to fit or to provide solutions.

Encouraging Connectivity

When Schwagler asked the panelists to describe their favorite changes in the Tampa Bay region, their responses sounded a recurring theme: connectivity.

McLain says he's noticed a spirit of cooperation -- innovators looking for opportunities and asking, "What can I do to help?''

For Dutton, a favorite change is among community leaders reaching beyond artificially drawn county and city borders to view problems and see solutions from a more regional perspective.

Blake points to the shift in thinking about and referring to St. Petersburg as a place to live, not just a place to visit or to retire.

For Davis, positive change is noticeable in the growing consensus to stop complaining and make things happen.

"You can't expect someone to come along and make things better,'' he says. "You gotta pick up the shovel and start digging yourself.''

As the event came to a close, audience members gathered in clusters throughout the auditorium, lobby and outdoor walkways to reflect, discuss, network and plan.

What did the audience take away from this discussion?

Gloria Harmony, who describes herself as a member of the Tampa Bay community, says she got exactly what she came for out of the event.

"I'm in between jobs right now and was looking for inspiration," she says. "It was really great."

Aris Macinnes of Literati Creative Services, identified with the complexity of leading change, admitting she often struggles with the process of how to create change while listening to what people really want.

Clearwater-based entrepreneur Nick Leone appreciated the panel's views on how older and younger people are working together to enact change.

"I would've liked a more diverse panel that represented the community a little more," attendee Niki Kelly says, "but I loved that the leaders who were up there truly get what it means to try to reach out to the diverse community and bring them in."

The "Champions for Change'' event was made possible with underwriting support from Tucker Hall, a Tampa-based public relations and public affairs firm that provides strategic counsel to senior-level managers in the U.S. and Latin America.

Technical and logistical assistance was provided by freeFall Theatre, White Book Agency, Edit Suites and Gazelle Lab.

83 Degrees Media will continue the "Not Your Average Speakers'' series on Jan. 19. Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more details in coming weeks as we continue our efforts to change the narrative about Florida and the Tampa Bay region's emerging new economy.

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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