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Shark Tank-style contest coming to Punta Gorda, SW Florida

Southwest Florida investors are making plans for a Shark Tank-style event in Punta Gorda on March 30th, when up to five businesses will make their pitch for funding before an audience.
 
“Really the purpose of the event is to shine a spotlight on the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and raise the awareness in the community that you can start, fund and grow a business here in Southwest Florida,” says Timothy Cartwright, Chairman of Tamiami Angel Funds, a Naples-based group of high-net-worth individuals who invest in early-stage businesses. “You don’t have to go to Silicon Valley. If you really study it, there are great reasons to stay in Florida.”
 
Companies from Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto and Lee counties will be competing for some $50,000 in funding, Cartwright says. An additional $10,000 in grant money may be awarded, through the city, to a North Port business.
 
Interested businesses from the four counties can submit startup plans to Venture Pitch SWFL. Plans must be entered by Feb. 15. The businesses must be less than two years old and in the pre-revenue stage, or very early stages of producing revenue. Their plans must be scalable. Additionally, businesses should not have raised more than $1 million in capital.
 
The event is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Isles Yacht Club in Punta Gorda. “It’s almost fundraising and friendraising and customer raising,” he explains. “That’s what special about putting together the ecosystem at these events.”
 
The events, usually held three times a year, began in 2015. Sponsors include Sun Newspapers, The Hatchery at Babcock Ranch, North Port Economic Development Corporation, Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, SCORE, a nonprofit association of volunteer business counselors; Tamiami Angel Funds; and Adrenaline Venture Fund.
 
This is the first time the event is being held in Charlotte County.
 
While it’s early in the application process, Cartwright says the response has been good, with ticket sales, sponsorships and companies.
 
The event was organized after business leaders recognized there wasn’t such an event in Southwest Florida. People had begun expressing interest in attending what were then private funding events.
 
So, they decided to follow the adage: “if you build it, they will come.”

“They have [come] and they’ve gone on to do some pretty great things,” he says.
 
A panel from SCORE will judge the applicants. Unlike the business tycoons on the popular TV show Shark Tank, the SCORE volunteers will do the judging privately.
 
“We are really looking for businesses from Sarasota. Historically ... we’ve already seen very interesting deal flow from Sarasota city and county,” Cartwright adds. “I think it’s a very rich area for entrepreneurship because the creative class is thriving.”

CareerSource trains, educates jobseekers, youth and adults

Meet Omar Velazquez. As Outreach Youth Counselor for CareerSource Tampa Bay, he’s an ambassador of sorts, and he has very good news for jobseekers searching for a new career.
 
Velazquez, raised in a single-parent home with eight siblings, shares an important message with youth: There’s help. Even if you missed out on college or other post-secondary training.
 
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Velazquez spends much of his time on the road visiting churches, sheriff’s offices and community meeting places. He can relate to many of the problems people are facing. Problems like poverty, layoffs, and education and language barriers.
 
While dealing with his own challenges, he learned many good programs -- like ones offered through CareerSource -- are virtually “hidden,” says Velazquez, the single parent of a 19-year-old.
 
“You’d be surprised how many people have no clue. I give them a little bit, in bits and pieces. They’re flabbergasted,” he explains. “That’s the reason why I said goodbye to corporate America, and said this is where I belong,”
 
Funded through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, CareerSource offers free training that can help youths 18 and up become certified and/or ready to work in career fields like construction, welding and fabrication, soldering and cabling, hospitality and more. Some training might otherwise cost “thousands of dollars,” Velazquez points out.
 
A Microsoft Office certification, earned in three to four weeks, can qualify students 18 to 24 for a number of office jobs. Older persons qualify if they receive welfare assistance or food stamps.
 
Training is at CareerSource’s Career Prep Center at North 43rd Street and East Columbus Drive. Applicants must be allowed to work legally in the United States.
 
“After they train you, they have partnership with other companies that are willing to hire you on the spot,” the New Port Richey resident adds.
 
CareerSource also can connect job candidates with an employer who may want to engage recruits on a trial basis for two or more weeks first. CareerSource pays the salary for that trial through an agreement with the employer, he says.
 
Additionally, CareerSource offers technical education in connection with the federal TechHire program, which has trained more than 4000 people and connected them to higher-paying job opportunities.
 
TechHire was launched by then-President Barack Obama in 2015, with the goals of building a pipeline of tech talent to communities nationwide, creating jobs and spurring business growth. Training covers IT jobs and phlebotomy.
 
Candidates must be U.S. residents between 17 and 29.
 
Velazquez’s main focus is youth, but older workers also can benefit from job search, counseling and other CareerSource services. “We spread the word to everybody,” he says.
 
Although he’s often on the road, counselors are on hand at the CareerSource offices in Tampa, Brandon, Plant City, Ruskin and Pinellas County, to help walk-ins. “They can say Omar sent me,” he says.

Brandon pain remedy firm joins USF incubator

Over a century ago, a Trinidadian named Arabella Skinner, dubbed Mother Skinner by her family, prepared a home remedy that helped them recover quickly from sprains.
 
“Back in the islands, they didn’t have access to modern medicine [then],” explains her grandson, W. Caleb Williams. “She spent her life developing remedies for curing different ailments.”
 
Today Williams has reformulated the remedy as an over-the-counter treatment. He is marketing it as RelieveIt, a brand by his Brandon-based company, SprainGo.
 
The University of South Florida has accepted the company into its Tampa Bay Technology Incubator. “While this particular remedy has been used for over a century, it’s important that we have clinical and empirical data to support our claims,” Williams says. “We’re seeking to run a clinical study to provide evidence.”
 
SprainGo currently sells: SprainGo, a gel packaged with an adhesive bandage; RelieveIt, for soreness; and RelieveIt Patch, a gel patch. A more potent version, SprainGo Med, is being developed for urgent care centers, chiropractors, physical and massage therapists and others. It is expected to be available in March. Feet Sore No More Foot Spray is slated for release in April.
 
In addition to help with product testing, Williams is looking to USF to provide mentoring, a marketing intern, and contacts to raise capital as the company grows.
 
“One of the things that we do with our affiliate companies is to help them make connections at USF departments and with faculty that have common interests with them,” says Laurie Sullivan, Program Coordinator for USF Connect, which governs USF’s incubators.
 
Skinners’ original formula has been augmented with an extract of Arnica Montana, a medicinal plant recognized as an inflammatory for some 2,000 years, Williams says.
 
“Our formula is natural and was registered with the FDA as a natural homeopathic product,” he says.
 
Although it was originally used on sprains and strains to reduce swelling overnight, Williams has found the product also provides relief for minor burns, muscle aches, fatigue, soreness, arthritis and fibromyalgia.
 
He believes his treatment can halve the number of sick days required after an injury. “We think we have the product that can get those people back to work much faster,” he says.
 
The formula has a mild scent compared to other products containing camphor, menthol or caprisin, which distract pain suffers for a short while with a sensation of hot or cold. “There’s no sensation with our RelieveIt,” he says.

Wanted: High school computer science, math scholars

Saint Leo University is looking for high school juniors and seniors for a multi-disciplinary scholarship program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Sixteen students, eight in each grade, will receive up to $10,000 a year in scholarships to study either computer science or math at the private university on State Road 52 in Pasco County.
 
“Initially we are targeting students in the counties around Tampa Bay,” says Vyas Krishnan, Principal Investigator of the scholarship and an Associate Professor of computer science at Saint Leo’s.
 
Among the university’s goals is helping meet the area’s workforce needs. “What we want to provide for these recipients goes beyond the typical,” he says. “We wanted to open their eyes to the interdisciplinary nature of both of their careers.”
 
The result will be “better trained graduates,” he says. “We thought, why not provide them a much richer interactive experience in school so they are better prepared to hit the ground running?”
 
The eight students in each class, five in computer science and three in math, will be paired when they are admitted the first year. They will take common courses together and work on course-related projects, without having to enroll in any additional classes. They also would be assigned mentors.
 
Computer science degrees are broad and offer students a variety of career options. “A lot of math-related jobs have computing as a significant part of the work that they do,” he adds.
 
The Emerging Mathematics and Computer Science Scholars awards, valued at up to $10,000 annually, are renewable for four years. Students can be groomed for a variety of positions, including jobs as computer programmers, database specialists, computer network administrators, cyber security specialists, web developers, or tech support workers.
 
Saint Leo received a grant totaling about $650,000 from NSF. Some 95 percent will be used for scholarships, with the balance funding conferences, contests and other education-related expenses, he says.
 
High school seniors need to apply by March 1. Awards will be announced at the end of March.
 
College seniors from Florida who have applied to Saint Leo’s can contact Mike Halligan, the Associate Director of Admissions, if they want to be considered. Those who want more information can contact Krishnan. More information is available on the university’s website.
 
Juniors will need to apply for the scholarships next year.

Tampa Innovation Summit to boost local startup ecosystem

Twentieth century entrepreneurs are working hard to make the Tampa Bay region a place that attracts -- and keeps -- 21st Century businesses. Among their goals is helping young business minds recognize what they did: the Tampa Bay area is business friendly, has great weather (especially in the winter) and is an all-around beautiful place to live.

“We want the Tampa Bay region to be one of the best places in the country to build a company,” says Marc Blumenthal, CEO of Florida Funders, which looks to invest in between 12 and 25 companies annually. “We want people to seek us out, to stay here to build their companies.”
 
A Jan. 24 Innovation Summit, organized by The Tampa Bay Business Journal and sponsored by Florida Funders, is bringing together people who can participate in building the region into a major entrepreneurial ecosystem similar in reputation to that experienced by Austin TX, Boulder CO, Raleigh-Durham NC or Atlanta GA.
 
“Jan. 24, 2017, really marks the point in time in which Tampa Bay celebrates the successes that it already has,” Blumenthal says.
 
The summit will be inspiring people about ways to become involved. “You need all the ingredients in the recipe to work. We want to activate people,” Blumenthal explains.
 
The Innovation Summit, scheduled from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Tampa Marriott Waterside, is a showcase event featuring Jeff Vinik, Chairman and Governor of Tampa Bay Lightning; and Chris Sullivan, Chairman of Omnivore and MenuPad.
 
“Chris Sullivan is one of the gems of the Tampa Bay area,” Blumenthal says. “He and his partners built Outback [Steakhouse] many many years ago. They chose Tampa as the base. They got the time and the energy and the capital and the support that they needed.”
 
The slate of speakers and panelists also includes Mindy Grossman, CEO and Director of HSN Inc.; innovator Ron Klein; Bill Edwards, CEO of The Edwards Group and Chairman, CEO and Governor of Tampa Bay Rowdies; and governmental representatives.
 
The summit is preceded by an 8:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Workshop Action Meeting at the same facility to discuss findings of a Tampa Bay Ecosystem Study conducted through the University of Tampa. The study, which Blumenthal describes as “a bit of a prescription,” recommends the community build an entrepreneurial mindset and address its vision and collaborative efforts.
 
An Investor Lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. will bring together accredited investors and early stage companies. Those who wish to attend can e-mail Florida Funders.
 
The Summit will help attract attention to what the Tampa Bay area has to offer to business. “I think that the visibility of our region, nationally and internationally, has really gone up significantly,” Blumenthal says. “Now’s the time. Now’s always the time. You can’t do it tomorrow, you can’t do it yesterday.”
 
The Summit aims to draw 400-500 people. Tickets are $90 each, with reservations available by following this link

At least 64 entrepreneurial support organizations have been training, mentoring and investing in new businesses in the area. "There is no shortage [of support] ... no shortage of passion and willingness to help build companies" Blumenthal says.

Sarasota County launches solar energy co-op program for homeowners

The sun began to peek through the clouds on an overcast morning at the Florida House Institute, where solar advocates gathered in early January to launch a new solar energy co-op program in Sarasota County. 

Representatives from the Sarasota League of Women Voters, Florida Solar United Neighborhoods (FL SUN), and the Florida House Institute met with Sarasota County homeowners to explore ways to add solar energy to their homes at a discount by sharing solar panel purchasing power -- and knowledge -- in bulk. 

Solar co-ops is a competitive bidding process to select a single company to install solar panels in participating homes, providing a discount of up to 20 percent for homeowners who participate in the program. Each person signs his or her own contract with the installer, and the entire group not only receives the discount, but also benefits from sharing knowledge about the process of transitioning to a solar-powered lifestyle. 

Jon Thaxton, Senior VP for Community Investment with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a FL SUN Sarasota partner, cites a report the GCCF issued on affordable housing in 2015. The housing report states that over 43,000 households in Sarasota County pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing--forcing them to make difficult decisions as to how they will afford food, transportation and childcare, Thaxton notes. 

"This initiative has promised to reduce the energy cost in these households, and thus reduce the financial strain on the budget on these service workers," Thaxton says, citing low income neighborhoods in Sarasota Springs, south Venice, Englewood and North Port.

"We are talking about, in terms of affordable housing, bringing not only hundreds, but thousands of these 43,000 cash-strapped households into a more sustainable situation with this initiative," Thaxton says. 

Phyllis Vogel, President of the Sarasota League of Women Voters, says that Florida currently lags behind other states in utilizing solar energy, and that programs like the FL SUN Sarasota co-op are critical to the Sunshine State's future. 

"Consider this: Florida, the Sunshine State, currently gets less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its energy from solar power," Vogel says. 

But recent public interest in solar energy is a catalyst for change.

"The defeat of Amendment One in the recent election is an indication that Floridians are ready to increase the use of solar power in our communities. We know it's cost effective, it's good for our local economy, and it's necessary for our future resilience as a coastal community," Vogel says.

Of the solar co-op initiative, Vogel states, "not only will it save homeowners and businesses money, but it will infuse our economy with a growth industry of well-paying green jobs. The League believes that solar energy takes a free market approach to putting power, literally and figuratively, into the hands of the people."

FL SUN Sarasota partners include The League of Women Voters, the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, Sierra Club of Manatee-Sarasota, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, the Florida House Institute, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota, and FL SUN. 

To learn more about the co-op, Join FL Sun Sarasota for one of three upcoming information sessions:

Jan. 18, 1 p.m.
Venice Community Center
326 South Nokomis Avenue, Venice
RSVP here

Jan. 19, 5 p.m.
Selby Library
1331 1st Street, Sarasota
RSVP here

Feb. 24, 11 a.m.
Twin Lakes Park
6700 Clark Road, Sarasota
RSVP here

Wifi Waiter makes debut in Downtown Tampa

It’s lunch break and you’re on a tight schedule. You don’t want to spend your time waiting in line to order. No problem. Wifi Waiter has you covered.

Without an app, you can take a seat and order.

“What we’ve done is basically brought in tableside ordering,” explains Anup Balagopal, Founder and CEO of Tampa-based Torchfi.
 
Using the restaurant’s Internet service, Wifi Waiter levels the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses that, ordinarily, don’t have the ability to recognize repeat customers when they walk in the door. “They faced a significant challenge when competing with online services. The one thing we wanted to do was bring in technology for offline business, and help them do the same things that online does.”
 
Wifi Waiter is live in two locations in downtown Tampa: The Attic and Moxies Cafe and Caterer. “We are always looking to improve the customer experience, and saw this as a unique opportunity for our customers to be able to 'skip the line' in our fast casual restaurant,” says Moxies’ co-owner Bob Carr. “It’s a great fit since we already deliver the food to the table, so the impact to operations is minimal to gain a near full-service experience.” 
 
Torchfi is targeting fast casual restaurants that, by definition, don’t have servers to take your order. Restaurants pay for a monthly subscription with little, upfront cost. “Once we have proven this product here in the Tampa Bay region, I believe we will be able to scale this across the country with the same chains,” Balagopal says.
 
Starting this week, Torchfi is expected to facilitate the ordering process for those who typically order the same, or similar, menu items. “We make it easier for the customer to actually place an order by recording their ordering history,” Balagopal says.
 
Torchfi’s engineering and backup operations are in India, but its headquarters moved to Tampa four months ago after being chosen to participate in Tampa Bay Wave, a non-profit to help entrepreneurs grow tech businesses. 
 
“They have been our angel in Tampa,” Balagopal says. “What Wave brings is an amazing network of mentors and industry experts who help identify what the market actually requires.”
 
Allen Clary, a Tampa Bay Wave Mentor and Entrepreneur in Residence, calls Torchfi “one of our shooting stars.” “It’s absolutely one of the most innovative company products we have in the Wave right now,” he says.
 
He notes Torchfi has made the cut for the Investor Pitch Day Jan. 27, meaning it has passed rigorous review and will be able to pitch to qualified investors in Tampa Bay.
 
Balagopal has his eyes fixed on even greater opportunities beyond the restaurant industry. He’s thinking about malls, stadiums and airports.

With a small Torchfi device connecting customers to an Internet router and  enabling free access, it doesn’t matter if you’re working on a laptop, or using a tablet or phone. “It’s simple and quick,” he says.

Job Roundup: State's job portal revs up services

The state of Florida is updating its job search portal, Employ Florida, making it even easier to hunt for the job of your dreams from the comfort of your couch. Starting Jan. 16, the website at www.employflorida.com, which offers free services, will have a new look. 

“Employ Florida will be a one-stop location either on your computer or on your mobile phone,” says Cissy Proctor, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.  

Several changes will greet visitors to the website, including a new logo and a name change from Employ Florida Marketplace to just Employ Florida. More importantly, it will be easier for job seekers to register “so you can start looking or a job easier and more quickly,” Proctor says.

“We are also including more enhanced filters that basically allow an individual person to tailor their job search for their particular needs,” she says. “The results you get are even more specific for what you’re looking for.”

Employ Florida will allow users to get specific information on the Tampa Bay region or another region in the state and compare salaries. “You can see what that market out there looks like for your profession. That’s really an exciting feature,” she explains.

Additionally, Employ Florida will be pulling job data from more sources, including CareerBuilder, Indeed and Monster. “You don’t have to go to individual websites,” she says. “You have one account and one location [Employ Florida] to find a job here in Florida.”

“We’ve very excited to be debuting the new website and the new mobile app,” she adds. “We’re already one of the nation’s largest job banks. We’re making it easier than ever … to find a job through Employ Florida.”

The website will go offline at 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13, and remain offline until 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 16. During that time, Tampa Bay job seekers should visit the area’s CareerSource Center websites including careersourcetampabay.com, careersourcepinellas.com, careersourcesuncoast.com, careersourcepolk.com and careersourcepascohernando.com.

Employ Florida lists more than 43,000 job openings in the Tampa Bay area and nearly 250,000 statewide. Among the top jobs advertised online in the Tampa Bay region include registered nurses, network and computer systems administrators, customer service representatives, computer user support specialists, and software developers, according to state labor market data.

On The Ground: RCMA welcomes new leadership from Miami-Dade

To read this story in Spanish, please follow this link.

For the first time in 28 years, Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) of Florida will welcome new leadership.
 
Gayane A. Stepanian, 45, an executive with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade, has been picked as RCMA’s next Executive Director. 

Stepanian will succeed executive director Barbara Mainster, 75, on Jan. 2. 

RCMA is a nonprofit organization that provides high-quality child development services for farmworker families and other rural, low-income families in child-care centers, family day-care homes, after-school dropout prevention programs and charter schools. Mainster served as executive director from 1988 to the present. 

“I am inspired and humbled to join RCMA,” Stepanian says. “I am thrilled to join others who are absolutely dedicated to delivering world-class child care and education for our most vulnerable kids.” 

The organization, which began with 75 children in two child-care centers, now serves nearly 7,000 children in 68 centers in rural areas of 21 Florida counties. It also operates three charter schools, in Hillsborough and Collier counties.
 
“I think you will all agree that Gayane is a wonderful addition to the RCMA family,” Mainster told the RCMA staff, via e-mail. “I like her, and know you will, as well.” 

More than 80 percent of the children RCMA serves are Hispanic, and 11 percent are African-American. In addition, 85 percent of RCMA employees come from backgrounds similar to the communities they serve. 

Mainster believes that Stepanian’s background qualifies her as an excellent successor. Stepanian is the daughter of a Mexican mother and an Armenian father, and is fluent in English and Spanish. 

“My parents came to this country with nothing but their sheer will,” Stepanian says. “It is that same will and passion that I see in our volunteers, staff and families at RCMA. RCMA, to me, is like coming home.”
 
Since 2014, Stepanian has been Director of Grants Development for the Boys & Girls Clubs in Miami. She is a child safety expert with degrees in psychology and education, and is a mother of three teenagers. 

On The Ground: RCMA da la bienvenida a su nueva directora

To read this story in English, please follow this link.

Por primera vez en 28 años, Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) de Florida da la bienvenida a su nueva leader.
 
Gayane A. Stepanian, de 45 años, una ejecutiva del club Boys & Girls Clubs de Miami-Dade, ha sido elegida como la nueva Directora Ejecutiva de RCMA.

Stepanian sucederá a la Directora Ejecutiva Barbara Mainster, de 75 años, el 2 de enero. 

RCMA es una organización sin fines de lucro que provee servicios de desarrollo infantil de alta calidad para familias de trabajadores del campo y para otras de familias rurales de bajos ingresos en centros de cuidado infantil, guarderías familiares, programas de prevención de deserción escolar y escuelas chárter. Mainster  sirvió como Directora Ejecutiva de 1988 hasta el presente.

"Me siento inspirada y honrada de unirme a RCMA", dice Stepanian. "Estoy encantada de unirme a otros que están absolutamente dedicados a ofrecer cuidado de niños de clase mundial y a la educación para nuestros niños más vulnerables".
 
La organización, que comenzó con 75 niños en dos centros de cuidado infantil, ahora sirve a casi 7 mil pequeños en 68 centros en las zonas rurales de los 21 condados de la Florida. También opera tres escuelas en los condados de Hillsborough y Collier.
 
"Creo que estarán todos de acuerdo en que Gayane es una maravillosa adición a la familia de RCMA", dijo Mainster al personal RCMA, vía correo electrónico.
 
Más del 80 por ciento de los niños que atiende RCMA son hispanos, y 11 por ciento son afroamericanos. Además, el 85 por ciento de los empleados de RCMA provienen de orígenes similares a las comunidades que sirven.
 
Mainster cree que la experiencia y credenciales profesionales de Stepanian la califican como un excelente sucesora. Stepanian es hija de madre mexicana y padre armenio; habla inglés y español con fluidez.
 
"Mis padres vinieron a este país sin otra cosa que su pura voluntad", dice Stepanian. "Es esa misma voluntad y pasión la que veo en nuestros voluntarios, personal y las familias de RCMA. RCMA, para mí, es como volver a casa".
 
Desde 2014, Stepanian ha sido Directora de Desarrollo de Subvenciones para los clubes de Boys & Girls en Miami. Ella es una experta en seguridad infantil con una carrera en psicología y educación; es madre de tres adolescentes.

Checkers rolls out new look, expands in Tampa Bay Area in new year

Shaji Joseph is a man of firsts. He owns the oldest Checkers in Tampa and the first Checkers in a Walmart in the Tampa area, which is in Oldsmar. Now he is now making plans to open the first updated modular Checkers in Tampa.
 
For all appearances, this Indian immigrant is living the American dream. “I am so proud and happy to cherish what this great nation has offered me and my family,” the 46-year-old entrepreneur says. “[I] will forever be in debt to this great organization [Checkers] that believed in me and gave me such an awesome avenue.” 
 
Joseph attended business school in India, then became an assistant manager for Checkers in Pennsylvania. Fast forward 19 years, and Joseph owns eight franchises, with a commitment to build five more. His eighth location, in Spring Hill, is scheduled to open this month. The modular restaurant on Busch Boulevard is slated to open in the second quarter of 2017.
 
“I hit the ground running. I never stop. I never look back. I just keep going,” he says.
 
Formerly the corporation’s Director of Operations, Joseph is excited about the new design options, which enables him to save money and time. Each restaurant with a new modular design costs approximately $250,000 to build, which is $100,000 less than the traditional option.
 
The new modular restaurant features structural steel, which enhances sturdiness. It will have one instead of two drive-thru lanes plus a covered, outdoor seating area and a walk-up window.
 
His new Busch Boulevard location, which is currently awaiting city approval, is right by his franchise office, Wow Burgers LLC.
 
The new restaurants will incorporate the company’s traditional red, black and white colors. “There’s a lot of excitement and how it’s convenient,” he says. “We’re not losing our charm.”
 
Joseph’s Busch Boulevard location will be one of more than 50 in the nation with the Tampa-based Checkers & Rally’s Restaurants' updated designs. The new design is rolling out in key markets in Tampa, South Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, Columbus and Houston.
 
Its Model 4.0 design gives franchise holders three options: traditional, modular and hybrid.
 
Jennifer Durham, Checkers & Rally’s Senior VP, says both the modular and hybrid designs are built offsite and feature structural steel. The hybrid design includes structural steel recycled from shipping boxes from overseas.
 
“It’s actually cheaper for manufacturers overseas to leave them behind than to ship them back empty,” Durham says. “We’re working through a third party to acquire the used shipping containers and remanufacture them into our buildings.”
 
Reusing the boxes isn’t quite as cost effective as she initially thought. “The more people that go after them, the price goes up,” she explains. “We weren’t the first or the last one to think of this design concept.”
 
She became interested in the concept after reading about them in architectural and design magazines. “To me, it was worth exploring. Given the size of our restaurant, its seemed like there was a natural fit,” she says.
 
With transport costs at $10 to $15 a mile for the pre-fabricated buildings, Checkers & Rally’s is considering multiple manufacturers across the country. It has more than 840 locations in the United States, and more than 250 more in the works.

Online fitness company helps people get off the couch

Ed Buckley has found an innovative way to make money by encouraging people to exercise. Through Peerfit, a company he founded with Scott Peeples, he is working with insurers and employers to provide exercise credits at fitness centers across the nation.
 
“The idea is that we should give you an array of options, whatever is going to motivate you to get out of the couch,” says Buckley, Peerfit’s CEO. “You have the availability to do it, and you have no barriers to stop you.”
 
Buckley was studying group fitness at the University of Florida when he had an idea to start a fitness company. In 2010, when he met Peeples, another student, he pitched him the idea. By 2011, Peerfit was a reality.
 
“We’re pretty satisfied with the diversity of high-quality options we've put inside the [fitness] network, says Buckley, who holds a PhD from UF in Health Behavior, with a focus on Digital Health and Wellness.
 
A digital company based in Tampa, Peerfit works directly with insurance carriers and employers with wellness budgets. The companies buy credits that clients or employees can use at a variety of fitness studios such as CAMP, Soho Cycling and Epic Boxing in Tampa, or the national Lifetime Fitness.
 
The companies fund a certain number of credits every month. “It’s all about personalization and flexibility. That’s what we built the model for,” he explains.
 
The company was developed with capital from friends and family. In the summer of 2016, Peerfit raised $1.5 million, including some $400,000 through Florida Funders, a company developed in 2014 to help investors fund Florida businesses.
 
“Some of my friends like to call us the 20th century entrepreneurs,” quips Marc Blumenthal, Florida Funders’ CEO.
 
Florida Funders ferrets through 70 to 100 companies a month to find those one, two or three they will try to help financially. “We’re actually focused on tech-enabled companies,” he explains.
 
Florida Funders’ website serves as a platform to connect businesses with investors. In addition to making a profit through shares in the companies, its goal is to help make Florida a place where investors’ children and grandchildren can find good jobs.
 
“Peerfit is a very exciting company,” Blumenthal says. “We ... want to make sure they don’t leave to go somewhere else.”
 
Peerfit is already making its mark. During 2016, it helped 10,000 people.
 
After you find your footing, things move and they move fast,” Buckley says.

Restaurateur encourages patrons to skip the straw

Drinking straws are standard fare at most restaurants. Whenever we order a cold beverage, it usually comes with a straw, and we use it to slurp our water, teas or sodas in a matter of minutes. Afterwards, the straws end up littering our beaches and landfills.
 
“We see those [straws] out on the beach everywhere, those and cracker wrappers,” says Ed Chiles, owner of Chiles Restaurant Group.
 
So Chiles decided to do something about it. He has quit serving “old-style,” non-biodegradable plastic beverage straws.
 
“If they want a straw they’re going to get a straw. We’ve got a good [biodegradable] backup,” says Chiles, who owns Ana Maria’s Sandbar, Bradenton Beach’s Beach House and Longboat Key’s Mar Vista Dockside restaurants.
 
Chiles is partnering with the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy to educate the public about the single-use plastic straws and protect our oceans. According to the Conservancy, straws are one of the top 10 items collected during cleanups.
 
Chiles’ campaign includes green messages encouraging customers to “Skip the Straw.”  So far, it has been working.
 
“I think it has gone very well overall. I think people understand. At first, there’s that little pause. They think about it and they get it,” Chiles says.
 
His servers are on board. “Our people have embraced it. If your servers aren’t behind it, you’ve got a problem,” he explains.
 
Chiles calls removing the plastic beverage straw “one small step.” He’s already ditched plastic cups and individually wrapped crackers, opting for glasses and sleeves of crackers. Plans include a complete line of eco-friendly “to go” containers and reusable packing crates.
 
He has gardens to grow their own herbs and spices. “The kitchen guys go out and work it,” says Chiles, an honorary faculty member of the University of South Florida’s Patel College of Global Sustainability. “We are all about local sustainable.”
 
Although his menus feature seafood, you also may find wild boar, considered an invasive species. “We take lemons and make limoncello,” he quips. “People think they [wild boars] are not any good, but they’re wrong. It’s fabulous. It’s one of my favorite meats.”
 
Even his parking lots are environmentally friendly. For the last decade, he has been a leader in pervious or porous parking lots, setting an example about how to deal with stormwater on commercial properties.
 
Chiles isn’t stopping with the beverage straw. Now he’s looking for a bio-degradable cocktail straw.

USF students, alumni offered free training in software coding

University of South Florida students and alumni can begin training now for lucrative software development jobs through an online training program by Reston, VA-based Revature, a technology talent development company.
 
The program paves the way for a free on-the-ground bootcamp and contract jobs in the field.
 
“We’re addressing the technology skills gap, as well as just the struggle of corporations to really find tech and software engineers for specific types of skillsets,” says Joe Vacca, Revature’s Chief Marketing Officer.
 
RevaturePro online training is ideal for those who are seeking a career in software development, whether they have liberal arts, business or computer backgrounds. It helps build the skills necessary for the Revature Coding Bootcamp, an intense 10- to 12-week program that builds skills needed to launch their careers.
 
Students must apply for the bootcamp, which requires a bachelor’s degree. When accepted into the bootcamp, housing and a weekly living allowance are provided.
 
“The companies in the Tampa area, Florida as well as the rest of the United States, are struggling to find software developers to fill the openings they have,” Vacca explains.
 
The bootcamp gives participants the equivalent of one to two years of experience, fast-tracking their career. “Many of these individuals within four years will be making six figure salaries given the demand,” he continues.
 
USF students and alumni can access the RevaturePro online program at revature.com/usf. The self-paced learning program can take from a month to a year to complete. Mentors are available to work with students.
 
“We’re very excited about our partnership with USF. We want to provide the pathway to their graduates. We feel like we’re going to get some of the top talent in the country,” Vacca says.
 
Joe Mitchell, Senior VP of University Partnerships with Revature, says they are in contact with area businesses about providing tech talent. “We’re looking forward to stimulating economic growth,” he says.
 
Revature is offering training in Java, .NET and SDET. Careers in software development involve backend codes that make company systems work, whether they involve a customer service program, managing a database, developing a website, or creating a mobile application.
 
Peter Thorsett, Communications and Marketing Officer for USF’s Department of Career Services, says the online program is ideal for sophomore, junior or even senior students who want to explore coding and software development. The exposure is good for students even if they don’t decide to pursue a software career. “We’re living in an era where technology permeates everything we do,” he says.
 
The bootcamp is an opportunity to pursue a software career, change careers or meld current experience with coding experience to qualify for tech-related jobs. “That leveraging of past experience is huge,” he says. “It’s a great way to get into a pipeline very quickly.”

For Good: Classes on human trafficking offered in South Hillsborough County

To read this story in Spanish, please follow this link.

Seeking to educate the community in Hillsborough County about how to effectively combat human trafficking in the area, the Campaign Against Human Trafficking-Sun City Center/South Shore is offering two free four-hour courses on Jan. 11, 2017
 
Florida is one of the leading states in the nation for human trafficking activity and Tampa Bay is a hub for child sex trafficking and Internet pornography, according to a documentary aired by PBS in 2013 titled “Too Close to Home: Human Trafficking in Tampa Bay.”

Children may have been picked up in malls, off the streets or from connections on the Internet. They may believe they are headed for a fun afternoon, a cute date, or maybe they run away and are found by a pimp (usually within 48 hours of being on the street). Some have been labeled as “throw-away” children, those whose parents have kicked them out or sold them off. The average age of a trafficked child is 12, and many will never live past their 19th birthday, according to data posted on the CAHT Website.
 
The stories are heartbreaking. Hoping to combat this phenomena, the Campaign Against Human Trafficking-Sun City Center/ South Shore founded by June M. Wallace works to bring awareness about this criminal activity and educate the community on how they can actively work to put an end to human trafficking.
 
“The Many Faces of Human Trafficking” from 8 a.m. to noon is open to all community members, and will focus on providing an understanding of the origins, methods of operation, and indicators of trafficking along with an understanding of the unique victimization process. An emphasis will be placed on the importance of building alliances and coalitions as part of a coordinated community response to human trafficking using case studies as examples.
 
“Introduction to Human Trafficking,” from 1-5 p.m. is exclusively for law enforcement and victim services. This course will focus on an overview of best practices for investigating cases, legal remedies for trafficking victims, and interviewing victims. Special attention will be placed on human trafficking being a victim-centered crime.
 
Both courses are sponsored by the Florida Regional Community Policing Institute, which is part of St. Petersburg College’s Center for Public Safety Innovation, and will take place at SCC United Methodist Church, 1210 Del Webb Boulevard West, Sun City Center. 

“Human trafficking educational opportunities of this caliber are becoming difficult to find,” Wallace says. 

To register for the “The Many Faces of Human Trafficking” training, click on this link.  

To register for the “Introduction to Human Trafficking” training, click on this link.

For questions about these courses, please contact Laura Heisler at 727-341-4437. 

The Campaign Against Human Trafficking fosters community and faith-integrated actions to end Human Trafficking in Hillsborough County by providing support to the Tampa Bay Task Force on Human Trafficking. The organization also focuses on raising awareness, education, victim services, and fundraising.
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