Influencers: Meet 7 rising stars you'll want to follow

In the wake all of the chaos happening around the world on a daily basis, it’s imperative for our collective mental health to focus on the good and the good people leading ordinary yet extraordinary lives among us.

There are lots of people right in the Tampa Bay Area who are working hard toward making a difference, not just for their friends and family and our local community, but for the betterment of society. 

Here are seven of them -- all rising stars, all young, smart, ambitious, admirable, and leaders already in their own right -- who are putting their energy and time into lifting up others and helping everyone they influence realize their own dreams.

Tammy Charles
Founder and Chief Strategist at Inovo Strategic Consulting; business management, social entrepreneurship, and accounting professor at Hillsborough Community College, the University of Tampa, and Ultimate Medical Academy; Founder of the social enterprise, Tampa Bay Spark, where she works with Fortune 500 companies, foundations, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits nationally and internationally

A year after the Haitian earthquake, Tammy Charles visited where her ancestors and parents came from and was dismayed from all of the poverty they lived in. Getting her Tammy Charles, Founder and Chief Strategist at Inovo Strategic Consultingmasters and undergraduate from the University of Tampa, during grad school, her and some students created a social enterprise to address hunger in Haiti. Competing for the Hult Prize, they received the Commitment to Action award from President Bill Clinton.

“That whole experience is what got me into doing what I do today, I love business, I love business models, but I want to be able to use it to solve social problems,” Charles says.

She’s now built her career teaching and training, consulting, and coaching more than 1,000 nonprofits, social enterprises, and corporations around the world. She’s raised over $10 million to support impact areas (economic empowerment, social justice, poverty alleviation, etc.). 

Her consulting firm, Inovo Strategic Consulting, is a global firm that helps purpose-driven leaders innovate and create profitable business models to pursue social change. Working with Fortune 500 companies, she provides innovative training, consulting, and coaching in board and leadership development, fundraising, storytelling, organizational management and effectiveness, social impact strategy, and social innovation. Founder of Tampa Bay Spark, they work to fulfill their mission of equipping and training business and community professionals to co-create and implement strategies and solutions that’ll lead to economic justice, equality, and inclusion for the communities and companies they serve and lead. 

She believes that as a leader you have to be intentional about your influence. With all of the opportunities she’s gotten to be heard and recognized she’s taken the chance to advocate for the marginalized groups and inspire the community at large.

“As Haitian people we have our own struggles, so I’m battling that, but I’m also battling what it means to be a Black woman in America,” Charles says. “For Haiti we’ve been going through so much politically and economically for so long, and so that’s one piece, and the other is that I’m battling dealing with the narratives of poor policing in America, the lack of access, inequity, inclusion. I find myself at times being divided in two different spaces.” 

Struggling with depression and, last year, having one of the most difficult emotional breakdowns in her life, she’s come to learn how important therapy, faith, and wellness is. Privileged to have all the access to these tools, she knows that not everyone is as lucky which is why with Tampa Bay Spark, they hosted a series of events on mental health.
 
“It’s something that affects us as Black people, for example, when you watch an eight-minute video of our brother George Floyd being murdered, how does that not in any way shape or form seep into your psyche and cause mental health issues?” Charles says. “I didn’t even see the video and I had to face that last year, I was not emotionally well. … There are a lot of people that are dealing with trauma they don’t know how to overcome.” 

Among the organizations she credits in part for her growing success? Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay/Tampa Chamber, Tampa Organization of Black Affairs/TOBA, and the New Leaders Council. 

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go farther, go together,” Charles says. “It’s like a mosaic of people who have contributed, not just in my success, but in making this community a better place.”

Sometimes observers look at successful people and their accomplishments and think that they must have never faced hardships, she says, but that isn’t so for her personally.

She has faced and overcome adversity, and the experiences have allowed her to relate better to others and help those in her community. She credits her faith for helping pull herself out of some of her darkest times and for forming how she leads and interacts with everyone.
 
“I believe that love is the foundational element to creating an inclusive environment, loving your neighbor above yourself is a Christian principle, but I think it’s a principle we can all apply,” Charles says.  

Basha Ferdinand
Director of Partner Success at Synapse FL

Thirty-something Tampa native Basha Ferdinand’s journey began at the University of Central Florida at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management. She didn’t begin Basha Ferdinand, Director of Partner Success at Synapse FLworking in the technology field until around four years ago (her precious roles were centered around hospitality and supporting nonprofits) when she got a position that aligned with her skillset and supported her hometown.

Currently working within the larger tech innovation ecosystem in Florida, she establishes connections with stakeholders and leaders within the community to create ideal environments for their expertise or resources to be shared with others. This allows her to give back to the community in helping entrepreneurs and businesses while also helping to establish the state’s tech opportunities.

“It’s exciting to be able to make an impact in an ever-evolving industry and be a leader in cultivating progress for others in this space,” Ferdinand says. 

Events she’s coordinated have been both educational and have helped grow local businesses by exposing them to a larger network of innovators and investors.

Although she’s not sure of the exact timing, she thinks that working with so many entrepreneurs, it will eventually rub off on her and she’ll start something of her own that’s centered around fostering environments to create opportunities for people. In the future, she’s also hoping to start mentoring others and to get involved either in a volunteer or other leadership setting that helps other organizations promote more inclusivity and produces more cultural experiences.

“I do my best to operate from a place of integrity -- do the right things when no one is watching. This quality doesn’t [always] get recognized, but it’s something that I feel will pay off in the long-run,” Ferdinand says. “Also, when I’m leading teams, I try to lead by example. I won’t require something from them that I’m not willing to do myself which I think helps create an environment of trust and encourages people to go the extra mile.” 

She prides herself in being an optimistic person, rarely looking at something as a setback, but as a redirection to something bigger and better. 

Growing up, she was fortunate to be raised around multi-cultural groups, travel, go to both public and private schools, all which she says shaped her worldview into what it is today. 

“Throughout my career, I’ve been able to use those experiences and assert myself in places and contribute to various efforts where, oftentimes, I was the only one that looked like me in the room,” Ferdinand says. “The past few years and even in my current role [at Synapse FL], I’m able to be a part of conversations and produce programming that allows for other diverse leaders and businesses to be recognized.” 

Christopher Johnson
Senior Social Responsibility Specialist at The Mosaic Company, Board member of Nonprofit Leadership Center, Board member of The Plus+ Project

“My career path is informed by my mantra of ‘people, passion, and purpose.’ I will always seek a professional role that positively impacts people’s lives. Everything I do Christopher Johnson, Senior Social Responsibility Specialist at The Mosaic CompanyI am passionate about, and I live my life with purpose,” Johnson says. “I am passionate about addressing social issues and enhancing the lives of people who will never know my name.” 

Earning his BS, MS, and MBA from the University of Florida, Johnson has worked with nonprofit organizations and philanthropy for over 15 years. 

Moving to Tampa in 2013 when he accepted a role at the Florida Philanthropic Network, Johnson grew up in a military family and had the chance to live all over the world, exposing him to a variety of cultures, people, races, and ethnicities. Being raised by his father, a Black man from South Carolina, and his mother, a Black woman from Trinidad and Tobago, he shares that his race and experiences from living across the globe shaped his outlook on life, business, and personal relationships. 

“I stand in solidarity with all marginalized communities, as I am a marginalized person myself,” Johnson says. 

The Mosaic Co., which he’s been working for the past two years, is the first for-profit corporation he’s worked with. As a member of the public affairs team, he helps with all aspects of their community investments strategy/corporate social responsibility. Prior to getting on board with Mosaic, he recalls two professional roles he held where, in his opinion, he was seen as being the stereotyped “angry Black man,” and was treated differently because of it. Over time, he realized the best thing for himself was to leave these organizations. 

“Though distressing, each time I relied on my faith to seek new opportunities. Ironically, those experiences and professional roles helped to shape my career and were critical to me being in the role that I am today,” Johnson says. “Those experiences reinforced my perspective that it’s important for someone to stay true to who they are and be proud to bring their true and authentic self to the workplace.” 

His love for the nonprofit sector really took hold when he co-founded the Nonprofit Center of North Central Florida, now titled the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Gainesville, FL. This organization provides resources and training for the nonprofit organizations of north central Florida. An Independent Sector 2015 American Express NGen Fellow and a Leadership Florida Connect Florida Class 2 graduate, he’s looking into begin working on his PhD soon.

When thinking about his role models, the answer is simple: his parents. His father, raised in the segregated South, grew up in extreme poverty and joined the military to obtain some stability in his life, grasping onto any and every opportunity he could. 

“My Dad not only broke the cycle of poverty in my family but ensured my brother and I had the foundation and fortitude to accomplish anything in life we desired,” Johnson says. 

In looking at all he wants to accomplish and is accomplishing, his goal is to focus through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens in everything he does.

“It’s critical to give a voice to the voiceless and bring my personal life experiences to my work while addressing the social issues in the community we serve,” Johnson says. 

Imani Lee
Digital Creator (Professional Videographer and Photographer), owner of Imani Lee Creative, Founder and CEO of Black Stock Footage, LLC

Graduating from University of South Florida in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in mass communications (broadcast/productions) and a minor in entrepreneurship, Imani Lee Imani Lee, Founder and CEO of Black Stock Footagewent on to obtain his MBA online from National Louis University in 2018. He’s now been in the digital media profession for six years and has been in his current position as CEO of Black Stock Footage for almost two years, an early-stage tech startup he founded in 2020 with the mission to amplify Black representation in digital media through a stock video platform.

His plans are to create Black Stock Group, a parent company with a portfolio of companies such as Black Stock Footage, Black Stock Music, Black Stock Photos, Black Stock Studios, Black Stock Films, and more. 

“My goal is to create a central hub and resource for Black representation to thrive and enable better narratives to be created,” Lee says.

Growing up in inner city Miami as a Haitian and African American, his parents instilled in him the importance of self-worth and self-awareness. He looks to his ancestors who paved their way for him here as his role models. 

“The memory of my hardships is fleeting, but what I learned from the experiences I’ve had in my life will last forever,” Lee says. 

Throughout 2020, the injustices against Blacks were challenged and vocalized.

“I remember looking in the mirror and crying, and asking what I can do to make a difference,” Lee says. “How can I create meaningful change that will have a lasting impact on an individual, societal, professional, spiritual, educational, and socio-economic level?” 

Since he was a child, he was very observant of others around him. He dug deep, pondered, and used this power of observation. Although there’s a lot of negative experiences when it comes to race, there’s also a lot of positivity, love, and hope. 

“Taking these two polarities in hand, I decided to focus on the positive, but take action to help the negative, in hopes to transform myself and other people I meet along my journey,” Lee says. 

“My passion for storytelling arose when I picked up a camera and realized I can help people shape their narratives. I learned that we as humans do not have to let our stories define us, but we have the ability to constantly review and rewrite them,” Lee says. “Furthermore, I began to understand that like people, businesses have stories too. Companies need help crafting stories so their customers can better understand their values, products, and services.” 

This realization is what motivated him to pursue a career path as a creative media professional, helping mid-size businesses achieve their strategic goals to communicate their ideas through enhanced modern visual experience to educate, empower, and entertain their customers. 

Among his recent accomplishments was a video commissioned by Zebbie Atkinson, President of the Upper Pinellas County NAACP. The idea was to produce a documentary highlighting the injustices done to a historic Black cemetery that wasn’t moved properly before an elementary school was built on top of it. The video was extremely well-received in the local community as well as being strongly acknowledged at a government meeting in the City of Tulsa, OK. 

“I stepped into a business leadership role because I want to help pioneer and pave the way for a new generation that is more intentional about Black representation,” Lee says. “Everything I feel in my heart, mind, body, and soul is calling on me to create a legacy for Black representation that further sparks a massive positive change on a global level.” 

LaKendria Robinson
Founder and CEO of The Orenda Collective

After her time with the Super Bowl LV Host Committee came to an end in February 2021, LaKendria Robinson launched The Orenda Collective, her own consulting firm.

With her passion being to help underserved communities by gaining them access to LaKendria Robinson, Founder and CEO of The Orenda Collectiveopportunities they wouldn’t ordinarily have, her social impact strategy firm works with corporations that are intentional about creating diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Known for assisting corporations with the ideation and execution of their DEI initiatives, she’s a dedicated advocate for those who “don’t have a seat at the table.” And every position she’s held has allowed her to do just that. 

Having grown up in a small rural town outside of Tallahassee, she had very few lucrative opportunities. As a first-generation college student, she attributes her success to her mother who enrolled her in the Upward Bound program at Florida State, making her dream of going to college come true. Graduating from Florida State University with a bachelor’s in Political Science and Communications, she went on to attend grad school online at Ashford University to obtain her master’s in organizational management and Leadership. 

“It changed the trajectory of my life. … I saw first-hand what people from disadvantaged backgrounds could accomplish if they had access to the resources they need to succeed,” Robinson says. “What I do reminds me of this, and I absolutely love it!” 

Seven years ago, when she first moved to Tampa, she started with the Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan’s (THAP) 5508 initiative, then a few years later, joined the Tampa Bay Chamber as its first Minority Business Accelerator Director. She then took what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the Director of Business Connect in the form of the Super Bowl LV Host Committee where she led one of the most successful supplier diversity programs for the NFL, her proudest accomplishment. 

That success combined with all her experiences, lessons, and growing pains in previous positions helped prepare her to launch her own firm. The name “Orenda” means we have a “mystical or divine force within us that empowers us to change our lives and the lives of others,” Robinson says. “I accomplished a lot under a lot of uncertainty and that was the most pivotal time in my career.”

Within 90 days of launching The Orenda Collective in March 2021, she secured three notable clients: Tampa Bay Sports Commission, Visit Tampa Bay, and The Tampa Bay Partnership. Each of them will get their own DEI initiatives that will launch over time. 

“My work is driven by the concept of collectivism. There are so many injustices in our world that are detrimental to people of color … impossible for one person to change,” Robinson says. “However, when we all come together collectively, dedicating our time, talent, and resources, and commit to doing the hard and uncomfortable work, it is then that we can move our society forward.”
 
Through The Orenda Collective, her hopes are to help facilitate that sort of movement. 

Angie Speller
CEO and Lead Clinician at Enso Behavioral Healthcare, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Board-Certified Counselor, specialized training in Dream Interpretation, Mindfulness Meditation, and Hypnosis

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Florida, and a Master of Arts from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, Speller has built her Angie Speller, CEO and Lead Clinician at Enso Behavioral Healthcarepractice, Enso Behavioral Healthcare, from the ground up. She now has seven clinicians, five coaches, two nurse practitioners, a doctor, a massage therapist, two Reiki healers, etc. 

She’s always been a therapist, even back in kindergarten, she says. Her mom told her stories about how when she’d pick her up from school, the teachers would just look at her and say, “Angie did it again.” As a little girl, she would sit with the teachers and ask them what was wrong if she thought they looked sad. Eventually her mom stopped asking what Angie did, but would just ask, “Well, was she right?” They couldn’t understand how such a little kid could be so observant and insightful. 

“I’ve always liked puzzles, so for me I like the mystery, the strategy, and the excitement that comes from building puzzles, and really, that’s what people are like to me,” Speller says. “People come in and sit down in my office and I’m looking at all of these different pieces. I don’t know what the actual puzzle’s going to look like, but I put some connections together and then officially see the typography of what the puzzles is actually supposed to look like. … And ultimately, I help the other person see what the other puzzle pieces will look like.” 

As clichéd as it might sound, she’s motivated by the potential for having a lasting impact. She gives back to the community by just being herself and sharing her gift. “You’d be surprised at how many people just need a cheerleader in their life … someone to say, ‘I see you; you’ve done a fantastic job.’ ” 

Growing up part Native American and part Indian, it was engrained in her brain that she’d just need to expect and accept that things aren’t always going to be fair, and she’d have to work harder than others. This laid the foundation at an early age, she says, to learn the steps it takes to be successful. 

Currently she’s working toward partnerships with corporations.

“There are a lot of families, or individuals in companies that are struggling with suicide, struggling with divorce, or a teenager or child that’s behaviorally acting out in school, and all of that stuff, they bring into work,” Speller says. “Often times people don’t have a solution for that, and they don’t feel safe enough to talk about it at work and that’s what the goal of the current project is.” 

She is also working on developing a concierge medical practice.
 
The hardest part in her profession, she says, is fighting the stigma surrounding mental health. A lot of the time people go straight to the extremes, it’s more than just ‘I have a problem, give me the answers.’ It’s about creating a safe space.
 
“I want to be able to impact people’s lives, make those lasting changes, allow people to have those slight course corrections, and then see them fly,” Speller says. Her son, Micah, is named after her favorite scripture, Micah 6:8, “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly,” her three main focuses as a CEO. 

Lisa Thelwell
Assistant United States Attorney, Human Trafficking Coordinator, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida
 
Ever since she was a child, Lisa Thelwell wanted to be an attorney. Once she was in law school, she discovered her passion for criminal law, deciding she wanted to serve Lisa Thelwell, Assistant United States Attorney, Human Trafficking Coordinator, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Floridathe community as a prosecutor. She completed her undergrad at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business and law school at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Now in her mid-30s, she has been a prosecutor for nine years.
 
A first-generation American, born and raised in Miami, FL, her parents are Jamaican, with Cuban and Panamanian lineage, both immigrating to the U.S. as teenagers with their respective families. She looks up to her parents for the constant dedication they showed in providing for her family throughout the years. She often reflects on their work ethic, determination, and drive for success to keep going when times are difficult.
 
She’s currently assigned to the Special Victims Section at the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and serves as the district’s Human Trafficking Coordinator, Violence Against Women Coordinator, and Criminal eLitigation Coordinator. Over the years she’s conducted over 40 jury trials and numerous bench trials in state and federal court. 

“I am passionate about seeking the truth, serving as a voice for victims, and ensuring that justice prevails,” Thelwell says. “My desire is to be a catalyst for impact and change within the criminal justice system by zealously upholding the rule of law while maintaining a spirit of honesty and integrity.” 

On one of her first days as a state prosecutor, a chief prosecutor told all the new hires during orientation that they “have the power to change lives.” This is something that even years later has stuck with her, having the power to determine the appropriate charges to file, if any, and extend plea offers that hold defendants accountable for their crimes yet are still reasonable in light of all of the circumstances of the case. All these considerations make prosecutors one of the most powerful people in the justice system.
 
In 2019, she was recognized as the Gang Prosecutor of the Year by the Florida Gang Investigators Association for the successful prosecution of eight individuals who conspired together to commit multiple armed robberies and burglaries of several local drug dealers. In many instances, small children were present at the time of the robberies. 

“Honestly, I feel reaffirmed in the work that I am doing anytime I connect with an individual who has been victimized,” Thelwell says. “The ability to be able to offer the victim some semblance of justice by holding a perpetrator accountable for his or her criminal conduct continues to inspire me to do the work that I do.”
 
“What I have realized over the years is that you don’t need a title or management position to be a leader,” Thelwell says. “You can lead from exactly where you are.”

(Disclaimer requested by Lisa Thelwell: She participated in this interview in her own personal capacity. Any views expressed are her own, and not those of the Department of Justice or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.)

 

Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.