Not Your Average Speakers Talk Talent, 83 Degrees

Retaining talent -- a much different challenge than attracting talent -- is the key to the development of any great city. It's not enough that Tampa has world class amenities like the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and Curtis Hixon Park to lure new visitors and residents to the downtown core.

Talented people, who can choose to live anywhere in the world, gravitate toward cities that create environments rich in culture, the arts, walkable streets, outdoor play and gathering spaces, opportunities to meet people, a diversity of jobs, and support and encouragement for budding entrepreneurs and startups.

Those were among the talking points emerging out of a 90-minute community conversation Thursday night, April 19, 2012 as Walker Brands hosted "Talent Squeeze: Filling Tampa Bay's Pool," the fifth event in 83 Degrees Media's Not Your Average Speakers series.

What steps must our region take if we want to compete for talent with established cool cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Portland? Each attracts Tampa Bay graduates on a regular basis. All are often thought to offer great opportunities not perceived to be here.

"The grass is always greener," says panelist Kenneth Cowart, an architect best known locally for starting Pecha Kucha Tampa Bay and now working to save the old span of the Gandy Bridge.

Generally speaking, people will always find something they dislike about their city, Cowart says. But instead of letting the bad get inside your head where it can hold you back, try focusing on the good which allows you to realize the bigger picture. Recognize that there's a lot of cool stuff emerging in the Tampa Bay region and it's easier to participate and make a difference in Tampa Bay than it is in larger, less accessible cities.

"I'm trying to be more optimistic and showcase that our problems here aren't unique," Cowart says. "We have opportunities to do great things that aren't afforded to other areas."

Invest More in Education

How can Tampa Bay convey to young professionals this is a cool place to live? That it's a place where creative-minded individuals are valued? That they don't have to flee Florida to find a nurturing environment for their passions?

Joining moderator Pegoty Cooper and Cowart in the discussion were panelists Terri Willingham of Learning is 4 Everyone (LI4E), Mark Swanson of Telovations, Linda Seefeldt of AIM Above and St. Petersburg College President William D. Law, Jr.

The panelists agreed that Tampa Bay can start by being more invested in the education and development of children. Instead of waiting until college, when students are expected to have their futures mapped out, parents, educators and public policy makers need to concentrate more on developing emotional and intellectual ties to community at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Programs such as LI4E, an education resource organization that supports community-based and online learning opportunities, and the Career Technical Education Foundation, a Safety Harbor-based nonprofit, give students the opportunity to learn vital job skills from STEM professionals working at companies like Jabil Circuit and Coastal Caisson.

"Talented people come from unexpected places," Willingham says. "We need to be more flexible in where we're looking for that talent."

Not every child is Advanced Prep or International Baccalaureate material, but every one is capable of developing a passion; something that captures their interest in a way that traditional learning may not. Giving underprivileged kids the opportunity to explore their creativity and putting them in contact with teachers, mentors and role models who can nurture their talents will encourage them to grow roots to our community.

"When we stop talking about what kids can't do, we sit back, see what they can do and we get a surprise," says Law.

The surprise may be that students no longer see the need for completing their college education to start their careers.

Audience Members Speak Up

Audience member Sharonne Whittaker-Phan, 28, says she and her husband Nam Phan, 30, decided to forego finishing their degrees at the University of South Florida in favor of launching their own business, Nam Phan Photography

"It was something we quarreled with in our own minds," she says. "We're fairly young and the worst that can happen is you fail and learn from it."

Striking out as entrepreneurs is a growing trend among Millennials and Gen Xers as even college graduates find they don't have the means to relocate to larger cities. By staying in Tampa Bay, they have the option of working with mentor-driven incubator programs such as Blue Sky and Gazelle Lab. They have years of entrepreneurial expertise at Tampa Bay WaVE and the Tampa Bay Technology Forum.

And for those who wish the region was a tad bit cooler (in vibe, not temperature), there are numerous microgrant programs to make positive things happen. Want to hold a citywide game of hopscotch or open a banana pudding store? Apply for a grant from Awesome Tampa Bay. Looking for funding for an ambitious art endeavor? Try Think Small to Think Big.

Whatever your passion is, panelists agree, there's someone in Tampa Bay willing to help you make it happen. You just need to mine out where resources are in the community.

A positive from the economic recession is that it helps push -- sometimes forces -- people to think creatively outside their traditional comfort zones, Swanson says. The loss of jobs and the general state of the economy have given many new and veteran entrepreneurs the opportunity to design and create new business ventures.

"When you start a business or sole proprietorship, you're not starting something you don't like," Swanson says. "I'm working a lot more, but I don't think of it as work. It's just what I do."

It all comes down to making the most out of your surroundings, adds Cowart, the father of a six-year-old and a newborn.

"I try to go the extra mile to make this a cool city for my kids, so that whenever they have the choice to live somewhere else, they'll come back and stay with their dad."

Support For NYAS / What's Next?

The April 19 event was underwritten by the Tampa Bay Partnership. Coordination and technical support was provided by White Book Agency and Mighty Fine Production.

Join 83 Degrees on May 17 for the next "Not Your Average Speakers" event when the topic will be "Valuing Diversity: The Wealth Components of a Global City.'' The event, sponsored by Tucker/Hall, will be inside Rivergate Tower (the round building) at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

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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