Forward Thinking Initiatives Teaches Entrepreneurship Skills To Tampa Bay Teens

Kasamba Kokayi is a student at Boca Ciega High School. He's also a photographer, dancer and actor. His brother, Jumaane, a Bay Point Middle School student, is a visual artist. Adam Martinez, a student at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, plays the viola.  

The three recently attended ART-repreneurship, a program for budding young artists to help them envision the skills they'll need to pursue a career in the arts -- one that not only showcases their talent, but also pays the bills.

Sponsored by Forward Thinking Initiatives in collaboration with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Greenhouse, the city's small business assistance center, the program is a part of a communitywide effort to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs, says Sean Kennedy, Manager of the Greenhouse and Economic Development Coordinator for the Chamber. 

Local nonprofit Forward Thinking Initiatives launched in 2004 with assistance from the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Florida High Tech Corridor and Verizon

Since then, Deborah Campbell, the nonprofit's Founder and Executive Director, has organized workshops, after school programs and summer camps all centered around the idea of helping kids develop critical thinking and leadership skills for business.

"Deborah came to us earlier this year to talk about developing a program for young people through the Greenhouse,'' says Kennedy. "We got both the Greenhouse and the Chamber involved and then helped her partner with all of the great art resources we have here in St. Petersburg.''

Young Artist Entrepreneurs

Art-repreneurship kicked off in February, with students participating in a seven-week program with participating organizations, including Creative Clay, the Greenhouse, Morean Art CenterFlorida CraftsmenSt. Petersburg College and the St. Petersburg Opera Company

An additional ART-repreneurship summer camp will be held at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry in June.

"The arts are very important to St. Petersburg and the economic development of our city,'' says Kennedy. "Anything we can do to encourage artists is important to us. Reaching out to young people to talk about the skills they need before they're at the point where they need to make a living seemed like a great opportunity.''

One of the most important aspects of ART-repreneurship was the chance for the teens to meet and talk with actual professional artists, says Campbell.

At a session held at the St. Petersburg Opera Company's new headquarters near the city's Warehouse Arts District, opera singers Susan Hellman and Colleen McGrath talked to the teens about the challenges, rewards and persistence required to make it in the arts.

"No one teaches business and marketing skills to artists, especially opera singers. And a lot of it is about shaking hands, making a good impression on people and learning how to network,'' McGrath tells the teens. "We're not saying don't go for it -- absolutely not. It's a passion that you have to honor, but you have to be realistic. And the competition is intense.''

A coloratura soprano who sang professionally around the world for 15 years, McGrath says she always had a back up plan.
"The key is to find that magic job that will allow you go sing and then come back and work at the job,'' says McGrath. "I was a receptionist, veterinary technician and then a manager of veterinary clinics. I would change from my scrubs into a beautiful dress to go to an audition. Then come back and put my scrubs on again and get back to work.''

Hellman is a graduate of College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, OH, and she got her bachelor's in music from Indiana University. She chose the large public university because it had an excellent music school, but also because it offered her other opportunities for a different major and career path just in case she changed her mind about a music. 

Moving To St. Petersburg

Both McGrath and Hellman are former New Yorkers who are now happy to be living in St. Petersburg, not just for the weather but also the arts scene.  

"I found more joy in music and the arts here in St. Petersburg than anywhere else I have lived,'' says Hellman, who divides her time between working at the St. Petersburg Opera Company as an arts and development associate and singing in opera productions both locally and around the state.  

Earlier this year, she performed the lead role in the St. Petersburg Opera Company's performance of "Susannah'' and in 2010, sang in the production of "Carmen.''

McGrath, on the other hand, has retired from her career with the opera and is now the director of "You and Me & Music Together,'' a music program for children that she offers in various locations, including the St. Pete Beach Rec Center, Children's Center of Pinellas and Shorecrest Preparatory School.

The core message from all of the artists was "do what you love, but keep in mind how important it is to support yourself financially,'' says Kennedy.

That's exactly what Erica Hardison had in mind when she enrolled her sons Kasamba and Jumaane in the series. "I wanted to build their confidence that they could pursue their art, but I want them to have a successful life -- not be starving artists.''

Discussion is underway about allowing ART-repreneurship "graduates'' to display and sell their art at the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center, says Kennedy. Additional programs in entrepreneurship are also being considered for the future, perhaps in green technology or sustainability, he says. 

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees. 

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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