Networking: It's Cool To Be Blue In Tampa Bay

Visit one of 11 Blue Thong Society chapters in the Tampa Bay region, and it quickly becomes apparent that this networking group does not subscribe to the traditional formula of business cards and 30-second TV commercials.
With a logo cleverly resembling both a flip-flop and sexy beach apparel as the name suggests, Blue Thongs are more concerned with building friendships and making a difference than with compiling mailing lists and scoring a deal. And how many of those other groups can claim to have not one but two signature drinks – the Blue Thongatini and Blue Thongarita?
Behind The Thong
Blue Thong Society founder Mary Jo Wallo points to a single moment at her 50th birthday party in 2005 as the inspiration for this particular networking concept. An avid surfer and owner of a successful California investment firm, Wallo remarked at her Hawaii Five-O beach celebration that she had received Red Hat Society items as gag gifts.

"One of my girlfriends said, 'Mary Jo, I can't see you in a red hat, but I can see you in a red thong,'" she says. "I had an 'aha' moment, stood up and said, 'That’s it. We’re going to start a whole new organization for young-minded women of all ages.'" For the next six months, she and her closest friends met weekly in Wallo's dining room to lay out the groundwork for their new organization. By 2006, Blue Thong Society was launched.
"We had three goals in mind: Create a platform for women to get together and be social, do some good in the community and blend generations," Wallo says. "I want younger women to know that when you turn 30, 40, 50 or 60, you don’t grow another nose, you don’t crawl under a rock and die. We really want to change the perception of aging." 
The organization, which embraces the motto "Fight Frump," even launched a national campaign called 'It’s Cool to Be Blue,' which is specifically aimed at drawing members in their 20s and 30s. "We can gain a lot from the younger generation willing to help us, and we can help mentor them, too."
Blending Fun And Purpose
When members join a local Blue Thong Society chapter, they can expect both an opportunity to socialize and to give back to the community. To become a member, women must be at least 21 years old and can sign up at the national website. First year membership costs $49.99; subsequent years are $19.99 annually.
Each chapter establishes its own unique identity, including a group name, meeting format and general logistics, with all chapters expected to facilitate at least nine networking events during the year and perform at least two "good acts" annually to benefit a local charity. Some chapters opt to work with one charity for the year; others elect to change the beneficiary on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Lisa Corraio has been chapter director (or "Top Thong") for the Lutz/Carrollwood chapter "Tampa Bay Thongaritas" for the past two years. She says that from the beginning, her diverse group of around 30 members chose to have a different member host the group each month at a different location, typically at the host's home and often with a theme. Some of Corraio's favorite meetings have featured cooking classes, wine tasting, massage therapy and interactive, costumed singalongs to classic films such as Rocky Horror Picture Show and Mamma Mia.
"This has been a great way to make new friends and connect with people that I would not have come across in my day-to-day routine," she says.
Along with host and locale, the benefiting nonprofit for Lutz/Carrollwood changes from month to month. In two years, members have supported everything from animal welfare groups and children's charities to women-focused organizations such as Dress for Success. 
Member Lisa Clementi says she was excited to host the group last February at her home to support a cause near and dear to her heart, Meals on Wheels of Tampa. In honor of Valentine's Day, the group collected and donated more than 700 pieces of chocolate candy to the nonprofit for inclusion with that week's meal distribution throughout Tampa Bay.
"Because it's not a business networking group, you can really let your walls down and socialize, without any hidden agendas," Clementi says.
Connections Build Community
Unlike their Lutz/Carrollwood counterparts, the South Tampa group opted to work closely with just one nonprofit since launching four years ago. Each November, chapter members gather holiday gifts for Aging Solutions, Inc., benefiting seniors without families in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
Since the group's launch, Debbie Lussier has served as chapter director for the "Blue Bay Divas." Her many years of philanthropic and civic involvement compelled Lussier to volunteer her leadership of the group whose membership began as a group of eight friends who simply enjoyed meeting for tea. Today, as a Blue Thong chapter, membership has risen to about 15 members who alternate monthly between restaurant get-togethers and tea room outings. The group also gathers occasionally for other extracurricular activities, such as ceramic painting and jewelry design, and is currently planning a September mystery dinner theater outing aboard a Southwest Florida train.
"All of us wanted to start a social group, have fun and do a little charity work without worrying about a board of directors or collecting money from members," Lussier says. "I've reconnected with old high school classmates through Blue Thongs and made new friendships."
Throngs Of Thongs
Since its debut, the Blue Thong Society has grown to more than 6,000 members in more than 300 chapters across the country, adding about five to 10 new chapters and 100-200 new members per month. One of the original founding members, Mary Ellen Wiegand, who now lives in Lutz, supports the region's chapter leaders.
"We have a great organization, and though we've grown so much in membership, we're still small enough to learn from each other," Wiegand says.
Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 13-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who resides in the northern ‘burbs of Tampa with her husband and a rambunctious Shih Tzu. She is a frequent contributor to area print and online publications and previously served as editor for a local women’s publication. A graduate of Florida State University, Chris has been published nationally and written two books, her most recent, an anthology celebrating public art as a central focal point for storytelling across various Florida communities, including Tampa. When she is not writing, Chris loves checking out art, movies and museums, and discovering new Thai restaurants.