On its 10th anniversary, Emerge Tampa Bay is now:
A) A young professionals group and a principal conduit for future business leadership in Tampa.
B) A maturing organization that still needs to work on improving diversity among its young business membership.
C) A potentially formidable force of well-educated millennials currently focused on improving Tampa Bay's outdated transportation system.
D) An affiliate of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce that offers young business leaders access to board-level responsibilities and influence in a chamber once accustomed to lowly 20-somethings first paying their dues — measured in years.
All four answers are true. On Wednesday, the 410-member Emerge Tampa Bay celebrates a first decade worthy of a toast, a hug and some pondering of this question:
What will drive Emerge Tampa Bay in its second decade?
It's come a long way from 2004 when co-founders Deanne Roberts and Dianne Jacob thought a young businesspeople's group could be just the ticket to steer more of the next generation into chamber activities — and add a networking opportunity that just might attract more talented young adults to this city and keep those already here.
Back then, the Tampa Bay metro area ranked 47th among the top 50 U.S. metro areas in its share of adults ages 25 to 34. A study called "The Young and the Restless: How Tampa Bay Competes for Talent" had concluded that young adults here felt ignored by the business establishment, frustrated by the lack of social and business networking options, annoyed by poor regional cooperation and bored by a downtown Tampa that became a ghost town at 5:01 p.m.
All that is changing, Emerge Tampa Bay leaders now say — though not as fast as many would hope.
"Their voices can now be heard," says a clearly pleased Jacob, who works in Tampa as a PNC Bank community relations executive and still helps advise Emerge Tampa Bay. "It is not our future but their future," she says. "I think they have learned that not only do they have a role at the table but also a responsibility to make it happen."
Roberts, a former chairwoman of the Tampa Chamber and a fireball of enthusiasm and ideas to make Tampa a better place, did not live to see Emerge Tampa Bay's 10th year. In 2012, she died at 59 after a long battle with cancer.
In 2004, both Roberts and Jacob had sons in their early 20s, one in college and the other in the U.S. Air Force. The two women used to wonder if Emerge Tampa Bay might help lure their boys back here. That has not yet happened.
"It's ironic neither one is here," admits Jacob.
And Roberts? If she were here, she would give the group a big smile and a pat on the back. Then she would urge everyone to think big — and get back to work.
In interviews, past and current Emerge Tampa Bay leaders say their organization is stronger than ever, better focused on key issues and eager to grow.
Area native Brian Seel joined Emerge Tampa Bay five years ago after getting a graduate degree in Atlanta. He's now in his second year as the group's chairman.
The organization has more than doubled in size from 200 members when Seel joined. "If more join and many renew memberships, we must be doing something right, yes?"
But there are other ways to define success. Seel says most Emerge Tampa Bay members fall into the "post-collegiate range" between 23 to 32 and are looking for a connection to their community. "At that point in their career and lives, I most often get this question: 'There is an issue I care about but do not know where to begin.' "
The group is set up to help members find answers. It holds a wide array of events to acquaint and educate its members about how Tampa and Tampa Bay operate, who represents the area politically, and what economic and social issues are of top concerns.
In April, for example, Emerge Tampa Bay held a fair so 40 area nonprofit groups could show what they do for the community. At least 300 people attended.
But Emerge Tampa Bay's front-burner concern is transportation. That's not surprising. The younger generation is less obsessed with owning expensive cars. Many are more interested in walkable, urban lifestyles and desire for at least some form of reliable mass transit. It does not hurt that Seel, 29 and a senior project manager at Tampa's Beck Group construction firm, is the son of Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, a strong advocate of the Greenlight Pinellas drive to fund a county mass-transit project in a fall referendum.
Emerge Tampa Bay members are "fired up" about the future of Tampa and the Tampa Bay area, Brian Seel says. "People our age do not have a tainted view of this area as older folks might. But we realize there is much yet to do."
In 2004, Emerge Tampa — it was later renamed Emerge Tampa Bay to feel more inclusive — was first co-chaired by Mike Griffin, 23 and fresh out of the University of South Florida, and Jessica Muroff, 27, who then worked for Deanne Roberts' marketing firm.
Muroff, now a mom to two girls, went on to enjoy a long marketing stint at Raymond James Financial and recently was named executive director of an area nonprofit for kids organization called Frameworks of Tampa Bay. While she has aged out of Emerge Tampa Bay, she still mentors its younger members.
"Giving young professionals access to this community's business leadership was huge," she says.
Griffin, 33 and a real estate consultant for Tampa's Vertical Integration Inc., has deepened his ties over the years to the Tampa chamber as a member of its board. He'd like to see Emerge Tampa Bay serve as a feeder of young business leadership talent to the chamber.
The chamber treats the group with respect, not as "token young professionals," he says.
Like Seel, Griffin turns serious about Emerge Tampa Bay's future. "I like the focus on initiatives rather than on happy hour."
And Griffin wants to see the group push to become more diverse to better reflect the metro area's population.
Says Griffin: "Let's make sure we continue to build that Emerge Tampa Bay brand that says we are not just a bunch of business people who look alike."
So happy anniversary, young professionals. Here's a cheer and a fist bump. Now get back to work. There really is much yet to do.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]