In 2011, Bemetra Simmons moved to Tampa from Atlanta and immediately entrenched herself in the community. Five years later, Simmons is deeply committed to civic and educational organizations, as the list of interests — past and present — reflects. She serves on the Christian Brothers University's Board of Trustees, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the United Way Bridges advisory board, the Centre Club Board of Governors, the Community Tampa Bay board of directors, the University of Tampa Board of Fellows and the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women cabinet. A 2013 alum of Leadership Tampa, Simmons stepped up her service to the community when Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn named her as a commissioner on the board of the Tampa Bay Housing Authority and as an alternate to the Citizens Review Board.
Simmons, who holds an MBA from Wake Forest University, recently signed on as a senior private banker with Wells Fargo after serving as the Hillsborough Market President for BB&T.
The daughter of an Air Force chaplain and member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Simmons recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times correspondent Kenya Woodard about succeeding as a woman in corporate America and her definition of #GoodFloridaLiving.
It didn't take long for you to become acclimated to Tampa. What motivated you to jump right in?
I knew I needed to raise my profile to raise the bank's profile. The only way I knew to get involved was to offer myself up to the city. I've learned that if you give yourself to Tampa, Tampa will give itself back to you.
You recently traveled to Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota as part of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce's 2016 Benchmarking Visit. What are some best practices of the Twin Cities that you think could be adapted to Tampa?
Minneapolis-Saint Paul has many similarities to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. One of the key things we learned on the trip was they recently opened a new football stadium (U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings) that revitalized the East Corridor area just off of downtown Minneapolis. The team, the city, worked with a Fortune 500 company to revitalize the entire district. The public- private partnership created a district that now has a large company housing several thousand employees, a public park, apartment complex and the stadium itself. Hopefully this is a model we can re-create here in Tampa Bay.
What drives you to give back?
I absolutely adore people. I love all types of people. I have 31 first cousins and we're in all walks of life: bankers, lawyers, factory workers. Because of the diverse background I come from, whoever you are, I can see myself in anyone.
You've recently teamed with your twin sister, Demetra Liggins, to form Corporate Homie, a community that helps women and minorities to be successful in corporate America.
We're taught that we need to be someone other than who we are. It's incredible to me that people pretend to be someone else. It's important to me that these groups understand that they are good enough. As long as you are authentic and you work hard, good things will happen for you.
As women and minorities, we're taught to be a white guy and you'll be successful. But you don't have to be someone else to be successful. Corporate America traditionally has one voice and that's middle-aged white male. It's important for a 22-year-old to see herself in me at 41, and it's important for me to see myself in a woman who is 61.
Corporate America has all of these unwritten rules and if you don't know them, you're probably going to fail. The concept of Corporate Homie is you have homies (or friends) at work who will pull you aside and say this is how you can be successful in your company's culture.
So what's been your secret to doing well in corporate spaces?
I'm motivated to be picked first. The kid who is picked first — everyone knows we can't win without this person. I want to be picked first because that's the person everyone knows we need to be successful. People know Bemetra will do a good job and we will be successful. I bring energy and tenacity to the job so that we can win.
Who inspires you?
My parents. They gave us (me, and sister Demetra and brother DeMark) this confidence to understand that we were smart, pretty and funny but not the smartest, prettiest or the funniest. Also, my grandparents have fueled my drive for success. Both grandmothers were domestics. I remember being (young) and watching my grandmother putting on her uniform. They didn't have the doors open to them that I have. One was smart enough to be an engineer. She could repair anything. But that wasn't available to her in 1942 when she graduated high school.
My family understood that education was the game-changer and they made it abundantly clear that it was important. And they were right.
The phrase #GoodFloridaLiving is a familiar stamp on your social media posts. Why do you use it?
I've lived all over the world (10 states and two countries) but Florida is such a special place. I came to Tampa in January 2012 from Atlanta. I remember when I got to Tampa, it was 73 degrees and I remember thinking, "I'm going to like it here. This is going to be some good Florida living." That's my mantra.
The sun is shining and we have an open business community that wants to see you engaged no matter your age, no matter your background. That's good Florida living. Come join us.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Kenya Woodard at email@example.com.