In a breakout session at last year's Florida Association of Chamber Professionals convention, Yvonne Fry prepared to speak about engaging women in leadership. In a concurrent session, another speaker prepared to speak about economic development. Fry couldn't help but notice that almost all the women at the conference were in her room, and all the men were in the other session. "I said, 'We need to flip-flop this,' " Fry said. "Men need to have an awareness and understanding of their role in making all of our communities; women need to be at the economic development table." That's not a surprising stance for Fry, past chair of both the Hillsborough Commission on the Status of Women and the Florida Commission on the Status of Women.
The business owner says she likes to lead with grace. Even though she's stepping away from working on the commissions, she said her advocacy for women will continue.
Fry, 44, spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about where women are today, her burgeoning hometown of Plant City and a show her company is producing for Bay News 9 called Common Ground.
What is the status of women?
I love that question. The status of women in our whole state is rising. As chair (of both commissions) ... what I saw was that there is such a collective out there focused on empowering women, uniting women, educating women, breaking down any remaining barriers and giving women the tools and resources and awareness in themselves to go do what they're fully capable of doing. It is rising. It's not perfect, but we're making great, great progress in our state.
Now that you're moving away from the state and county Commissions on the Status of Women, what's next?
Next for me in my service to women in our state is taking some of the things we've looked at and talked about and how do we continue to blaze a trail to provide opportunity and to get women to the table they are not at right now ... I'm helping Jessica Rivelli (Working Women of Tampa Bay) step over into programming and events that are talking about economic development. What is it, how do you get involved, who are the drivers and what is the future of women with that? To me, that's a path I can help lead in our area.
What's your take on our transportation issues?
Transportation is a pillar of every issue that affects the status of women everywhere: access to education, access to jobs, access to health care, child care. Everything. It's very different and unique how it affects women compared to how it affects men. And I say in ways unfairly. I don't ever like to use that word because I would rather just go find solutions. I don't like to whine and complain, but that's the reality.
Last month the Hillsborough County Commission voted down the proposed Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. We're struggling to come up with a meaningful transportation plan.
The Plant City EDC (Economic Development Corp.) wrote a letter stating we're in full support of the (Go Hillsborough) initiative. Plant City has been the city of no, if you will, but our understanding of our spot at the table and our future is so dependent on seeing transportation as an investment in our infrastructure and not a tax. We need to be part of the solution and being part of crafting the regional design. We need to see that just because we aren't getting rail, that doesn't mean it doesn't affect the outcomes of our quality of life and how it all fits together. To me, a piece of this is educating women on how transportation affects them, how their lives would be different if we had better transportation solutions.
You helped create the Plant City Economic Development Corp. Tell me about that.
I drove the creative and the marketing and I was involved with a lot of other people in the engagement and fundraising. A lot of people said we can't raise money around this topic in Plant City. I said yes we can, we're going to have a surplus, and we did. We had 200 people in the room for a four-hour event that were fired up. We did an exploratory committee last summer. I was one of the only women in the room. I wasn't going to back away from that table. We went ahead and formed our own EDC.
I'm on the executive committee and I'm heavily involved in what's happening in Plant City. ... We've got the hyper-local focus because our needs and goals and the things we're marketing for Plant City are very different from the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, but we're part of the EDC's whole. When they did their site selectors visit a couple of weeks ago, they brought those guys out to Plant City and they were shocked. They had no idea about the land we have, the infrastructure, the logistic patterns — all of that.
Tell me about the television show you're producing for Bay News 9, Common Ground, a political show featuring Alex Sink and Chris Ingram.
Ninety-nine percent of my political energy is going towards Common Ground, making our shows really compelling, thought provoking, challenging to our viewers. I want to be a catalyst for changing conversations and the mindset of what can you talk about and what can't you talk about. I always say if we can put something on the table and talk about it, we can figure it out. If we can start those conversations about topics people are making assumptions on, I can change the world.
You said you like to lead with grace. Are you interested in elected office?
I'm very interested and I'll be candid about that, but that's not my end game. My sole desire is to serve, impact my community and leave everybody and everything that comes across my path better than what I've found it. However, I believe is the right way at the right time to do that, that's what I'm open to.
What's one of the best pieces of advice you offer women?
I always tell them put your hand in the air. Pick me, pick me, I'm ready. I don't care who I'm talking to, I always tell them to do that. If you don't put your hand in the air, nothing is going to happen.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.