ST. PETERSBURG — Will Packer heard "no" plenty of times on his unlikely path from St. Petersburg to Hollywood. He just never listened.
The producer of Straight Outta Compton, Ride Along and the recent remake of Roots urged other dreamers to do the same at Thursday's inaugural BurgBorn, showcasing a dozen homegrown businesses known far outside city limits.
Packer, 42, revisited his birthplace to deliver BurgBorn's keynote address, setting an inspiring tone for the day's panel discussions of grass roots success stories.
It's something Packer would have appreciated back in the day.
"It would've been huge for myself as a young filmmaker," he said, "to have somebody who looks like me, is from where I'm from … without a lot of Hollywood connections, say, 'You can do it. Never give up, don't take no for an answer.'
"Those kinds of things would really have resonated with me. … It would've been great to hear somebody say all this hard work isn't in vain; it's going to pay off."
An experienced motivational speaker, Packer traced his experiences as a fledgling filmmaker without money or industry connections, using a barnstorming strategy of distribution, defying Hollywood's conventional wisdom.
The journey began at Florida A&M University, where Packer and fraternity brother Rob Hardy produced the campus drama Chocolate City for $20,000, then persuaded a pothead discount theater manager to show it on weekends, turning a healthy profit.
Regional success with 2000's erotic thriller Trois led to studio deals and eventually the founding of Will Packer Productions, creators of four movies that debuted atop the box office charts, and on television, BET's Being Mary Jane and ABC's sitcom Uncle Buck.
"Although I got told 'no' an awful lot, I didn't let that define me," Packer said in an interview before his speech. "I continued to push against those walls and ceilings and barriers that were trying to keep me in a box. … I've always been resolute that I determine what success is for me, not somebody else."
Similar sentiment could be expressed by any of the 12 businesses BurgBorn highlighted in four panel discussions moderated by former Times editor Sandra Gadsden.
Divided into four categories — art, tech, online business and craft beverages/food — the panels reflected the city's diverse population and values.
"Our local businesses are the ones who give us our character, our feel," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said during a VIP breakfast. "It's one reason people like to come visit here.
"While big retail chains serve a function and are important, what sets us apart is how many local, small businesses that are so unique to this community."
About 100 people turned out to the event. Businesses singled out at BurgBorn included digital illustrator Chris Parks of Palehorse, artist Johnny Vitale of Vitale Bros., [email protected] artistic director Bob Devin Jones and Pilot Moon Films co-founder Joel Malizia. Technology entrepreneurs Marxent, content strategist Joe Bardi and Intrinio CEO Rachel Carpenter shared a panel, while Andrew Harlan (iLovetheBurg), Monica Leonard (Molly's Suds) and Kyle Nardo (Nardo's Naturals) discussed online business practices.
BurgBorn concluded with Matt Sokolowski (Great Bay Distributors), Mike Harting (3 Daughters Brewing) and chef Jeffrey Jew (BellaBrava, Stillwaters Tavern) discussing their craft products.
"In light of St. Pete's renaissance," said Olga Bof, executive director of Keep Saint Petersburg Local, sponsor of Thursday's event, "we're celebrating these wonderful success stories that might have started here smaller but are thriving and have reached national or international levels.
"People may not even know that's what is growing in their hometown."
Packer knows well what St. Petersburg can harvest, the talents that can develop, the ambitions that can be realized.
"Control your own destiny and give your power to no one," Packer said, concluding his remarks. "Know that a challenge, an obstacle, is an opportunity to go out and do something great.
"I know this because I've done it for myself. I know because I'm blessed to be BurgBorn. I know because from Maximo (Elementary) to Baypoint (Middle School) to St. Pete (High School), I had people around me who encouraged me, who told me what I could do, who I could be. And I had people who told me what I couldn't do or be.
"But at the end of the day, there was one voice louder than all the rest, one voice that mattered most. And that voice is mine. And that voice is yours."
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.