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Tampa will host one of the largest LGBT business conferences this week

Just seven years ago, Hillsborough County had an ordinance on the books preventing the county from recognizing, promoting or participating in LGBT events.

This week, Tampa will host one of the largest LGBT-focused business conferences in the country for the first time, and the city's first openly gay mayor will speak at the event.

"It's a huge accomplishment," said Justice Gennari, president of the Tampa Bay Diversity Chamber of Commerce.

The civic group is Tampa Bay's local chapter of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which will host this week's International Business & Leadership Conference. Its conference is the largest LGBT business gathering in the world, according to the chamber, and its expected attendance of 1,400 people would be the largest in the event's 16-year history.

Gennari hopes it will help solidify the bay area's reputation as an LGBT-friendly business community.

"When people think of Florida, people don't think of it as being a very inclusive state, for very right reasons," Gennari said.

But that's changing, he said. Tampa Bay's local chamber chapter currently has about 300 members, an increase of about 150 percent since last year. It launched six new initiatives for small and medium businesses this year, and seeks to be a way for people to connect with LGBT resources and welcoming businesses.

"We're here for everyone," Gennari said. "We're not just for LGBT businesses and business owners."

The organization does not disclose which of its members are part of the LGBT community and which are allies, but many of its publicly-listed members have familiar names: H&R Block, the Italian Club of Tampa, Marriott International, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and the city of Tampa.

This year's conference will offer boot camps, workshops on running businesses and maintaining better diversity within a business, and different tracks depending on an attendee's focus.

"I think the conference is going to put Tampa on the map as an absolute welcoming place for LGBT business to occur," Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the national chamber.

One of the sponsors is Bristol-Myers Squibb, the local branch of which is also a member of the Tampa Bay Diversity Chamber of Commerce. Silka Rodriguez works with the pharmaceutical company's diversity program and led the company's diversity initiative from 2017 through June of this year.

"We're trying to bring diverse people, diverse thoughts and diverse ideas together," Rodriguez said. "The idea is to have those people in these conversations, not just to check a box, but to include them and enrich the company."

Former Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn considered such diversity vital to the county's economic growth. In a letter to the Hillsborough County Commission in 2013, he urged its members to repeal the gay pride ban. Commissioners did that same year.

"Our ability to attract talent is not always based on the tax incentives or the cost of labor," Buckhorn wrote. "Often times it is based on the perception of an area. Rightly or wrongly, symbols matter and if we are perceived as community that is not welcoming or a city where the value of some is not the same as others, we will be far less competitive."

One area the Tampa Bay LGBT business community may be able to improve on, Rodriguez and Gennari said, is helping people quickly locate LGBT-friendly businesses and hubs.

"You want to know the (local) environment is completely inclusive and that you can travel and do business here," she said.

Gennari's solution to that is working to get businesses certified through the national chamber's "LGBT Business Enterprise" program. The program would confirm that a business is owned by a member of the LGBT community. The designation, he said, can help businesses looking to spend on or partner with diverse companies better direct their efforts. While the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg don't yet recognize the certification, Gennari hopes that will change.

"The chamber is working with both cities so they can support our LGBT (business) certification hopefully very soon," Gennari said.

The conference will be held Aug. 13 to Aug. 16 at the Tampa Convention Center. For more information, visit

Contact Malena Carollo at or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.