Bradenton native Melanie Griffin attended Florida State University in Tallahassee to hone connections in the Capital City and land a job in government. But she didn't wait for state legislators to find her on campus; she found them. "I went to a volunteer fair as a freshman (at FSU), found the House of Representatives, and told them that I came to school here to work for them," said Grifffin, 37, now a prominent Tampa attorney. "They looked at me like I was crazy, but then they said, 'Okay.' So I started with an unpaid internship in the House, which parlayed into a paid internship, which led to a job in the executive office."
Griffin's ambitious attitude eventually led to an internship in Great Britain's parliament, a masters degree and a law degree from FSU.
Now she's the managing shareholder for the Dean Mead law firm's Tampa branch and one half of a Tampa power couple along with husband Mike Griffin, a Port Tampa Bay board commissioner and a former Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman. The two met during high school and married in 2009.
Griffin recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times staff writer Libby Baldwin about her upbringing, adopting a newborn son this month (Maverick) and launching her own non-profit mentoring program, Spread Your Sunshine (spreadyoursunshine.com).
How did your upbringing influence who you are today?
My parents got divorced when I was really young, so I grew up in a household where it was just my mom and me. She was so awesome, the way she made everything work. It wasn't until pretty far along in my high school career that I realized there weren't enough funds for me to go to a four-year university. And I had always had my heart set on going to Florida State, so I was really disappointed to hear that news. But thankfully because I was able to turn our circumstances into grit and work hard, I ended up being able to go to FSU on several scholarships, including a service scholarship, which probably ties back into the significant passion I have today for giving back. I also worked all throughout high school, Publix and babysitting.
What would you say to women who want to have a career like yours?
Of course, I have to say spread your sunshine, be positive, count every day as a blessing. But beyond that, find a mentor, find someone you can trust and can lean on. And I definitely have a team of mentors, because at some point, either a mentor isn't going to be right in a particular circumstance, or just won't be available. And I would just love for women to have the confidence to know that they can and often do kick butt, and to have a game plan for that. And the thing I would challenge women to think about is that the majority of the conversation about women in the workplace centers on the wrongs that have been done to us, as opposed to what we can do to change them. Do I think there's discrimination and people who have turned a blind eye? Absolutely. But I also think that at least in part, these male-run organizations just don't even know the challenges we face; they haven't experienced it or been in the trenches. There's a law firm that is turning 93 years old and just elected its first female managing shareholder. She and I had a conversation recently, and I told her she has the opportunity to affect real systemic positive change just by virtue of being a female in that position. So how cool is that? Instead of getting down on being a woman, we can talk about the advantages of it. Look at it as an opportunity to create change in this entrepreneurial community that Tampa really is. We can be a leader in that, we just have to make it happen.
So how did you come up with the idea for Spread Your Sunshine? Tell me all about it, tell me the ultimate goal.
Initially I just wanted to put out a consistent message about lifting people up. I was always sending something different: a different message, a different tschotske, whatever. And I thought even if my message gets streamlined, I will have accomplished something. That's kind of where it all started. What I love about the project is that in some ways it's a complete failure, and in some ways it's an absolute success. The website, to me, is presently a complete failure. It's pretty, but it's not substantive. But here's what I love about it. Don't wait for whatever it is to be perfect, just get it out there. Despite the website, at least once a week, I am contacted by someone via social media, email, text, you name it, who says to me, "I have been impacted by Spread Your Sunshine, and it helped me accomplish this." And so it's really about the social media and the hashtags. It's allowed people to know what I am doing. It's growing itself, it's a movement.
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Why is mentoring young women so important?
The first reason is the idea that two heads or five heads are better than one for pretty much any idea that you have. Could you make it on your own? Absolutely. But are you going to get further faster getting that type of advice and feedback? 100 percent yes. You just are. A mentor can help not only improve your ideas with feedback, they also are a connector for you. And so if you go to a networking reception with a mentor, could you go and introduce yourself to people? Sure, but you may or may not introduce yourself to the people in the room who would best help you with your career or project. The mentor's going to know what you're passionate about, what you need help with, and connect you with the right people.
You've said you wanted to adopt a child for as long as you can remember. Now that Maverick is finally with you and Mike, what's it like?
Adoption is an incredible opportunity to positively impact and shape another's life in a way that the child would never experience but for the adoptive parents. That desire, coupled with additional issues that impacted how to best grow our family, led Mike and I to adoption. We're thrilled to have Maverick home. He is a sweet, healthy, relatively easy-going baby who has been welcomed by so many in Tampa Bay and well beyond.
So on top of your day job, Spread Your Sunshine and now being a mom, you sit on numerous boards and organizations. How do you manage your time well enough to fit it all in?
One thing I've learned to improve my time management came from a story I heard about a female lawyer who stagnated her own practice by being perfect all the time; she was constantly the cog in the system. And so this lawyer decided she would purposely be wrong 10 percent of the day. You've got to be careful about which 10 percent you're going to be wrong about; you can't do that on a major client contract, for example. But one of the first things that came across my desk after that symposium was a party invitation for an event I was co-hosting, and it wasn't 100 percent grammatically correct. But it was going to a group of close friends, and you could certainly glean from it the gist of the party. I thought to myself, let this be my 10 percent today. As a result, I didn't waste my time on something that didn't need my brain power, which allowed me to focus on things that do.
Tampa is your hometown. Tell me about some of your favorite things, places, and experiences here.
I feel like there's so many people, places and things that are finally in the right place at the right time to actually affect the change that we need. I recently was appointed to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, so hopefully we're going to get transit on board. What do we need to do next for that? One of the things we've talked about is education. We are ranked really low in pretty much every category, whether it be nursing, biomedical, STEM; you name it, we're just not retaining or attracting the talent that we need here. So I think by getting downtown revitalized and getting (improved) transit, those are some of the things that will attract that talent.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Libby Baldwin at email@example.com.