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Sunday Conversation: Plant High graduate comes home to make a positive impact

Plant High and Wake Forest graduate Jim O’Connell, 26, became the CEO of the Vinik Family Foundation five months ago.
Plant High and Wake Forest graduate Jim O’Connell, 26, became the CEO of the Vinik Family Foundation five months ago.
Published Jan. 20, 2017

Tampa native Jim O'Connell appeared to be building a resume that would take him away from his hometown. With a White House job sandwiched between his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University, and two years at England's Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, O'Connell aimed his sights at joining the Navy.

But through a mutual relationship developed during a trip to Israel, he connected with Jeff and Penny Vinik, owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now O'Connell, 26, has returned home to serve as CEO of the Vinik Family Foundation.

The Plant High graduate recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper over coffee at the Bunker about coming home, the foundation's goals and finally meeting his father at the age of 23.

What was the emotion returning back to Tampa?

I was thrilled. Not only was it exciting because it feels like we're at a pretty neat reflection point in Tampa Bay's history, but to know that I would have mentors in Jeff and Penny and I would be able to learn from them and grow into this professional opportunity under their tutelage — I'm looking forward to that. And there's the personal side of it too. My mom is still here, my aunt is still here. I still get to see them once a week if not more.

The city of Tampa often loses young people like you to other cities. Do you feel like Tampa is the kind of place that can attract and retain young professionals like yourself?

I think so. I take stock of my high school class. People in the top 25 of my class, a lot of them are back, and I think a lot of them are back because they've landed opportunities to be part of this kind of change-making. You can go to New York City and be one of 11 million and it's tough to change the direction of the city.

You can do something here that potentially does impact how we see ourselves. The opportunities for change come a little earlier in your career here. You don't have to be an executive. I think there's this narrative that still pervades my generation ... that says your opportunities are limited here, while to me I think it's just a matter of perspective. You have to be more creative in crafting the opportunity here.

Is there anything the city is missing in appealing to young professionals?

In cities with a more defined, dense urban core, you have a greater gravitational pull that draws in creatives and entrepreneurs that oftentimes are young, but are not always young. That feels to me like a missing element right now, but we have clear plans to address it. Right now, there are many creatives. Since coming back, I've met dozens of young people that are doing their stuff in Seminole Heights, in St. Petersburg, in South Tampa, in North Tampa. It would be nice if we had a way to go to a more central, convening place that checks all the boxes you would hope for.

Something to harness all that energy?

Yes, and it's here. This is as creative a place as any. We have some real assets to bring to the table, it's just about making them a little more visible and flipping the narrative. To me, it feels like a narrative issue as much as anything else. We need one of those, "I Believe In Tampa" campaigns.

What has been the biggest surprise since your return?

Since returning, we brought on a policy analyst for Jeff. She's actually a Rhodes classmate of mine from Fort Collins, Colo., smart as a whip. She's absolutely brilliant. She blows me out of the water. In her first six weeks here, her comment was, "Everyone actually is very welcoming." That's one of those things you hear a lot: In Tampa, people are kind, people are welcoming. Folks don't know who she is or who she works for, but from the cable guy to the landlord, everyone to a person is about as welcoming as can be. I think that's a breath of air, that the reality reflects the narrative.

Yes. I like to call Tampa the biggest small town in America.

Absolutely, and I hope we never lose that. We're growing and that's great and hopefully opportunities are following with that, be it economic, artistic or sports, but I hope we never lose that charm.

I understand you have an interesting story regarding your father. Tell me about that.

Sure. My mom is a single mom and had me through an anonymous sperm donor. She made the decision in 1989 and I was born in 1990. It was a really interesting journey. She and my family were the constants, of course, in my life. But I think any young guy coming of age looks for a male role model. For me, the community came in and played pinch-hitter in that role in a lot of different ways. It was teachers, it was coaches, it was mentors and I'm talking from T-ball all the way from graduating from Plant High and keeping in contact with people today.

The fact that mosaic of mentors and friends was as bright as it was, that made me who I am, along with my mom and family. I can point to a dozen people who helped me, and that was before I was making straight As. They were betting on me before there was anything exciting to point to.

But you still wanted to meet your father. And you did meet him?

I was able to meet up with him when I graduated Wake when I was 23. We grabbed coffee, just like this, and chatted for two hours.

Did you appreciate that?

Absolutely. To be honest, and this isn't some kind of fake interpretation, this is how I felt immediately afterward: Meeting him and having 23 years worth of dreaming about what this guy is like kind of culminated in a couple of hours over coffee — and just figuring out he was a normal guy and a good dude — taught me something.

It taught me that while I did focus on the fact there was an absence my entire life, it confirmed that what shaped me most was not that fact he was absent, but that so many people were present: my mom was present, my family was present, my coaches were present, my teachers were present, my mentors and friends were present.

You mentioned coaches. What sport did you play at Plant?

If you can call it playing, I played wide receiver, but I was middling at best.

So you played for Coach Robert Weiner?

Yes. He's a mentor and friend to this day. He and I got to know each other freshman year, and he challenged me to read more boldly. He coached me 10 times more off the field than he did on the field. He was the one who told me to read Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad. And he would quiz me on it afterwards. In the strangest of circumstances inside Roland Acosta Field House, my love of learning was born.

Broadly speaking, what does the Vinik Family Foundation hope to achieve?

It's under strategic review led by Jeff and Penny right now. I've gotten out into the community over the last five months and had listening sessions and brainstorming sessions with people who have been at this a lot longer than I have. I bring all those conversations into these strategy meetings with Jeff and Penny.

What they've said from the beginning — and I feel the same — is that when it comes to impact and how to get the most bang for the buck in terms of these dollars, it should be a form follows function approach. The shape of the foundation, whether it has two or three impact areas, it should reflect the needs of the community. That's why the strategic review is taking place in such a deliberate way. You don't want to miss any community needs. At the end of the day, it's looking to serve the community in ways that follow the need.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4you.