Ernest Hooper: Tampa's leader must nurture young talent

Published June 23, 2012

It's a conversation embedded in my memory.

One balmy evening on the deck at Four Green Fields, I began lamenting about how so many promising young professionals flee Tampa Bay because established power brokers never open the door to aspiring stars and hopeful newcomers.

I opined that although so many view the area as a major-league city, we really served as a Triple-A affiliate, infusing the up-and-coming with skills and experience and then waving goodbye as they leave for Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte and Houston.

The guy across from me, a fourth-generation South Tampa native who didn't hide the fact he reaped the benefits of successful parents and grandparents, shook his head and asked, "What's wrong with that? What's wrong with keeping it in the family?"

Everything, my man.

When it comes to that mentality, we need civic disobedience.

Objections to such provincial perspectives have been slow to rise. The realization Tampa is starved for an infusion of fresh-flavored ideas incubates among enlightened groups and philosophical friends but seldom truly infects leaders.

Earlier this month, the Urban Land Institute released a report assessing Hillsborough County's economic development client. The wide-ranging report bestowed compliments but also illuminated our glaring weakness, noting that we have a "cultural problem" and to solve it we must "address healing the relationships between and among institutions and citizens by improving trust, connectivity, leadership and cooperation."

That healing comes from expanding the family, not closing off newcomers. It comes from sharing power and creating ascendant paths. It comes from opening doors to success.

I found a snapshot of what's truly needed during an annual reception at the Leaders' Friday Luncheon, a relatively new group headed by four young business making their mark: Nancy Vaughn, Shilen Patel, Jessica Huebner and Aakash Patel.

The "leaders" meet the first Friday of each month with some of the community's most influential. The reception brings together many of those who have attended the luncheons since the group's inception nearly three years ago.

The reception, held at the University of South Florida Center for Advanced Medical Learning & Simulation in downtown Tampa, proved a perfect backdrop: an institute built on innovation housing folks looking to innovate and grow.

I witnessed established leaders not just conversing with aspiring professionals, but truly looking to help. The older folks talked about how much Tampa Bay has grown in the last 10 years and the excitement they shared for the future. The younger types boasted of new business ventures and a drive to succeed for themselves and their young families — right here, right now.

"For the first time in a long time, politicians, business leaders, and young professionals are working together to achieve a common goal," Aakash Patel said. "Leaders' Friday Luncheon is just one small piece of the puzzle, and we hope if more groups start like this, the common goal will become reality."

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Still, Tampa Bay's talent drain remains a frustrating community conundrum.

After the RNC, we really need to concentrate greater energy on making Tampa Bay a thriving environment for young and old instead of just a fun place to host big parties. We will have proven to the world we can handle any event, but we will still have much to prove to ourselves.

That's all I'm saying.