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Local entrepreneur Gary Hartfield inspires people to <i>Stand</i>

State Rep. Ed Narain, &#10;D-Tampa, left, greets local entrepreneur Gary Hartfield at Hartfield&#8217;s book release party.

TAMPA — It was 1989 and Gary Hartfield had flunked out of Florida A&M University for the first time.

Hartfield had switched majors, and the work proved to be tougher than he expected. His grades tanked, as did his self-esteem and confidence.

Sobbing about his plight to his mother, Norma Jean, on a pay phone, Hartfield said he wholeheartedly expected her to tell him to quit and come home.

But Norma Jean Hartfield refused to pity her son, the youngest of her brood of six.

"My mother said, 'Gary, I want you to stand — anyhow,'" he said. "That's when I began to transition from a boy to a man."

Hartfield never forgot how his mother's words lifted him up in that time of desperation. So, when it came time to title his memoirs 26 years later, Hartfield knew that only one word would be fitting: Stand.

"As human beings — all of us, no matter your cultural background — you will encounter obstacles in life where you'll have to make a stand," he said.

Stand is both motivational and philosophical. Hartfield parallels his own life with the three regions or zones covered by the children of Israel: Egypt ("Never Enough"); Wilderness ("Barely Enough"); and Canaan ("More Than Enough").

Born and raised in the Panhandle, Hartfield said his goal is to show readers how to move toward a life of more than enough and how to remain resilient when tough times strike.

"Most individuals have a dream of something bigger, but they are too scared to leave that safety net," he said. "I hope to inspire them … to not accept being ordinary."

Today, Hartfield is the owner and CEO of the businesses Sweet Talk Wireless; Serenity Village Insurance and Consulting; and Serenity Village Inc., which consists of several assisted living communities in Florida.

But the road from college dropout to successful business man wasn't a straight and smooth path.

Some years after the first time, Hartfield again would flunk out of Florida A&M. But instead of calling his mother to complain about his woes, he opted instead to move to Orlando and work for a cousin who owned an electronics business.

Hartfield, who majored in electrical and electronics engineering, applied what he learned in the classroom to his work. He performed well at the job, but it was never his intention to completely drop out of school, he said.

"I never sat out longer than a semester," he said. "I would sit out and go right back."

Hartfield, who lives in Seffner, eventually graduated in 1994, becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree. Five years later, he earned an MBA from the University of West Florida.

After college, he set out to make his mark as a professional in higher education and took on a job at Florida Southern College in Lakeland as an admissions recruiter.

In that position, Hartfield made it a personal goal to increase the number of minority students on the overwhelmingly white campus.

At a recent book signing, then-Florida Southern president Thomas Reuschling recalled that the lack of a strong, diverse student population in the 1990s was "not something that was right and proper," and many people didn't see the urgency to boost the presence of minorities at the college.

But Hartfield worked to make Florida Southern more accommodating for students of color, creating multicultural student group Shades of Color, revamping the college's holiday observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and reaching out to the community to improve relations between it and the campus.

Florida Southern is "indebted" to Hartfield for the increase in its minority population, Thomas said.

"He could have come in and kept his head down," he said. "But that's not Gary."

Hartfield credits his experience at Florida Southern for giving him the "confidence and competencies to spread my wings and develop as a professional."

"My prayer was to be able to provide for my family without having to depend on someone else," he said.

Hartfield, a father of three, said he's thankful for all the experiences — good and bad — that have helped shape him into the successful businessman he is now.

"It's about the law of sacrifice," he said. "You don't go through anything without learning."

Contact Kenya Woodard at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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