Finding a New Normal

Finding a New Normal
Lorena R. Hardwick
Director of Government Relations

“Finding a new normal”, is probably the most often used phrase of the last three months. I say it when I talk with my eight-year-old daughter about todays’ world, I say it when I talk with friends about what it means to reintegrate, and I hear it every day from businesses, colleagues, and as part of headlines in the constant news cycles. Part of “finding a new normal” for me was to engage with organizations and programs that are making a difference and enhancing the life of those that benefit from their services. A few years ago, I attended the kick off to a new program by the Tampa Bay Chamber, the Minority Business Accelerator. I did not know then that in a few short years I would be an avid advocate and serve as their Recruitment Task Force Chair with a focus on Latino/Hispanic owned businesses. The opportunity the MBA staff and volunteers have offered me is invaluable. My life has revolved around public service, I worked for non-profits during and post college and spent most of my professional career with the City of Tampa. As I continue to grow in my profession, I find it rewarding to use my knowledge and network to benefit those that need a little help to reach the next step in their journey to success and/or well-being. I would not be where I am today without the assistance, guidance and support of others that took the time to listen and believe in my ability to grow and contribute, so I seek out opportunities where I can do the same for others.

As I familiarized myself with the Minority Business Accelerator, and met the current cohort, I was amazed with their collective grit. When Covid-19 hit, many of them reinvented themselves, they pivoted, reimagined their business plans and never missed a step. Their mentors have been there every step of the way, facilitating meetings, offering advice, helping with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) woes, just to name a few, but mostly offering a shoulder to lean on. In regards to PPP, a recent ABC news report shared that the Small Business Administration’s Inspector General reviewed PPP at the request of Congress. Its findings are not surprising to many Latino and other minority owned businesses, it highlighted that socially or economically disadvantaged businesses were not prioritized, further stating: “Because SBA did not provide guidance to lenders about prioritizing borrowers in underserved and rural markets, these borrowers, including rural, minority and women-owned businesses may not have received the loans as intended”. In general, this does not inspire confidence amongst minority owned businesses, since statistically speaking, black and brown business owners find it more challenging to get financing and can encounter other challenges as they attempt to grow their business.

That is why my focus has been connecting with Latino/Hispanic based organizations and groups to help disseminate information about the Minority Business Accelerator. The Latino elected officials in Tampa have received information and are actively sharing it with their constituent base. In addition, I had fun speaking to one of the local Latino radio stations on one of their podcasts about the program and have had great conversations with community leaders willing to help identify potential candidates. There are so many deserving small businesses out there and we hope we can reach them; the Tampa Bay Chamber has many resources and partnerships that will provide the boost needed to get through these challenging times.

A good friend, entrepreneur and small business owner uses the phrase “I’m hungry” to say that they are going to fight harder, work smarter, reach for all the resources available to them and rise to the top while bringing others along with them, because success is not a solitary achievement. That is what the Minority Business Accelerator is about, a community of successful individuals excited to lift up those that are hungry enough to leap into that next step of business growth and success.

The 2020 Minority Business Accelerator Program Chair

From 2020 Minority Business Accelerator Program Chair, R. Colette Glover-Hannah, Hannah’s Shoebox

Small Business – COVID-19 Impact

Lately, many business owners have found themselves in the midst of uncertainty. A mountain of emails about COVID-19, news about the coronavirus, conversations on the timeline and methods to reopen business communities and those repeated Zoom meetings are enough to let anyone know the world is changing. These are uncharted times around the globe. Many business owners are experiencing levels of angst. The struggle to remain open in numerous cases and relevant in most is the dilemma many business owners are now facing. Most will not come out of this period the same as they entered. As the best-selling author Simon Sinek advised us to Start with Why, we must now find ourselves strongly leaning into that same “Why.”

What we know for sure is that “business as usual” is being renamed. In addition to the implications to people’s health and the healthcare system, the COVID-19 outbreak is having an enormous impact on our business world. The lockdown due to the pandemic that was instituted in most states throughout the country, could possibly leave as many as two in three of America’s small businesses closed and will leave many other financially fragile, a new survey reports. If large corporations are hurting from the financial impact of these uncertain times, imagine the economic condition of small businesses. Major corporations catch a cold and small businesses get the flu.

We can use this time to further tap into our entrepreneurial bag and dig even deeper in our toolkit to further strengthen the core of our businesses. Many have found solace in knowing that we have the support of the Tampa Bay Chamber and its numerous resources that have been extended as assistance during this period. Weekly online educational sessions, partnerships with other agencies, and supportive phone calls to business owners have all been part of the chamber’s outreach to its members.

During this time when most businesses are challenged to thrive due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to provide pertinent services and products is paramount. Kudos to those who pivoted and switched their manufacturing plants to medical equipment distribution centers and/or other essential products. We applaud a little louder for all the Tampa Bay Chamber Minority Business Accelerator companies that have been able to quickly find new methods of distributing essential goods and servicing other businesses during this time. They continue to reveal why they deserve to be amongst the best businesses in our city.

It was nearly two years ago that I became engaged with and was later asked to be the Chair of the 2020 Minority Business Accelerator Cohort.  As a minority/woman-owned business owner who first learned about entrepreneurship from my maternal great-grandmother, I have a special fondness for programs that assist small businesses. She operated a storefront in the segregated south when being Black and a woman were both huge barriers to owning a thriving business. I understood through my great-grandma’s lens the challenges of operating a business with limited resources and an abundance of obstacles to hinder your progress. With these memories and in her honor, I happily accepted the offer to Chair the soon to be graduating 2020 Cohort.

The Tampa Bay Chamber Minority Business Accelerator program, established to assist in scaling Tampa-based Black and Hispanic businesses, is arguably more essential now than when it was established a few years ago. Times have changed and their varied needs are now greater. These companies will rely even more on the Chamber’s community of mentors, advisors and supporters to continuously have a role in their post-COVID-19 economic growth and success. The same barriers they faced before the virus, will in many cases be magnified as corporations begin to tighten their purse strings. Experts predict that businesses will feel the financial impact of this pandemic period for years to come.

This is the time to virtually embrace all the Tampa Bay Chamber Minority Business Accelerator Cohort members a tad tighter and to lift them a little higher.

Insights from business accelerator program lead and chair


By Ernest Hooper

The impending developments and booming business spurs excite the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s LaKendria Robinson.

And it’s Robinson who will play a relatively small but critical role in fueling what comes down the pipeline. As director of the chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator program, Robinson works to help the chamber make the most of Tampa Bay’s changing demographics.

As it seeks new cohort participants, Robinson aims to boost the profile of minority-owned businesses which traditionally can be hampered by limited access to capital, resources and key decision makers.

She recently shared her passion about the program as it moves into its second year, and explained how Leadership Tampa Alumni members can play a key role.

Entering year two, what have you learned from year one?
In year two, we’re going to really focus on the growth of the companies. For us, that really means paying special attention to each of their individual situations, each of their individual growth stages within their businesses and tailoring various parts of the program to fit their specific needs, versus a one-size-fits-all bandage approach.

So, it’s not just a one-year program. You’re continuing to help the businesses you brought in last year.
The official course of the program is two years. The first year is the most time intensive. We ask that they spend at least 16 hours a month engaging in programming activities. I will tell you, this particular cohort has gone well above that. They probably spend 20-25 hours a month. Next year, it’ll tailor off to eight hours a month. Even beyond that two years, we will continue to track their progress in terms of their business growth for an additional three years. We know all the wonderful things that will happen, as a result of the program, will not be in the first two years. It’ll likely carry on for a couple of years afterwards.

What was the biggest surprise in the first year?
The biggest surprise, honestly, is the current cohort participants want to spend more time strategically planning for their businesses. There’s this misconception that minority and small companies don’t like to plan for their businesses. There are resources out there and they don’t want to take advantage of them. We were expecting that a little bit, but to our surprise, they want more. Even the sessions that we do on a monthly basis, they’re five hours and at the end of the sessions, they don’t want to leave. They’re constantly asking questions, they are looking to meet with the program facilitators of those courses. They’re taking the information they’ve learned back to their business advisers and continuing to talk about it. They are really looking for more engagement.

Is it a thirst for success that drives that?
Yes. They see it now. They see others that look like them, that started where they started, being more successful. They now know there are resources available for them in the community. They have additional people that want to help them be successful. They definitely want to take advantage of that.

Why is the chamber investing in the minority business accelerator program?
The chamber actually started looking at an accelerator program before I joined the chamber. They really took a hard look at the changing demographics in Hillsborough County versus the demographics of the chamber. Historically, the chamber’s membership has included certain industries, certain types of people with a certain level of success. With the changing demographics in Hillsborough County, they decided to strategically focus on engaging the minority business community and align themselves with the changes that were happening within the community. So, they looked at a couple of different chambers that had accelerator programs and realized that not only was it successful for the chambers for diversifying their memberships, but it also had this huge economic impact on the community as a whole. It created more jobs, made minority businesses more successful and got them to a point where they could create wealth for their families and the families of their employees.

If I’m not a minority-business owner, why should I care about this program? How does it benefit the overall chamber effort?
It helps the pie expand so everyone can reap the benefits of minority businesses growing. It also gives non-minority individuals that are looking to engage with minority companies a clear understanding of who those companies are, what they do, and showing with a little support and help, they can be successful. When I talk to non-minority individuals, they tend to thirst, almost, to give their time and resources and expertise to help those who really need it.

How important is networking for people in the accelerator program?
We spend a lot of time teaching them not only how to network but also how to work a room in a way they never have before. When you walk into a networking event it’s extremely intimidating because you have to try to make a connection. We teach them a lot of things they can do on the front end before they even step foot into that event to set them up for success. We teach them those type of skills because after they leave the program, we’re expecting them to keep those things up. Also, being a part of civic organizations, philanthropic organizations, educational institutions — seeking board appointments — helps expand their network, and it also layers in that professional development piece that a lot of these organizations have.

Leadership Tampa Alumni members constantly focus on networking. What would be your message to LTA members interested in networking with participants in the minority accelerator program?
My message to them would be regardless of what their job is or what their expertise is, there’s always a company or a person that could use their experience. We find a lot of times with the facilitators we have, they not only share their expertise, they also share their stories of success. It could be a dabble in entrepreneurship or it could be a dabble in climbing the corporate ladder. There are always similarities. I have one cohort participant that often says, “We all have the same problems. We just have a different phone number and a different address.” For the LTA members who want to learn more, I would definitely encourage them to do so because we could always use them.

While LaKendria Robinson leads the chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator Program, the program also benefits from the guidance of chair Bemetra Simmons, who also works as senior vice president for Wells Fargo Private Bank/Wealth Management. We asked Bemetra to share some thoughts about the program and its impact.

Please detail your role with the minority business accelerator program and tell me how much that role excites you.
Essentially my role as Chair of the MBA program is to be an advocate within the chamber and the broader Tampa business community by with providing program recommendations, evaluating the ROI of the accelerator, and assisting in recruiting efforts of program participants, volunteers, and funders.

How much can the minority business accelerator program broaden the chamber’s impact and appeal?
Tremendously, the MBA can assist with the Chamber’s 2026 Vision plan and commitment to diversity and inclusion. By assisting Black and Hispanic owned companies with growth, the Chamber not only has an opportunity to diversify its membership base but more importantly to help the Tampa business community to have sustainable minority companies.

As chair, what has impressed you about the first year of the program?
How quickly the companies have achieved results.  We knew that the companies would be positively impacted (from a quantitative standpoint) but I never dreamed we would see such fantastic tangible results within the first 6 months

How has LaKendria Robinson contributed to the success of the program?
The chamber could not have hired a better person to lead these efforts.  LaKendria not only takes personal time and attention to each of the cohort companies, but she also spends time with potential companies for future classes. The most valuable asset that she brings is the time she spends with our funding sponsors to not only ensure that they are getting the most for the sponsorship dollars but also to assist and position the existing cohort companies to do business with the sponsorship organizations.

LaKendria can be reached at 813-276-9408 or

Chamber installs new leadership at 132nd Annual Meeting

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce held its 132nd Annual Meeting presented by HCI today at the Tampa Convention Center. A sold-out crowd of almost 1,000 attendees came together to celebrate the Chamber’s 2017 achievements. 2017 Chamber Chair Mike Griffin of Savills Studley Occupier Services, passed the gavel to 2018 Chair Steven Bernstein, Esq., Fisher Phillips. The Chamber also received greetings from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Sandy Murman. The Chamber collected toys at the event, teaming with Metropolitan Ministries to help bring gifts to the Holiday Tent, which serves more than 19,000 children in the Bay area.

On behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Clark Thomason recognized the Chamber with a 5-star accreditation designation – the highest designation. “There are only 112 5-Star Chambers in the U.S.” Thomason said. “That puts the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in the top 1.6% of all Chambers in the nation.”

Griffin highlighted the Chamber’s 2017 accomplishments, which aligned with the 10-year vision plan, Vision 2026. He also announced the inaugural cohort of the Minority Business Accelerator (MBA) program. Chameleon Custom Solutions, Matcon Construction Services, Inc., McKenzie Contracting, LLC, and MidFlorida Armored & ATM Service will begin the two-year program in January 2018. Founding sponsors of the program are Tampa International Airport, TECO, Vinik Family Foundation and Valley National Bank previously USAmeriBank.

Bernstein said that he hopes to build strong relationships not only in Tampa but throughout the entire Bay area by working cooperatively with other business organizations. He introduced the Chamber’s 2018 Executive Committee Members, including:

Chair Steven Bernstein, Esq. Fisher Phillips
Chair-Elect Jamie Harden Creative Sign Designs
Treasurer Maryann Ferenc Mise en Place
Finance Scott DeThomas GTE Financial
At Large
Hugh Campbell AC4S
Laura Crouch TECO
Scott Daigle TD Bank
Steve Griggs Tampa Bay Lightning
Christopher Rogers Sykes Enterprises Incorporated
Yvette Segura USAA
Kareem Spratling, Esq. Bryant Miller Olive P.A.
John Tomlin Tomlin St. Cyr & Associates
Legal Counsel Andy Mayts, Esq. GrayRobinson

The Chamber also presented the 2017 H.L. Culbreath Jr. Profile in Leadership Award to Alex Sink. The award is presented annually in recognition of an individual whose leadership has made a positive impact within the greater Tampa community.

Alex Sink served as Florida’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) from 2007 to 2011 as one of four statewide elected officials. She managed over $15 billion in state treasury funds, was responsible for state accounting, and implemented reforms in contracting and transparency for citizens. Before elected office, Alex had a 26-year career with Bank of America. She retired as President of Florida operations in 2000, managing the state’s largest bank leading 9000 employees. From 2011 to 2013, she was Senior Advisor to Hyde Park Capital Advisors, a middle market boutique M&A firm. Alex founded Florida Next Foundation, a non-profit devoted to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in Florida. She subsequently joined the board of Tampa Wave in 2016 to continue her work in supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Florida. She is a Life Trustee at Wake Forest University, serves on the boards of the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, United Way Worldwide Leadership Council, United Way Suncoast, and Junior Achievement.

In addition, the guest speakers for the first two signature events of 2017 were also revealed. The 20th Annual Military Appreciation Awards on February 15th will feature Corporal Michael Jernigan, USMC (Ret.). While deployed in Iraq, Michael suffered life-changing injuries including the loss of both eyes.  The guest speaker for the Women of Influence Luncheon on April 26th is Linda Alvarado, CEO of Alvarado Construction, Inc. – a large, Denver-based industrial contracting/site design firm. Linda made history as the first female owner and the first Hispanic owner of a Major League Baseball franchise, the Colorado Rockies.

Chamber launches Minority Business Accelerator

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce is pleased to announce the launch of its Minority Business Accelerator program.  This program is geared towards helping Black and Hispanic business owners identify and overcome barriers to company growth. The MBA will provide participants with the tools and knowledge to increase their organizational capacity, cultivate business opportunities & referrals and raise their brand awareness and visibility.

“One of the pillars of the Chamber’s ten-year vision plan is to be an inclusive organization.  The Minority Business Accelerator is the first program under that pillar and we are excited to launch the program in the first year of our vision plan.  This program is the result of the engagement and hard work of many Chamber volunteers over the last three years and I look forward to announcing the first class at our Annual Meeting this year,” said Mike Griffin, Chair, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Recruitment for the program begins in August and there will be two Community Info Sessions prior to the application period to allow business owners that want to learn more about the program. The inaugural participants in the program will be announced at the Chamber’s 132nd Annual Meeting on December 14.

“I have been involved in this project since I co-chaired the Minority Business Caucus two years ago.  This initiative is the culmination of researching similar programs in other communities and understanding the needs of the Tampa/Hillsborough County area.  I am excited to chair the first class of our Minority Business Accelerator and I look forward to helping Black and Hispanic owned and operated businesses in our community reach their fullest potential,” said Bemetra Simmons, Chair, Minority Business Accelerator Program.


More information about the MBA program can be found at

Community Info Session #1
June 27, 2017 @ 11:30 am – 1 pm
Robert W. Saunders Library
1505 N. Nebraska Ave
Tampa, FL 33602

Community Info Session #2
June 29, 2017 @ 12:30 pm – 2 pm
West Tampa Branch Library
2312 W. Union St.
Tampa, FL 33607