LaKendria Robinson Director, Minority Business Accelerator & Economic Inclusion
Bemetra Simmons Chair, Minority Business Accelerator & Economic Inclusion
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 firstname.lastname@example.org