There’s been a lot of focus on attracting tech talent to the Tampa-St. Pete area.
But there’s a homegrown talent pool that can be cultivated to fill key jobs and boost the local economy, according to Tony DiBenedetto, one of the area’s best known entrepreneurs.
Many of the young people who make up that talent pool are participating in Think Big for Kids, a nonprofit founded by DiBenedetto, former CEO of Tribridge. Think Big for Kids is designed to help underprivileged youth discover their untapped potential, working in partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay and other like-minded organizations.
Now, Think Big for Kids is adding another partnership, this one with Tampa Bay Wave, to promote awareness of entrepreneurship and job opportunities in the technology field.
Wave is a nonprofit that services and houses young technology companies and was the first organization DiBenedetto thought of as he sought to connect with Think Big participants with the tech community. He likes the idea of introducing entrepreneurship to the kids at an early age.
“Having mentors from Wave talk about why they started their business, talking about the career choices they made, will light some of these kids up as entrepreneurs,” DiBenedetto told the St. Pete Catalyst in an exclusive interview.
Wave’s mission is to create opportunity and foster prosperity in the area, and that includes laying the groundwork for future entrepreneurs, said Linda Olson, president and CEO.
“We want these kids to actually see real live tech entrepreneurs and tech talent. Nothing lights up kids like seeing real life heroes in front of them,” Olson said. “That’s what we want to do, is help turn these entrepreneurs and tech talent into real, living examples of heroes in their community that they can aspire to be.”
Think Big for Kids’ overall goal is to prepare 2,000 teens served through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay for the workforce by 2022. Doing that could be a game changer for the local economy. Currently, 78 percent of the youth at Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay live at or below the poverty level.
“If those 2,000 kids get entry level jobs that pay $35,000 a year, you’ve changed a family,” Olson said.
The partnership will formally launch July 18 at Wave’s TechDiversity Pitch Night.
It will have several components.
Tech entrepreneurs from Wave will participate in Think Big for Kids’ monthly career showcases, when an executive discusses his or her own career with young people in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. “The point is career exploration,” DiBenedetto said. “We’re trying to show them what’s out there.”
They’ll also take on mentoring roles, talking to students in 9th grade and above about what classes they should take, how to prepare for the SAT, whether they should go to college and how they can get ready for their first jobs.
The next stage is job readiness and placement. “Our program doesn’t end until somebody gets a job. We are looking for the WAVE folks eventually to hire our young kids as they graduate from tech school, trade school, high school, college, etc.,” DiBenedetto said.
Many tech entrepreneurs are working around-the-clock on their startups, but it’s important to take time to give back to the community, said DiBenedetto, who co-founded Tribridge and led the software and cloud services company until its 2017 sale to DXC Technology for $152 million.
“All of us that who started and run companies know there’s a tremendous amount of stress and pressure as you tackle all the obstacles for success. What I found for me personally is that the giving back part recharges your batteries,” he said. “When you leave a session where you saw a kid get excited about electrical contracting or programming, you come back refreshed. It puts everything into perspective. I think it’s therapeutic to give back, it creates a little bit of balance for the entrepreneur that’s not just 24/7 grinding.”
The program fits the type of entrepreneur that chooses Tampa Bay, Olson said.
“These entrepreneurs see that they are part of building the fabric of this community, so they tend to be the kind of folks who think bigger than just their startups,” she said.
Beyond the founders, there also will be opportunities for others at Wave startups to get involved with the kids, and that could be a talent retention tool.
“Tribridge had low turnover compared to competitors and we had a culture of giving back from minute 1 at Tribridge and I think that was the No. 1 or No. 2 reason we had low turnover,” DiBenedetto said. “They resonated with the culture of giving back.”
Another element of the partnership involves supporting Think Big for Kids’ ongoing $500,000 fundraising campaign. Harness, a Tampa Bay Wave company that uses technology to promote philanthropic engagement, is powering Think Big for Kids’ online fundraising platform. The organization has raised about half of that amount and hopes to raise the remaining $250,000 by the end of September.
Funds will be used for staff; Think Big for Kids’ first full-time executive director, Amy Alley, was hired in April. Funds will also be used for materials and transportation for the program.
Wave will also help with social media to create awareness and with ongoing storytelling, Olson said.
“We’re just getting started, but as we start having a volume of these stories, these stories will seep back into the next generation of the Think Big Kids population. We hope that this spirals into something very large for this community,” she said.