Leadership can emerge from diverse backgrounds and life experiences.
That’s one big takeaway from the March 7 “Inside the Corner Office” series, when four influential St. Petersburg women — a gallery owner, an educator, a financial services executive and a non-profit director — came together to discuss how they lead organizations, manage teams and balance responsibilities.
Answering questions from Wendy Wallace, director of advancement at The Poynter Institute, the leaders told students from USF St. Petersburg’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business and the Leadership St. Pete Alumni Association about their personal and professional journeys.
Here are some highlights.
Owner, Gallerie 909
Bristol walked away from a corporate career and a six-figure salary to open Gallerie 909, an art gallery in The Deuces. She’s also a community activist and sees the business as a way to put some of her values into action.
“I’m not from here, so when I hear stories about historic 22nd Street and the Deuces and the African and Jewish businesses that were along that strip, adults have those stories to carry … Young people today don’t have those same stories. So my deliberate intention was to inject this story, so young people could say, ‘We grew up with an art gallery in our neighborhood.’”
She welcomes children into her gallery, so art becomes part of their DNA, and “more importantly, they see a black business owner who looks just like them.”
Bristol thinks about her life as a pie, with a slice for community; another slice for her clothing line, Jamii (a Swahili word that means community); and another slice for family.
“Figure out what should be in your pie and then carve time out for those things,” she said.
She takes care of herself by learning to say no.
“I have zero guilt about saying no because I say yes so often,” she said. “I’ve learned to say yes to things I can, and maybe it’s no today, but I can do it another time.”
Dean, USF St. Pete College of Education
Watson’s passions include STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — and especially programs for girls. She’s led STEM programs for the Cherokee Nation, in the African-American community in North Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Haiti. At USF St. Petersburg, she spearheaded creation of a STEM Lab.
“It is changing not only the morale of the people in our college — our students, our faculty, our staff — but it is also a center of this campus, to be able to reach out to St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and beyond,” Watson said.
Last summer, she organized a STEM camp for 60 children in 5th through 8th grades, half of them African-American, that gave them exposure to opportunities they might not have had otherwise.
Watson has roots in St. Petersburg. Her great-uncle had a dental practice on the site of what’s now Tropicana Field. But she surprised the audience when she said she has just accepted an appointment as dean of the College of Education at Florida A&M University.
“When I had the opportunity out of nowhere come from Florida A&M, my heart tugged at that moment and I knew the legacy fulfilled would be even greater for me to reach into my own community of African Americans at a historically black college,” and elevate the already-high level of education at the school, she said.
Senior vice president, chief operating officer, Private Client Group at Raymond James & Associates
Jenson was a teenage mom in a small town in Minnesota, supporting her son by working as a secretary in a bank while taking college classes at night. She advanced to bigger banks and stops in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York, where she was chief of staff for the CEO of UBS.
“I work in an industry that many Americans love to hate. It was especially intense from 2008 to 2010. There was a sense that Wall Street was a dirty bad place,” although there were more good people than bad ones, Jenson said.
That’s when Jenson decided to regroup and figure out how to make a difference in the industry.
She joined Raymond James & Associates in July 2017, and asked her boss, Tash Elwyn, president and CEO, what he wanted her to tackle first.
“He said, ‘Tackle? We don’t want you to tackle anything. We want you to come and meet people, to listen, to understand our culture, to get the lay of the land. We’re hiring you because we want you to be here for a long time,’” Jenson said.
“I thought that was great advice because we all want to add value, make a contribution and show they were smart to hire us, and he said, ‘Slow it down, be you, listen.’ Best advice I could have received.”
On her listening tour, she asked people to tell her what they were most proud of, what gives them energy and what inspires them.
Jenson doesn’t want people to feel intimated around her.
“It’s more important to me that I find out what’s awesome about you than having you look up to me,” she said.
Jenson said she got to where she is “the old-fashioned way, I outworked everyone else.” She now works with many people younger than herself and said they view her long hours at the office as inefficiency. She admires both their passion for work and their passion for life outside of work. “I’m learning from them to make sure I’m taking care of myself outside of work.”
President and CEO, Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services
Braham, who spent part of her childhood in foster care, has always felt she had a guiding purpose and her career has focused on supporting low-income families and children.
She was appointed Gulf Coast JFCS president and CEO in March 2016, joining an organization that was in crisis. The founding CEO committed suicide in 2009. Another CEO was killed in a domestic violence murder in 2014. There were six CEOs between 2009 and 2015.
“The board did a national search and had the bravery to bring in a person who didn’t represent the faith, but who they were confident was the best person to bring the organization forward. I never felt any division. I have felt very supported because they acknowledged they needed to change as a board because of all of this turnover. They wanted a very strong leader. They’ve given me the space to lead the organization and make change.”
Braham saw her job as healing and bringing a unified vision to the organization.
“The departments were doing good work, but they were in silos … They needed to learn to work together again.”
She said the job required a very direct leadership style. “They didn’t want someone who would feel sorry for them,” she said. “They needed guidance and direction and black and white answers.”
Braham also brought laughter to the boardroom. “Humor is very important in leadership,” she said.