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If Kelly Flannery’s role with the South Tampa Chamber leads her to a campaign for public office, she will be well equipped for the adventure. From a childhood spent in her mom’s local beauty salon among “strong and fabulous” women, to the house she now calls home—smack dab between her mother’s and grandmother’s residences—she is accustomed to being surrounded and supported by positive female role models.
Have you always envisioned a career in the public sector?
Out of college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I entered the hospitality industry as an events manager for golf and country clubs, hotels and restaurants. I did that for 15 years before finding myself at the South Tampa Chamber. I was initially hired as the director of events at the chamber. I came in to restructure some of the programming and rework our membership. Six months later, after the previous director resigned, I was appointed president and CEO.
I understand that you didn’t have much of a staff at first.
We had gone through a large restructuring within the organization when I came in as president and CEO. I was the lone employee. Over the past three years we have grown to a mighty staff of four. It has been a really exciting process, not only in our staff but within our membership. It has allowed us to have a larger impact in the community.
What are some of your favorite things about your job?
My number one favorite is being able to connect with our members and getting to meet small business owners, learning about their businesses and helping them grow. Something new within our chamber over the past two years is that we have stepped out into a larger role for advocacy, both at the local and state levels. It’s an exciting process. Especially seeing the campaigns we’ve launched succeed.
Tell me a little about your personal life.
My husband and I love our pets. We have two cats and a dog. I should say, I love the cats and my husband loves the dog. They are all adopted from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, a cause we are very passionate about.
I live here in South Tampa and that’s kind of a funny story. When I moved back home from Chicago 10 years ago, I bought the house in between my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother bought her home in 1968; my mom and stepfather bought their home in the early 90s. And then I bought the house directly between them. About a year ago my husband and I built a new home on that property. I also have a cousin and aunt on the same street, and several of my girlfriends going back to kindergarten and high school are all within walking distance. So holidays and Friday nights are a lot of fun. There is always a lot happening in our neighborhood.
I don’t know anyone with that story. Is it intimidating for your husband?
It is definitely an intimidating situation for a new boyfriend. But seven years later, my husband has a great relationship with all of them. And we have some ground rules in place. If the blinds are closed, it means we’re not awake or don’t come over. It’s very convenient for me because I don’t grocery shop very often, so there’s a lot of over-the-fence borrowing—a cup of milk or some butter.
We’re a close and large family. Thanksgiving for us is nearly 50 people. I didn’t grow up with siblings but I do have a stepsister and a whole lot of cousins who are very close, and family friends who are just like family.
What do you think about the path forward?
I know you have an interest in running for public office. As I said, one of my favorite things about working for the chamber has been the opportunity to participate as an advocate on behalf of the citizens and businesses here, so someday I would like to graduate from being an advocate to being a decision maker. I don’t know that it’s in the immediate future, but I think it’s one of those things that at some point I’ll see a need or have that calling for, so it’s definitely something I have an interest in. I am researching and learning more about it right now as I kind of find my way on specific issues and figure out what it is I want to stand for and where I can do the most.
How many of your business owners are women?
Within the chamber I would say it’s a good split 50/50 from a membership perspective. I don’t know in terms of business ownership, but one of the things I’m really proud of is that we make sure we have a good representation of men and women on our board. We had our first female board chairwoman in 1974, so I like to think we are a bit more of a progressive organization in that aspect.
Tampa in general has always been a bit more progressive—in government and in the university sector. Did you see that growing up, and do you have any great mentors who were female?
Sandy Freedman was the mayor when I was growing up in Tampa, so it was great to see that type of role model from a political standpoint. But number one and foremost was my mom. She was an entrepreneur, an avid volunteer and a great leader. I always joke that it’s not that I can’t be a team player, just that I always want to be the leader, and I think I learned that at home. My mom was a Girl Scout troop co-leader, helped out with the PTA, planned the carnival at Christ the King. I grew up watching my mom lead, so I think that’s why I’m so passionate about it now.
And then in the hospitality industry I was very fortunate to work with a lot of great women. It tends to be an industry where having females in management is a little more prevalent. I had some great role models since I was coming up in that industry. And then my predecessor at the chamber, Judy Gay, was a great mentor of mine even before she became my employer. I’ve been very fortunate in that aspect, that I’ve had amazing women surrounding me throughout my life and in different phases of my life.
What do you see on the horizon for Tampa?
Tampa is right on the cusp. We are already great, but there are always things we can do better. Obviously, a great transportation system would be a huge added improvement for us, so as we’re bringing in new talent and cultivating new industries here in our city, we can continue to be competitive. I also think we really have to pay attention to these next generations of people who are coming up, as baby boomers are retiring and the millennials are coming into their own. There’s such a stereotype regarding millennials, but I have young women working for me who are amazing, and as one of their mentors, I hope they are learning from me as much as I’m learning from them every day. They have so much drive, they are going to go so far.
What can be done to help women entrepreneurs?
I was surprised that 50% of your membership is female. We are a female-friendly city, which is helpful. Our elected officials are very supportive and there’s a lot of great programming here. Organizations like the Centre for Women provide opportunities in education for women who are wanting to start their own businesses and move on to that next level.
Do you have any final thoughts to offer women as far as their journey and pursuing their dreams?
It is really important that we are willing to give. It’s one of the reasons I got involved with the Girl Scouts last year. As women in our 30s, 40s and even 50s sitting in seminars learning how to stand up, stand out, lean in, lean back…I thought, how great would it be if we had learned that at age 12? That’s why I was so drawn to be part of the Girl Scouts here in Tampa—I wanted to help bring up the next generation of women who at 32 and 42 are not going to be sitting in seminars, they’ll be the ones teaching them.
I think it’s really important as women to look to the next generation and help them. Sandy Murman and Renee Dabbs call it “Turn & Pull.” Turn to the woman next to you and pull her along with you to help her succeed. So it’s become kind of a mantra for me over the past couple of years.