The economic development folks will tell you how important a solid talent pool of potential employees is to the companies that they are recruiting to the area.
The Quality Life surveys have told us over the past five years that few in this community believe this is a good place for young professionals seeking employment. Our shrinking population, particularly inside the city of Pensacola, supports that attitude.
In 2008, only nine percent of the community believed Escambia County was a good place for recent college graduates to live. Five years later the percentage only slightly increased to 14 percent.
The Independent News began in 2008 its Rising Stars program to honor the leaders in the under-35 crowd, hoping by recognizing and honoring these men and women from a variety of fields we could encourage them to stay. Each year since, the IN has sought out nominations of individuals who work or live in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and are seen as the upcoming leaders in their professions and in the community.
Ashley Hodge Harris, OB/GYN business director at Baptist Hospital, was in the inaugural Rising Stars. She saw the community in a tipping point as it rebuilt from Hurricane Ivan, developed the maritime park and elected new leaders.
“Being named a Rising Star illustrated that it still meant something to care about this community, and that the collective energy of our passion and youth was being taken seriously for the first time,” said Harris. “It meant wanting to make a difference does matter regardless of how old you are and what level of business and social status you are at in your life.”
KC Etheredge (2009), vice-president for Membership & Investor Development at Greater Pensacola Chamber, was impressed by the group of talented young professionals in her Rising Stars group.
“It was reinforcement that I had been making the right choices in my career,” said Etheredge, “and that my hard work and dedication to our community was being recognized and appreciated by others.”
For Whitney Fike (2011), marketing specialist for Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union, it helped her career to be recognized with upcoming community leaders, entrepreneurs, and experts in their fields.
She told the IN, “The recognition I received brought along many opportunities. It’s allowed others to know that I am a professional in my career field, committed to my community and eager to lead.”
Several of today’s elected officials have been Rising Stars, Councilwoman Megan Pratt, State Rep. Clay Ingram and County Commissioner Lumon May.
“There is no doubt that because of the Rising Stars I came in contact with other like-minded people and made many friendships,” said Rep. Ingram. “Those friendships are the lifeblood of politics. The synergy that comes from working together for a common purpose is invaluable for our community.”
Others have since created their own businesses. Mari Josephs (2011) won last year the Pensacola Business Challenge and has opened Carmen’s Lunch Bar on South Palafox.
“Being selected as a Rising Star helped me believe in me,” said Josephs. “I have always been very self critical and hard on myself. The recognition inspired me to believe more strongly in my path and my goals and to follow my passion.”
Unfortunately not all our Rising Stars have been able to pursue their careers here. Some want to explore other places. Others get frustrated with the lack of progress.
Out of the over 200 people who have been named Rising Stars about a third have left us.
Noelle Paige (2010) was 18 when she was recognized for her promising dance career. She now lives in Chicago where she moved to take a position dancing with Elements Contemporary Ballet. She has enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago in their Urban Planning and Public Affairs program.
Even in the “Windy City,” she believes the Rising Stars helped her résumé. “It shows people I achieved acknowledgement from my hometown,” said Paige. “Whether it is for dance or other work I have been doing here, I think it is proof I can work hard for another community having this award in my past.”
Ashley Hardaway (2012) moved to Washington, D.C. with her boyfriend. She wanted to see more of the world, but may be settling down in Pensacola.
She said, “I like to think of my relationship with Pensacola like a good rom-com: You meet someone. They’re fantastic. But you met them too soon and you want to go explore the world and grow for a while. You break up. You go to London, or Paris, or in my case Washington, D.C., but they remain in the back of your mind. Eventually you’ve experienced enough and, after a few rough patches, you realize it was them all along. So you run back to them and you’re both better off for it.”
Hardaway added, “I love Pensacola—and I hope to one day come back. I’m still in my exploring phase though.”
Hope Allen, sales and marketing manager for The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, moved to the Tampa area because she sought a more progressive community.
“Pensacola is a beautiful place to visit; living there is a different story,” said Allen.
“For me, Pensacola lacked major elements for a great quality of life. Nothing ever seemed to get done to improve upon this, so it was time to move to a more progressive area, a place willing to take risks and a desire to grow.”
While in today’s world people are more mobile, the Independent News has to see the “brain train,” especially around election time when we are looking for worthwhile candidates to endorse.
For the first time in years, local officials and business leaders are taking notice. With new emphasis on job creations by the city, county and chamber maybe we can better retain our talent and lure those who have left to come back.
The 2013 Rising Stars are worth fighting to keep. They were chosen from over 160 nominations and represent a broad spectrum of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
We hope they will prosper and thrive.
Meet the 2013 Rising Stars: