July 24, 2014
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Surge of the Youngbloods

Why more and more young professionals are becoming impact players in the arts, business and politics.

Shanna Short volunteers with the David Lawrence Center and Hope For Haiti young executive committees and co-hosts a season kick-off party for young professionals.

Shanna Short volunteers with the David Lawrence Center and Hope For Haiti young executive committees and co-hosts a season kick-off party for young professionals.

Photography by Erik Kellar

 

They say age is just a number. But in Southwest Florida, where close to 30 percent of the population is over 65, those numbers can add up.

With our spectacular weather and gorgeous beaches (not to mention topnotch golf courses and ample dining options), this region is a magnet for retirees, fresh off very successful careers. But because of that well-founded reputation, we’re known as a sleepy coastal area where the sunset years are literal. In other words: be gray to play.

Yet, in ever-increasing totals—the number of working-age people coming to Southwest Florida outpaced that of retirees between 2000 and 2010—there’s a youth movement going on right under our noses. Young professionals are finding their way to our area and discovering fertile ground not only for powerful careers and business opportunities, but also for ways to make a difference. Many are leaving the big cities behind and discovering a work-life balance their contemporaries in New York and Chicago can only dream of. Others are returning home looking to stake their claim to this area’s history of extreme wealth and grand philanthropy.

Add this to a seemingly endless supply of talented mentors, who still have a hand in the game despite being “retired,” and in some ways local young professionals are exposed to things they couldn’t find up north.

“I truly believe that Southwest Florida opens doors for you that wouldn’t open anywhere else,” says 34-year-old Jay Hartington, one of the area’s best-known young businessmen. “Naples offers an opportunity in that you have really great direct access to a generation of entrepreneurs, businesspeople and government leaders who have now moved to this very small community. You would never get that sort of exposure if you were in a big city. And they love being around young, creative people.

“And, it’s a more relaxed environment,” Hartington adds. “The older generation got to where they are not just doing everything on their own, but by constantly staying connected to younger generations and investing in the soldiers beneath them. (It’s) a kind of mentoring world.”

Philanthropic organizations have taken notice. Five years ago, attempts to attract younger volunteers fell flat. But now young professional arms of charitable groups are springing up all over Southwest Florida in an effort bring them together and harness their talent and enthusiasm. In fact, the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF), founders of the ultra-elite Naples Winter Wine Festival, just launched its own new support group called Friends of the Foundation for that very reason. “We wanted the next generation of philanthropists to get to know our organization,” says NCEF Chairman Bob Clifford, “and to broaden their opportunities to support our cause.”

“The truth is that these issues are not going away,” says John Jordan, a former envelope-manufacturing executive who is on the board of NCEF and The Shelter for Abused Women and Children’s Gentle’men Against Domestic Violence Committee. “They are going to be with us for generations to come. We (the baby boomers) thought we could solve all of these problems ourselves. But as we matured, we realized that was not the case. (This generation) hasn’t come on board just to be part of us, they talk in terms of their own generation. That’s significant, because when you get a bunch of 65-year-olds together, we tend to talk about our own peer group. … It’s probably time for our generation to start passing the lead to a new generation.”

And with major organizations such as Artis—Naples and the David Lawrence Center hiring much younger CEOs (Kathleen van Bergen, 37, and Scott Burgess, 44, respectively) to replace their outgoing heads, it seems there are already cracks in the area’s gray ceiling.

To get a sense of what we can expect from this new generation, we went in search of some of the best and brightest.

Passionate

Kingston, N.Y., native Shanna Short, 28, worked in Manhattan for three years after college before deciding to make the move to Naples, where her family had a winter home. A banker with J.P. Morgan Private Bank, she acclimated quickly to the unique atmosphere of Southwest Florida because her position required a great deal of networking. The immediate immersion got her meeting like-minded professionals her own age right out of the gate.

“(Since moving here) I’ve been involved with people who’ve really pushed for me to be successful,” Short says. “I think the people here have really been embracing (youth). That’s an honest answer. I’m part of two young exec groups—the David Lawrence Center Young Executives and the Hope For Haiti Next Generation Board. I honestly feel like youth is being embraced here.”

And while youth for the sake of youth might not affect anyone’s bottom line, the charitable organizations that depend so heavily on the disposable income of Southwest Florida’s successful retirees are recognizing just how important it is not only to have the exuberance of young members but also to groom them for the future.

“I think that a lot of these charities and a lot of people involved in philanthropy down here realize that, in order to continue to do good work as a community, we need to start to getting the next generation involved,” Short says. “Myself and about four other individuals threw the second annual Season Kickoff Party at The von Liebig Art Center (in November). We had 225 people in attendance. The hosts were six different young exec organizations. That’s evidence that these organizations are starting these groups because they want that continuity and want people to get started early.”

The passion certainly started early for Tiffany Kuehner, the 28-year-old president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Hope for Haiti. Her grandmother, humanitarian JoAnne Kuehner, started the organization, which raises millions of dollars annually that go to support various needs in that Caribbean nation. The organization has 50 employees, 40 of them working in Haiti. It’s a huge responsibility for anyone, let alone for a 28-year-old.

“There certainly is pressure every day,” Kuehner says. “My biggest pressure comes from the fact that I know intimately all of our staff on the ground in Haiti. I started our office in Haiti in 2007. Also, I’ve got huge shoes to fill. My grandmother’s legacy is just incredible. She was and is really good at what she does. But that pressure is probably a good thing.

“The hardest thing for me, being my age, is finding a network and peer support. I look to a lot of the presidents and the CEOs of the Naples community whom I really admire. I look at them as role models and a support. If I look at some of my other contemporaries at age 28, they might not be working the hours I’m working or have the pressures and responsibilities (such as) making payroll every month. That’s probably the hardest part.”

But in her capacity she sees how her generation in Southwest Florida can make an impact globally. Together with Mark Hindley, vice president and treasury management officer for the Southwest Florida region of IberiaBank, they began the organization’s Next Generation Board, which is made up of young local professionals (including Short) who want to bring awareness and support to Hope for Haiti’s mission, even if it isn’t necessarily through the level of financial support generated by the charity’s traditional board.

Like many of the aforementioned young professional organizations, they generate awareness and interest through various mixers, happy hours and special events designed to engage people their own age. In December, the group packed 75,000 meals at Gulf Coast High School for their emergency relief program.

In addition to co-owning the fashion boutique Marissa Collections, started by his parents, Jay Hartington runs a successful watch company, Rumba Time.

Fashionable

Hartington, the son of Marissa and Burt Hartington of Naples’ Marissa Collections, grew up in the family fashion business and had a job available to him anytime he wanted. But he made a name for himself in Manhattan as a successful buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. It was only when a family emergency required his attention in Naples that he took a leave of absence and never looked back. Since then, his modern approach to marketing has helped bring one of Naples’ best-loved boutiques into the 21st century.

But it’s his entrepreneurial spirit that makes him stand out in the crowd. Yes, he helped Marissa’s develop its successful menswear and jewelry business, but it’s Rumba Time, the watch company he started with two college friends, that has him making a name for himself out from under the Marissa umbrella.

“It really was just a passion project that turned into something much, much bigger,” Hartington says. The company’s well-priced fashion brands have exploded from one brand into eight in the four years since its creation and are now carried by major retailers coast to coast and regularly featured in magazines such as Vogue and People. And they’ve been spotted on everyone from Snoop Dogg to Carolina Herrera.

Driven

Of course, one of Southwest Florida’s major economic engines is health care, so some of this nation’s best and brightest gravitate here because, let’s face it, business is good. And one of this area’s rising stars, Taylor Hamilton, 31, is the director of marketing and public relations at Physicians Regional Healthcare System. She’s been a part of the hospital’s expansion over the past three years.

Most days she arrives to work between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. and goes home around 6 p.m., runs three to five miles, eats dinner—usually standing in front of her refrigerator—and is then in front of her computer working on her MBE from Johns Hopkins University until she falls asleep. “It really is a lot, but it’s worth it because I’m learning so much,” says Hamilton, who’s also the vice president of the Cancer Alliance of Naples and the co-chair of the Collier County Injury Prevention Coalition.

But it’s her role as vice president and co-founder of PBS Technology Group where she could make an even greater impact.

The business is the distribution, marketing and management arm of ABL Medical, which has created SilverSTAT, an antibacterial wound-dressing gel using nanosilver, a product that rapidly kills bacteria. To date, more than 300 studies have shown Silver STAT heals infections in half the time and for a fraction of the price of treatments currently available. But developing the business required sacrifices. Hamilton started PBS Technology Group five years ago with Dr. Cyndi Eaton. When Eaton told her about this nanoparticle of silver that she had been working on with this group out of Utah, it changed Hamilton’s life.

“We spent three hours talking about this nanoparticle and how amazing and different it was from all the other silvers that were on the market,” Hamilton says. “I got so excited about it I quit my job, emptied out my 401(k), maxed out my credit cards, and emptied out my savings and dumped it all into PBS Technology Group to get this started with her. My parents were a little eye-twitchy about that.”

Working out of the office in her apartment, it took about two and a half years to really get things going. “At that point I was washing my hair with Palmolive,” Hamilton says. “I’d like to say I was eating Ramen noodles, but I wasn’t even eating that well. It got to a point where I needed to start paying my rent. I needed to be an adult.”

A partner in the law firm, Strayhorn & Persons, Jenna Persons also takes a roll in local politics, including a run for mayor of Fort Myers at 26.

Political

At the ripe-old age of 26, sixth-generation Lee County resident Jenna Persons made partner at her law firm, Strayhorn & Persons, after running unsuccessfully for mayor of Fort Myers. Even with the influx of youth to the area, that’s a sentence you won’t read a lot.

“I just have a strong belief in the importance of local government and a passion for my community,” says Persons. “I was at a moment in my life where I saw an opportunity and I took it. I believe that in our early chapters of life we should take risks and explore what there is to offer in life.”

Now 30, and helping clients navigate the waters of various governmental entities primarily in the areas of land use and development, she’s content to work behind the scenes to affect change. “I enjoy staying politically active and involved. People forget that the decisions made close to home are the most important decisions for our daily life,” Persons says. “There are 36,000 registered voters in the city of Fort Myers and in the past two general elections we saw less than a 10 percent turnout. You can imagine in an election that sees such a small number of people turn out it provides the opportunity for things to occur such as election fraud.

I’ve been a student of government and policy my entire life and had that passion.”

During her undergraduate work at Missouri’s Evangel University, she worked two years for Congressmen Roy Blunt (then majority whip of the House of Representatives), coordinating volunteer efforts for the district’s Republican Party and managing another Missouri state representative’s campaign. She then graduated from George Washington University Law School and returned home to Fort Myers to begin her law career.

And she sees others like her finding their way to Southwest Florida. “Why not? We’re getting so many great new opportunities and businesses here all the time,” Persons says. “Hertz being one example. And our educational opportunities continue to expand that’ll attract younger talent to our area. And younger people from our area are returning home to build their lives because there are more opportunities here. And I hope to have a part in assuring there continues to be additional opportunities.”

 

SOCIAL SCENE

But what about the area’s social scene? Is it possible for people in their 20s and 30s to fit in in a place dominated by Italian restaurants and steak houses?

“I actually think Naples is one of the best-kept secrets,” Short says. “A lot of my friends from New York say, ‘Oh, there’s only older people there.’ But when you live here—if you immerse yourself with the right people and the right organizations—you don’t feel that way. People jump to that conclusion too quickly; as if nothing fun can happen here or that there can’t be a nightlife. Of course, you’re not going to have the big city clubs, but you get to a point in your life where you don’t miss that.”

Still, hotspots do exist along Fifth Avenue South and in Mercato and Coconut Point. All three are teeming with young professionals looking to socialize.

“For me, Naples is a forever spot because it has everything I want,” Short says. “I know that in five or 10 years Naples is going to be a completely different town than it is now. … It’s going to start attracting that younger crowd. I already see that trend.”

 

YOUNG EXECUTIVE ORGANIZATIONS

  • Bonita Springs Area Young Professionals  bonitaspringschamber.com
  • The Contemporaries (United Arts Council)  uaccollier.com
  • David Lawrence Young Executives  davidlawrencecenter.org
  • Hope for Haiti Next Generation Board  hopeforhaiti.com
  • Naples Junior Woman’s Club  naplesjuniors.com
  • NCEF Friends of the Foundation  napleswinefestival.com
  • Shelter for Abused Women & Children Next Gen Board  naplesshelter.org
  • Young Professionals of Lee County  ypfl.com
  • Young Professionals of Naples  ypnaples.com

 

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