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Finding My Community in Tampa Bay



5 min read · Jun 13

About The Author

Kelly Kehoe

I was first introduced to Tampa just over two decades ago, when my sister began her freshman year at the University of Tampa. During a visit to her that fall, I found myself sitting in Plant Park, watching her crew team practice on the Hillsborough River and gazing across the water at a downtown; whose riverfront undoubtedly has a much different landscape today.

My sister planted her roots here then, and still calls Tampa home, but my own journey here has taken a much more circuitous path.

The Long and Winding Road

From our hometown in New Jersey, to my college years in Ohio, to taking on San Diego, then Durham, then Miami – I’ve called many cities and states home over the years. My career as well has been by no means straightforward, but each experience I’ve had along the way has exposed my strengths, weaknesses, passions, and fears. Perhaps most importantly, I learned from those experiences, and they guided me towards where I am today: in exactly the kind of work and community I was always (though at times unknowingly) seeking.

I’m a musician. I’ve been singing since before I could talk, reading music before I could read words, and writing poems since I could hold a pencil in my hand. So how did I end up working for a new nonprofit supporting local tech startup talent?

I studied music and modern history in college with aspirations towards a career in either musical theater or law (just stay with me here…), followed by a brief stint at a back-office investment support firm, where I discovered I had an aptitude for working with numbers and data. Not ready to abandon my creative dreams quite yet, I left the corporate world and spent the next several years teaching private piano and voice lessons, which showed me how much I loved teaching and sharing knowledge with eager, creative minds. It also showed me that no matter how important music is to me, I had no interest in being a performer for the rest of my life. So I landed a job at a public botanical garden, where I was introduced to the wonderful world of organizational administration, and I was hooked.

I then moved on to a global health NGO (public health, of course, being the most natural next step in my whirlwind adventure), where I learned that I love finance. REALLY love finance. I had a great mentor, and spent the next few years honing my skills in project management, financial reporting, banking, insurance, policies & SOPs, contract management, board relations – I soaked in everything. It was also amazing to be able to work with and coordinate colleagues across the globe – I was drawn to the communal drive of it all, bringing such disparate groups of people together into a beautifully functioning, sharing, learning community, which has certainly been a core tenet of mine since.

And Then Came Miami

It hit me fast and hard. A twist in life circumstances landed me in Miami, and it would be an understatement to simply describe the city as a vibrant, exciting, fast-paced delight to the senses. It’s still growing very quickly and has no shortage of powerful players driving this growth. I was fortunate to spend my four years there working on the communities and impact team at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a major catalyst in Miami’s art and entrepreneurial scenes. Through my work there I became increasingly interested in communities and public spaces – what it takes to build healthy, engaged communities; how to create space for people to gather and share ideas, art, and laughter; how to provoke meaningful thought and conversation; finding ways to ensure that all voices are heard and that every community member has the opportunity to contribute, share, and feel valued.

While I did love my time in Miami, and appreciate the opportunities and experiences I had there, it wasn’t quite the city for me. I needed to be in a city, but one where I wouldn’t get quite so lost in the crowd. I needed a place where I could plunge my hands into the dirt and work with people in a more intentional way. My background is as an artist, and I needed to create. To build.

Hello Tampa!

Fast forward to just over a year ago, when my parents announced they were leaving Miami for Tampa. The decision to follow them was easy – besides the obvious benefit of being closer to more of our family, I had taken an interest in the development explosion that was bursting through the Bay. A colleague connected me with Lakshmi Shenoy, Embarc Collective’s CEO, and I felt a fit immediately. Not only was it an amazing opportunity to help build a nonprofit organization and its physical space, it was a chance to actively participate and engage in a community of which I’d been witnessing the evolution for over twenty years.

The most exciting thing about being in Tampa Bay right now is that at this moment, Tampa is on the precipice of major growth and catalytic change. It’s a city in a renewed adolescence, and its residents have the honor of assuming the role of community builders, with the unique position of being able to individually shape the type of city they want Tampa to become – their city, their friends’ city, their family’s city. It’s personal – each person here, whether a new or lifelong resident, has an opportunity to personally contribute to Tampa’s story.

Being a resident here is a much different experience than that of visitor, and I’m continually delighted as I explore my new home and peel back the many layers of what this city has to offer. Tampa is an extraordinarily friendly and welcoming city. Occasionally it trips over itself in its zeal to push forward, but it brushes itself off and gets right back up again, charging full-steam with a determination and drive, and I absolutely love that about it. Originality and innovation can thrive here – anything’s possible, if you’re willing to take the chance. I hope that my role in the community can be to help people take those risks and break through barriers in a thoughtful way that will make their ideas sustainable, solid, and scalable.

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