Member Spotlight

Member Spotlight: Omaira Dauta, Esq., Churchill Wells

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They often come to her with a legal notice, threatening in its tone and foreboding in its language. 

Foreclosure. Eviction. Repossession.  

The stress of their situation emanates in every word they share, every explanation about their plight, every challenge they’ve endured. The lawyer assesses their status, looks them in the eye and begins to craft a plan full of confidence and reassurances. In that first consultation, she delivers not only sharp legal advice, but loads of calm.

Ultimately, the clients spell relief with six letters: O-M-A-I-R-A.  

“The lawsuit is what brings them to me, but we look at the big picture,” Dauta said. “’Okay, you have one lawsuit, but what’s the rest of your life looking like? What else do you have going on? And we see if we can address it.” 

Omaira Dauta, a consumer debt and bankruptcy attorney for Churchill Wells, who works out of the Rising Tide Innovation Center in downtown St. Petersburg, relishes the opportunity to steel the nerves of her clients. While some attorneys view dealing with clients as the most problematic part of their job, Dauta welcomes the opportunity to help.   

Through her efforts, clients not only receive relief from their legal issues but often improve their credit score in the process.  

“It makes me feel good that I have people call me who are so stressed out, and by me just doing my job, I can fix that for them. I can make an impact,” Dauta said. “I had a client last week, he had two lawsuits, each more than $50,000. I got both of those dismissed.” 

For Dauta, the work helps fulfill her mission of wanting to help others – a mission that started when she first took an interest in the law as a 10-year-old. We recently spoke to the attorney about how that dream first emerged, how she rose above some self doubt to become a lawyer, and why she loves the energy of the Rising Tide Innovation Center. 

How did you first get interested in being an attorney? 

So, I wanted to be a lawyer since I was like 10. I remember watching the O.J. Simpson trial and just the presence that the attorneys had, their commanding demeanor, the confidence and obviously the influence. I mean, they’re the ones that make or break the case. Of course, there’s evidence, but how it’s presented is a big deal. So ever since then, I wanted to be an attorney. I was in the law magnet program in high school (at Palm Beach Lakes). I got my first job with the law firm at 15, and I’ve worked exclusively with law firms since then. I worked for the biggest personal injury firm in the country while I was in law school. I was in law school in the evenings. I graduated and the rest is history. 

Who was it from the O.J. trial that inspired you? Was it Johnnie Cochran? Was it Marcia Clark? Was it Christopher Darden?  

So, obviously, a little bit of Marcia Clark as the female. Just seeing her presence, her confidence — that was inspiring. But obviously, it was more so Johnnie Cochran and his Dream Team. It’s not what I do now. I’m not typically in court fighting people like that, but I could.  

What did your family think of you pursuing a law degree? 

I am first generation everything in my family: first generation with an undergraduate degree (Florida Atlantic University); first generation with a post graduate degree; first generation attorney. My mom always supported the dream. So, whatever I wanted to do, as long as I did something. 

Did being the first generation create any doubts? 

For sure. Undergrad was just something that I was supposed to do. My mom worked very hard, it was, “I work hard so you don’t have to.” I’m a first generation American. She was a nurse in the Dominican Republic. She came to New York, worked in factories, just to support my brother and I. Obviously as the next generation, we had to be better. 

So, I went to college, and then I had this dream of being a lawyer. But all you hear is how hard it is, how many people fail. I had a fear of that. So, I graduated undergrad in 2005 and I’m working at law firms, all the attorneys that I worked for were like, “You don’t want to be a lawyer, you don’t want that kind of trouble.” 

What turned it around for you? 

The last attorney that I worked for (Ana DeVilliers) was like, “You can do it.” She was the first person I asked to write a letter of recommendation. She was my main support, the wind beneath my wings. I was her office manager and paralegal and she said, “You can do it.” That was the first time I’d heard that. Obviously, not the first time from my family, but I said, “Well, what do they know?” Ana had been through it. And she said, I did it. You can do it, too. So, I tried. It took that because I went to law school five years after earning my undergraduate degree. I didn’t start law school until 2010. 

Your mentor helped you overcome doubts. Was there anyone else? 

My husband, Jason (Dauta). He only had a high school diploma, but one day he decided he wanted to do more with his life, and he wasn’t like, “I only have a high school diploma,” you know? He went to firefighter school and now he’s a firefighter. Since then, he’s earned his associate degree. He’s still going to school. He wants more. All that was motivating to me. And then Ana. I mean, she’s very highly educated. She went to private school in Miami, went to University of Miami, went to University of Florida law school. She was successful in her career. I would consider us different ends of the spectrum. Both women, both Hispanic, but I thought of her as a success story, and she saw that I could do that. I didn’t see that in myself. I thought what I had accomplished, as far as from where I came from, was enough and maybe the next generation would do better. But she saw something in me. I thought, she’s smart and she knows some things, so let’s go with her bet. If she’s betting on me, I’ll bet on me too. And here we are. 

That’s nice. 

It’s amazing what words can do. Like you never know who’s listening. So, I think it’s important if you see something in someone, let them know because you don’t know what words will inspire that person to do better. I hope that in a conversation, when I tell someone something, it inspires them to do more than what they’re currently doing with their lives. That’s powerful. It makes you feel like you have purpose. 

How are you able to lend comfort to your clients and help alleviate their stress? 

A lot of times they’ll call me and it’s their first time ever being sued and they’re like, “Oh, what do I do?” And I say, “You’re fine. We deal with this creditor all the time.” I think there are a lot of attorneys who do a lot of things. This is all I do. So, I deal with essentially the same companies all the time, the same attorneys all the time. I know what we’re looking at and where it’s an unknown to them, it’s routine for me. So, just in that initial consult, they’re already feeling better. 

Tell me about Churchill and Wells. 

I work for a small firm. There are three attorneys. One’s in Jacksonville and one’s in Tallahassee. That’s the Churchill and the Wells. And I am the St. Petersburg office. So, the setup that we have is kind of like if I was a solo practitioner in the sense that there’s nobody here but me. But with the protection of they handle the advertising, they pay the bills. They bring in the business, but it’s my job to keep it, sell it, sell the product and find solutions for the clients. 

You had worked for a large firm. Why did you opt to work for a smaller firm? 

There’s something to be said about the small firms in the sense that everything is more personal. You know, there’s not 500 employees. There’s not this immense amount of advertising and money backing everything. It is very important to the small firm to keep the client happy, to have a competitive price, because you need every client and you want them to feel valued and you want them to feel that they’ve spent their money wisely. Also, as an employee at the big firm, you’re just one of many and you’re replaceable. I mean, they usually have a stack of other attorneys’ resumes.  

What do you envision doing longterm? 

I like what I do. I think if anything, I might want to do more. By more, I mean more areas of the law being covered that interconnect in some way. At the end of the day, what drives me is helping people. I like dealing with the clients. Some attorneys are more behind the scenes. The worst part of their day is the consult, but I like interacting with people. The consultations are some of my favorite parts where you get to know the people that are in front of you and, and what their issues are and how you can help. So, it would be this, but probably a little bit more.  

Do you like being at Rising Tide? 

The location is great. I can walk to the courthouse. There’s just the energy of being downtown. The people that are around here, the whole “Keep St. Pete Weird (laughs).” I’m not young anymore, but I’m young inside and the energy feeds you. It’s an energy that you don’t find outside of downtown. In here, it’s nice to look at, it’s aesthetically pleasing. The people are nice. Because of the way this place is set up, you’re just surrounded by different people from different fields and professions that you’ve never heard of. That’s inspiring in and of itself. 

Has it helped having the lawyers around who run Rising Tide? 

Being a lawyer is different. You don’t get to turn it off. There’s a lot of responsibility. Last week, I woke up at three o’clock in the morning because I thought I forgot a deadline. And by the time I realized I did not forget the deadline, I was already so amped that I didn’t go to sleep until 6, and my alarm goes off at 7. When you have days like that, you’re like, “I’m done. I’m going to go do something else, like buy a camera and become a photographer or something.” And you say those things out loud. I said that, and they (Fletcher & Fischer) were like, “I’m not going to let you do that. You work too hard. This’ll pass. You’re fine.” They’ve done that for me. That was really nice. Again, you never know how your words can affect someone. And I consider them very successful women. 


This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Valerie Lavin

Member Spotlight: Valerie Lavin, ActionZone

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 As a child growing up in rural Missouri, Valerie Lavin’s father instilled in her a sense of community. 

“Get a job, pay your taxes, be a good neighbor,” he would tell her. 

The desire to be part of something bigger than herself became engrained in her DNA. Joining the U.S. Army only enhanced the drive to serve, not only her nation, but her fellow soldiers. 

Now after 21 years in the military, the retired first sergeant carries on her sense of community with ActionZone, a nonprofit funded through a grant from Veterans Florida that aims to help veterans make the transition from the military to entrepreneurship. As co-owner of a healthcare staffing firm with her husband, Lavin knows all too well the challenges veterans face. 

“ActionZone is a veteran entrepreneurship organization created by veteran entrepreneurs for veteran entrepreneurs,” Lavin said. “The advantage of that is we’ve all been through transition. So, we understand the transition from the military to the civilian sector, and we’ve all transformed from the military mindset to the entrepreneurial mindset.” 

Lavin maintains a collaborative relationship with the Rising Tide Innovation Center, holding meetings for her latest cohort at the center and partnering with Rising Tide to stage Military Mondays when veterans and their family members can use the cowork space for free. 

“Our collaborative relationship with the Rising Tide Innovation Center works really well because we’re able to hold our classes and workshops in an environment that will draw people from all walks of life and all different businesses.  

“Some aren’t even entrepreneurs, they’re just interested in the topic and will come and be a part of it. What that does is help our veterans integrate and assimilate into their civilian community as well as network.” 

We recently spoke to Lavin as she prepared to wrap up ActionZone’s first cohort and start another. She spoke about the challenge veterans face, the five-step plan ActionZone uses and why her own drive spurs her to help. 

Why is it so difficult for veterans to make the transition to being entrepreneurs? 

When you are serving everything is about what’s behind the front gate. That’s your world. That’s your life. That’s your community. When you step out of the gate for the first time, you don’t have that community anymore. The landscape changes, and it’s a huge change. Some of them go in when they’re 17 or 18 years old. When they retire at 37, 38 or 39, for the first time in their life, they’re really on their own. 

You have five phases of your program: 1) Entrepreneurial Mindset; 2) Validation Camp; 3) Business Model Development; 4) Storytelling; 5) CEO Mindset. Let’s talk about them. 

The first phase, Entrepreneurial Mindset, helps them discover whether they’re entrepreneurial or not. The entrepreneurial mindset isn’t about becoming an entrepreneur or small-business owner, it’s trying to determine self-discovery and what kind of mindset you have. 

Essentially, there are three types of people in the workforce: There’s the employee who comes across a problem at the workplace and says, “That’s somebody else’s problem because I can still clock in at 9 and clock out at 5. It doesn’t hinder me from doing my job. I’m getting paid to do this.” 

The “intrepreneur” comes across a problem in the workplace and says, “Oh I think I have a solution for that problem. It’s not only going to better my productivity and efficiency, it’s going to better the entire workplace.” 

Then there’s the entrepreneur who comes across a problem in the workplace and says, “I have a solution and I think I can make money off the solution.” There’s no wrong answer to any of this because some people should just be employees. But we help the military family member discover their mindset and introduce them to the fact that what they learned in the military does translate into entrepreneurship. 

And the second phase is, “Effectuation Validation?” 

We literally take them on a camping excursion, a chartered camping event, and we take away their technology and essentially help them go through the process an entrepreneur goes through when they’re trying to validate a concept. We break them up into small teams, they come up with a fictitious business and they try to validate that through discussions with their teammates. They go out and do customer discoveries, so they’re going to different campers in the campsite and asking questions. 

We do that because it helps with camaraderie. In Veterans Florida surveys (of past cohort participants), one of the comments that came up often is that they didn’t get a chance to network or get to know the other people in their cohort. 

What about the third phase, business modeling and development? 

That’s a program called Co.Starter and it walks them through basically shaking out their business concept and idea. 

Tell me about the fourth phase: Storytelling. 

At Action Zone, we strategically place the storytelling, delivered by the Homefront Foundation, just before the marketing block. One of the Homefront Foundation’s theories is that veterans have a hard time with transition because of a communication gap between the veterans and their civilian counterparts. So, the foundation teaches them to connect with their experience and they help them articulate and tell that story so the civilian can receive it. 

Do veterans feel like civilians don’t understand what they’ve gone through? 

In many cases, yes. But I would say in an equal number of cases, the veterans just don’t know how to communicate their story outside of military acronyms or talking to a fellow service member. 

And finally, the CEO mindset? 

After the business modeling development and after they learn how to connect their story to their business pitch, if it’s appropriate, we take them through the CEO mindset. So, we can actually teach them how to run a business. A lot of times, small business owners, once they launch, they’re essentially solopreneurs. It’s just them against the world, right? But they really need to learn how to be the CEO of themselves, the CEO of their company. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to go hire 50 employees or 100 employees. If you decide to outsource all your needs, you have to be able to run your business like a business. That’s the final key to that transformation from the military mindset to the true entrepreneurial mindset. 

So, how was your transition from the military mindset to the entrepreneurial mindset? 

My transition was masked by helping others. … When I was transitioning, my goal was to use my G.I. Bill, go to school and be a physical therapy assistant. That was the plan. I recognized very early there were challenges for my peers that I was transitioning with, retiring with, whether they were transitioning after six years or 26 years. It was my job as a first sergeant to oversee the feeding and training and caring for troops, so I decided to continue to do that by helping them figure out resume writing, job searches and guiding them through that transition process. 

Tell me about your business 

We provide staffing services for advanced healthcare providers, allied health, and everything in between: doctors, nurses and other professionals for government and commercial hospitals and clinics. What I really love about this company is at first, when the opportunity was presented to us, even though I had dabbled in staffing before with helping veterans and my husband has 16 years of experience in staffing, healthcare staffing was very foreign to me. I’m not familiar with a lot of medical terms, I’m not familiar with medical education, but my husband’s very first job out of college was medical staffing. Not only as husband and wife, but as business partners, we excel because we’re very aware of our strengths and weaknesses. I trust him. When he said the numbers are right and we can do this, we dove in, head first. 

What sets your business apart from other staffing firms? 

What sets us apart from other staffing firms, I believe, is we not only see the hospital or clinic, whether its government or commercial, as a client, but we also see the providers as clients because we are working for them just as much as we are for the healthcare systems. The reason for that is, especially, when it comes to the government, whether it’s VA or Army Medical Commander … I’m putting a provider in a place where they are taking care of my comrades. That’s important to me, right? I don’t want to send a provider into that environment where they’re upset with me because I didn’t take care of them. 

There’s nothing worse than going to see a doctor that’s angry, right? So, it’s my job to make them happy and to be happy going in to take care of my battle buddies, if you will. Especially with the younger ones who are just graduating, the new providers, I’m the first person helping them get their first job, and I want to make sure the job or position with the clinic is a good fit. If the culture doesn’t work for them, or the position doesn’t work for them, that might set them up for a terrible career down the line. We take care of our providers as much as we do the client. 

How much do you enjoy partnering with Rising Tide? 

I love Rising Tide. I think the culture that they’re developing here is amazing. For all the benefits you receive here, I don’t think you can beat it. 

Valerie Lavin – ActionZone 


Member Spotlight: Marie VanNostrand, Luminosity

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Marie VanNostrand choose early in life to pursue a mission so daunting some may have labeled her a modern-day Don Quixote. 

VanNostrand’s sense of fairness, fostered during her upbringing on a dairy farm in upstate New York, led her to take on the challenge of changing the nation’s pretrial justice system. 

Changing any system steeped in history can prove intimidating but attempting to reverse the injustices of a system rooted in our nation’s Bill of Rights might lead some to say she was tilting at windmills. 

They would be wrong. 

How did her quest begin? When VanNostrand started her criminology career as a probation and parole officer in Virginia, she interviewed people who had pled guilty or were found guilty and wrote reports to help guide the sentencing decisions of judges. 

“When I would do these reports, people would either come into my office for me to interview them – they were on bond pending sentencing – or they would be in the jail and I would have to go over to the jail,” VanNostrand explained.

“The first year on the job, I could not figure out and I couldn’t predict who was going to come to my office versus who I was going to have to go see in the jail. There was no rhyme or reason. Then I realized it was because I didn’t know their financial status yet.” 

VanNostrand soon realized the court determined people’s pretrial release or detention not based on the risk they posed to the community or the probability of them appearing for court proceedings. No, it was solely about their financial resources. 

“It was at that point that I saw release decisions were being made purely by money and not by risk, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities and the poor, and it was just wrong,” VanNostrand said. “It wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. It wasn’t in the public’s best interest because the highest risk people were getting out and endangering the community while the lower risk people were being incarcerated because they were poor. We call it the criminalization of poverty. 

“That’s when I became really, really passionate about eliminating the disparity and the discrimination in the pretrial justice system.” 

That passion led her to shift her work to a pretrial agency. At the same time, she enrolled in Old Dominion University and attained masters degrees in public administration, and urban studies and a doctorate in public policy with a specialty in research methods and statistics. Her dissertation helped Virginia create one of the country’s first pretrial “risk assessment tools.”  

In 2003, she started Luminosity and continued gathering data in an ongoing push to make pretrial systems risk-based instead of resource-based.

Now VanNostrand and her team will spend the next two years developing an “Application Programming Interface” to help any jurisdiction input their data and leverage it to monitor their pretrial justice system performance and identify and modify practices contributing to racial disparity and discrimination. 

VanNostrand recently explained the progress she’s made, why she opted to amp her efforts instead of retiring and what lies ahead for the company. 

What are the basic goals of Luminosity? 

Our approach is to use data to help inform pretrial justice system decision making. One of the biggest challenges in the criminal justice system is that people don’t know how the system is performing. I try to explain it like this: If you were given the job to be the CEO of a hospital, a multimillion-dollar hospital, the first thing you would do is ask some basic questions, right? Are people happy with your services? Is the hospital profitable? Just some really, basic questions. 

Now, take a similar criminal justice system, which in many states costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Nationally, we spend billions of dollars. Most communities in this country cannot answer the most basic questions about their pretrial justice system, the front end of their system. They can’t tell you how many people are released or detained pretrial. They can’t tell you how much they expend detaining people pretrial. They can’t tell you their basic performance measures of new crimes committed by pretrial defendants, court appearance rates for pretrial defendants. If you were running a hospital, you would be out of business in no time if you couldn’t answer those basic questions.  

But we spend billions of dollars every year on the pretrial justice system in this country while not being able to answer those basic questions. How can we improve these systems if we can’t answer those basic questions and can’t identify opportunities to make improvements? That’s really our focus – taking criminal justice data and integrating that data to answer those questions. 

You’ve made it your life’s mission, to try to find a way to change the system. That’s a challenging mission. 

The past couple of years, we’ve made some real progress. The money-bail system, a resource-based system was the prevailing system, but I wanted it to be based on the risk that was posed by defendants. We needed to identify a way, an alternate way, of identifying that risk. … By 2003, I really wanted to dedicate myself to doing this work and knowing there was no organization that was really dedicated to doing this work and not much attention was being paid to this work … we started Luminosity, data-driven justice solutions. We wanted to bring light to the pretrial justice system and the harm it was doing to the community and the harm it was doing to defendants. We really thought research and data was the way we could demonstrate that. We’ve had Luminosity for 15 years and we’ve done a lot of that research.  

I really learned about this issue from the documentary 13th, which devoted time to telling the story of Kalief Browder, a young man who couldn’t afford to post bail and spent in an inordinate amount of time in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.  

I spent 20 years talking about these issues to anybody who would listen. Then, the most unfortunate thing happened with Kalief Browder. He was accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years in Rikers as a young man in isolation. He refused to plead guilty, and ultimately, he took his own life. For whatever reason, that struck a chord with America. Even though things like this had been happening every day, to hundreds of thousands of people every year, his circumstance was just so egregious, people could relate to it. That really has helped pretrial reform in America.  

Was Kalief Browder’s death the catalyst that helped bring attention to this issue? 

I think a couple of things happened. That was one of them, and the other was the Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures). Laura and John Arnold are a Houston-based couple who are self-made billionaires, and in their 30s, they started this foundation and endowed it with $1 billion of their own money. They made the decision that the pretrial system was one of the best places for them to invest. We were one of their first partners to conduct pretrial research. We were able to develop the public safety assessment (PSA), pretrial risk assessment. We also conducted research on the hidden costs of pretrial detention which showed that short periods of incarceration for low-risk defendants does harm.  

Low-risk defendants who are incarcerated pretrial are more likely to plead guilty, they’re more likely to be sentenced to incarceration, and they’re more likely to be sentenced to longer periods of incarceration than similarly situated people who are released pretrial. They are also more likely to commit new crime in the future. As that research was released publicly, this issue really started to get attention. Once we had the funding to conduct research on the pretrial justice system and started showing how ineffective and inefficient the system is and people started hearing cases like Kalief’s, I think that was the perfect storm.  

With the help of the Drug Policy Alliance, you were able to integrate New Jersey’s data and show who was being incarcerated pretrial. Tell me about that.  

There were 15,000 people in the jails in New Jersey, and 12 percent of the jail population was in there because of their inability to pay $2,500 or less. We did the study to shed light on the people we were incarcerating pretrial. That served as a catalyst for criminal justice reform in New Jersey. Within a few years, they passed legislation that essentially eliminated money bail. Now in New Jersey, when a person is arrested, a public safety assessment is completed on every defendant. It’s given to the judge and a defendant is released, either on their own recognizance or with some conditions. Ninety-five percent of all the people arrested are released in New Jersey, and 5 percent go through a preventive detention hearing, and the judge deems them to be so dangerous they need to be detained before trial.  

Money has been completely taken out of the equation. The jail population is down 40 percent from when we did our study. It’s less than 9,000.  

What makes gathering the needed pretrial data so difficult?  

If you want to know release rates or court appearance rates or public safety rates, you need data from systems that are really siloed. You need data from law enforcement, from jails, from courts, and you need criminal history data. They’re usually maintained by different agencies. They’re independent software systems that were never intended to communicate with one another. That’s the big challenge, being able to integrate that data, track a person through these systems and be able to answer these questions.  

What brought you to Rising Tide? 

I was at a point about a year and a half ago, where I could either retire early or commit to trying to do something bigger and better than we’ve ever done before. Retirement seemed really attractive, but we had this idea of what we thought would be a major contribution in the next five years that could get us to the next tipping point in pretrial reform, and it’s around data integration. But in order to do that, we needed a good workspace, a creative workspace, a place where we could attract good talent and meet with people. We had all been working in home offices and coordinating that way. Our business partner moved from Virginia last year for us to do this work and we clearly needed an office. This just seemed like a really good fit.

Clifton and Jake

Member Spotlight: Clifton Fischer, Doggery Craft Ice

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Doggery Craft IceClifton Fischer and Jake Essman can speak the language of ice.


They attend conventions on the packaging of ice, they can detail how the best ice comes from water that’s taken through a five-filter process and then softened. They even know the meaning of the word turbidity, the measure of the degree to which the water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates.  


Yes, we had to look up turbidity in the dictionary.


“It’s ridiculous how much we’ve learned,” Fischer said.


For more than a year, Fischer and Essman, his soon-to-be son-in-law, have teamed with partner Troy Noonan and delved into world of processing, packaging and selling clear ice.  


Both Fischer and Essman have an appreciation for the finer spirits. Fischer estimates he bought a drink at bars in 72 different countries during his 27-year stint in the Air Force. Essman has worked for both ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Total Wine. 


The business, Doggery Craft Ice, sprung from the realization cloudy ice that contains excessive amounts of air bubbles, minerals and that lovely freezer taste ruined the flavor of their favorite bourbons. 


“We started researching ways to improve the taste and clarity of our ice cubes just for our personal use,” Fischer said. “We found that freezing water in a similar fashion to how a pond or lake freezes creates a clear ice product.” 


Now Fischer and Essman, operating out of the Rising Tide Innovation Center cowork in St. Petersburg, are confident that clear ice will emerge as a new trend. We spoke to Clifton and Jake about the evolution of their entrepreneurial business, how clear ice aligns with the rising desire for fresh foods and why they chose the name “Doggery.” 


How did you come up with the idea of clear ice? 


Jake: We like to drink a lot of whiskey. That’s kind of where it started. 


Clifton: When Jake was working at ABC and Total Wine, whenever something special would come in, we would grab a bottle of it and try it out. We had our freezer chocked full of silicone molds that made squares and spheres. It got to the point that we were noticing the silicone molds got a minerally smell to them. 


Jake: Even before that, we had started to talk and ask, “How do you get clear ice?” Then we started to pursue it and found the red neck way of doing it. 


Clifton: We were freezing blocks of ice — 8 x 12 by 3 inches thick. We would sit in the kitchen, get some charcuterie at the house and the two of us would be cutting and hacking making custom-cut blocks at the house and sticking them in the freezer, so we would have them for our personal use. We’re like there has to be a way to do this. 


And it was a trip to Chicago for your wife Tina’s birthday that really sparked the entrepreneurial spirit in you two?  


Clifton: We were up there at the hotel and they sent us up to the bar. We ordered two Eagle Rare Bourbons on a rock, and they came out in the glass and he had a perfectly cut 2x2x21/2 inch perfectly clear block of the ice. I looked right at Tina and said this is what we’ve been looking for. She goes what do you mean? I said I think there’s a void in the Tampa/St. Pete area. No one has this. So literally, from October of last year (2017), we’ve been researching and studying and learning everything we could about the process of making clear ice. Then, the whole animal of how you sell this to clientele? 


What makes the ice an integral part of a good whiskey drink? 


Clifton: You can look at water in itself. You can either have filtered water or you can be a filter for water. There are items in that water that are going to pollute, even at the most minute level, whether it be liquified calcium that’s in the water naturally, or iron or chlorine. All of these things change the flavor profile of any beverage. I’ll get you a big ice cube and if you enjoy a good Coca-Cola, and you put these cubes in your Coca-Cola and you drink the other, you won’t ever go back. It enhances the flavor by not adding anything to the actual beverage itself. 


How do you purify the water to make the clear ice? 


Clifton: Our filtration system has five chambers on it. One is a sediment filter and then we have three high-efficiency, very small micron filtration cannisters that it goes through, then it goes through a carbon filter and then we send it through a softening unit which completely takes out chlorine and iron and anything that’s going to change the flavor of your beverage. This is just good tasting water and you’re freezing it and putting it in your drink. 


It’s reminiscent of how people from New York say the bagels and the pizza tastes better in New York because it’s made with New York water. 


Jake: I like to look at it in terms of a chef. A chef is always going to be cooking with the freshest ingredients. Everything matters that goes into that dish. It’s the same thing with a cocktail, with your baseline being ice. Ice is in almost every cocktail, it’s almost a third of your drink. So, if that ice is tainted with minerals like he just explained, it’s going to affect the way it tastes. 


If I blindfolded you, could you tell the difference between a whiskey drink with your ice and some ice from, I don’t know, 7-Eleven? 


Jake: I bet you I could do it off the smell. 


That’s fascinating. How did you come up with the name “Doggery?” 


Jake:  We were tossing around names from the prohibition era, words that were used back then and we came along this name, “doggery.” A doggery is a speakeasy or an illegal drinking establishment. The reason it’s called a doggery is because they hid it in dog kennels. Between my family, his family and our other partner’s family, we have 19 dogs. We love dogs and we thought it fit. 


What’s the biggest challenge in getting this business off the ground? 


Clifton: The most challenging thing is getting people to understand it’s not a luxury item, it’s a necessity. Here’s a prime example: Of the 72 countries I’ve been to, I bet better than 50 percent of them don’t even have potable water on a regular public system. We’re ensuring purity and clarity and quality of this ice product. And it is food grade. 


Jake: Plus, ice is the No. 1 selling food product in the world. 


Clifton: And we’re providing a product that is above the quality levels of just about anything you’ll find. 


Doesn’t your product fit right in with the increasing emphasis on organic, fresh and farm to table? 


Clifton: Yes. One of the things we pride ourselves on is a lot of time our freezer doesn’t have a whole lot of stock in it. We literally will put the water in the tank, freeze it, pull it three days later, cut it, dry it, bag it and deliver it. We don’t have thousands and thousands of cubes sitting around waiting for someone to buy them. In our industry, it’s the closest you can get to farm to table. 


Are you confident you can make this work? 


Clifton: Yes. The Tampa Bay area all the way down to Sarasota, we’re literally on the precipice of just blowing up. I know it. I can feel it. There’s a desire for it and the people that are not buying it yet, either haven’t seen it or don’t know about it. 


Jake: It’s going to become the standard thing. I truly believe we’ll reach the point that when someone goes to a bar and they don’t have clear ice, they’ll just go somewhere else.

Linda F. Ramirez

Member Spotlight: Linda Ramirez , Latin Film Festival

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Latin Film Festival St. Petersburg, FloridaLinda Friedman Ramirez develop an affection for Latin American culture while growing up in Western Pennsylvania as a child of parents of Eastern European descent.

It’s as improbable as it sounds, but the Friedmans began making drives to Mexico in the summer. Linda recalls first visiting Baja. Then, her mother offered to take anywhere to celebrate a special birthday when she was in high school.

She chose Mexico City.

Ramirez built on those cultural introductions during college at George Washington University. She eventually married — and divorced — a Mexican-American but her fondness for the art of the Americas and its people remains strong — so strong she’s leading the effort behind the inaugural Tampa Bay Latin Film Festival, set for Oct. 18-21, 2018.

The four-day celebration features four invited films, 11 competing for awards and a series of symposiums.

Ramirez, who speaks fluent Spanish, recently shared her thoughts about her passion for the culture, her plans for the festival and why she thinks it can help improve the image some Americans hold of immigrants.


Describe your passion for Latin America and its arts. It’s a bit surprising coming from a woman who grew up in Western Pennsylvania.

In the ’70s, I interned, and worked for an organization called the Pan American Development Foundation in Washington, D.C. It was an affiliate of the Organization of American States. I was a young person in my 20s and it was a really great experience because it was exposure to Latin America. In addition, I traveled to Central America, I traveled to the Dominican Republic and later to Chile and Argentina. It enhanced the fascination I had for Latin America.


So that explains the interest in the people, but what about the art?

You know, it probably started in Washington, D.C., and being exposed to a lot of great art. The Hirshhorn Museum. It’s not that I’m not interested in other art, but (Latin American Art) is something I’ve gravitated to.


You went on to earn your law degree at Willamette University College of Law in Oregon, but even there you maintained the connection to Latin America

I stayed there for about 30 years and I practiced first in Salem, Ore., and then in Portland, Ore. A large part of my practice was clients from Mexico and Central America for two reasons. One, it was an emphasis I wanted to have because I did speak Spanish and it was an enjoyable part of the practice. Also, at some point I had a contract with the state of Oregon to provide indigent criminal defense to Spanish-speaking clients.


So, you come to Florida to be closer to your parents who had retired here, and you eventually opened up the Feathered Serpent Gallery in 2012 in St. Petersburg’s Edge District. How did it go?

I calculated that we had over 30 different exhibits over a four-year period. The theme of the gallery was Latin America and Latin American arts. We exhibited a number of local Tampa Bay artists. We also had artists from abroad. The biggest thing we did is we hosted a delegation of artists from Honduras. They came to St. Petersburg and we had 80-100 paintings exhibited for 10-12 days and they were really fine people.


Unfortunately, you had to close the gallery in 2016. Did the rental rates get to be too expensive?

The Edge is not what it is today, but in addition our art was a niche art. And the other thing is, as you know, art galleries aren’t an easy business. There have been a lot of art galleries that have come and gone in St. Petersburg.


People come in to look, but they don’t buy.

Right. They come into look and a lot of people appreciated our cultural events but at some point, it wasn’t economically a good idea.


Now your interest in Latin American arts flourishes through the film festival. How did that come about?

In 2013, I approached Tony (Armer) about adding Latin American films to St. Petersburg’s Sunscreen Film Festival. In 2013, our gallery actually gave an award at Sunscreen for Latin American film. The next year I wasn’t involved but after that I started helping with the program and Latin American film.


What inspired you to step out and do your own film festival?

I was just felt it was time to do something more exclusively branded to Latin American film.


What has been the reaction in the local film community? Do you sense people are excited about the festival? 

Very definitely. One of the great things is I had already worked with some other people in the community on Sunscreen. So, there was already a group of people that had an interest, and some of those people have become good friends. So, when I started working on this, I said it’s going to be a small project and fairly limited, but I’ve had this great group of people who have volunteered and collaborated.


You had a collaborative effort on the poster for the festival, right?

We had a meeting to talk about the poster and we all talked about the concept and what we wanted it to express. One of the artists ended up doing the original drawing of this heart that’s kind of the shape of Latin America. That was Gabriela Valencia. Then Kim McDaniel actually casted it in ceramic. Then Gabriela painted it and Geraldine Arredono photographed it and created the poster. So, I see the poster partly being a process of people sharing their interest.


What are some of the films people can expect to see at the festival.

One is a film made by a female director in Colombia and it’s a drama based on her true-life experience of her father being assassinated. The daughter of this professor is very traumatized but she’s very angry and she wants to find the person who did it. The story has to do with her actually finding him.


Oh wow.

It’s going to screen at Eckerd College, which is perfect because the protagonist is a college-aged student.


What else?

Then we have a much more light-hearted film about a woman from Argentina who is let go by a family where she’s been everything for everybody for many years. She has to travel to another city and it’s a journey film where she loses her purse and meets a guy and there’s romance. Another film that just won an award from the Mexican Film Academy is called Devil’s Freedom. He interviews victims of Mexican violence and they all wear masks. It’s done so well and it’s not morbid. It’s very intriguing. The last one is a restored film from Cuba. It was made in 1979 and it’s made by one of preeminent Cuban film makers, Tomas Gutierrez Alea.


How would you put into words your passion for Latin American culture?

There are just a lot of good-hearted people in these countries, and it comes through in their art and in their film. Right now, it’s partly because of the anti-immigrant message that’s being put out there by some. I find it sad and really troubling.


Do you feel like the message distorts who they are? 

I represented hundreds of people from Central America and Mexico. It was rare that I found a client I didn’t like. You saw a real spectrum of people, their life experiences, their motivation. You got the sense people they were put into situations because of circumstances. I’m not a soft touch, by any means but …


… you have empathy for their plight?

I think so. If you go into rural parts of Central America and you see how people struggle. A lot of times they have almost nothing, but if you’re there, they will share it with you. It’s kind of like that trite image of someone bringing out their best cup just for you. That’s really a true image.


How do you like working at Rising Tide?

I like it. I was working a lot at home so it’s good to be out in this environment.

William "Bill" Lederer

Member Spotlight: William “Bill” Lederer , iSOCRATES 

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William "Bill" LedererHe’s a gifted wordsmith who just happens to have a mind for abstract math.

He’s worked on Wall Street and boosted the fortunes of his father’s business.

He’s started six different companies and sold four of them.

He’s the former CEO of early e-commerce company, a former executive at advertising giant WPP, and founder of MediaCrossing, the world’s first digital media trading company.

He’s a husband, a father, and a collegiate professor with so much knowledge he’s rewriting a major text book in his field.

Now Bill Lederer brings his business savvy and latest venture to Tampa Bay.

He’s currently chairman and CEO of iSOCRATES, the leading end-to-end provider of what Lederer calls PRPE: Programmatic Resource Planning and Execution. With a specialization in data analytics, iSOCRATES looks to lead the way in marketing and media automation.

He already counts News Corporation and Proctor & Gamble among his clients, but after acquiring new office space at Rising Tide Innovation Center in downtown St. Petersburg, he believes he’s perfectly positioned to grow iSOCRATES into an even bigger company.

Lederer roots his confidence in an uncanny ability to forecast industry changes, and all of the experience he draws from his varied background.

“Everything I’m doing now, you could look at it and say it’s a version of what I’ve already done,” Lederer said.

Lederer recently spoke to us about iSOCRATES, the changing dynamics of media and marketing and what drives him to continue seeking success in the industry.

Tell me about your business. It sounds complex, but the complexities 
seem to simplify business for your clients.

Absolutely. My background and the background of my business partner (COO Michael Weaver) is that we’ve spent a long time, more than 20 years, in media and marketing. We’ve tended to work more on the data and advertising side of the industry than on the content and creation side. There is a tremendous movement within media and marketing towards automation. Michael and I have basically been riding this wave from Day 1. We have both been there for the creation and development of automated approaches to media and marketing services. It has been our experience that the market is looking for end-to-end resources that can provide consulting, managed services and business process outsourcing. All of these are essentially technology-enabled services of one kind or another.

What makes the Tampa Bay area fertile ground to grow your business?

This community has done extremely well over the years with a variety of different kinds of outsourcing, particularly around technology. There are a mixture of data, technology and people here. It’s a very common thing. In fact, if you look at the greatest job creation that has occurred in this market, it’s basically been related to outsourcing and managed services of various kinds. This is a community that has always been well known for that. Pinellas County and Hillsborough County are rich in data and analytics talent, as well. It’s also very strong in account management and in sales and marketing. When you put all those things together, it’s a rich stew that for us creates a critical mass in terms of talent and potentially other kinds of growth resources.

Many people come to Florida looking to make a lifestyle change, and then they’re hopeful that they can find appropriate work. In our case, we came here knowing we already had a good, successful, profitable business that was going to grow a lot. So, we’re about job creation.

In what areas does the community need to improve?

I wish there was mass transit. More than mass transit, I really wish the educational commitment was stronger in these communities. There is a palpable difference in terms of investment and the priority for education, which is disappointing for me.

How have you and your company helped News Corporation.

I’ve basically been doing strategic consulting, operational consulting, managed services and business process outsourcing for almost two years, and we’re growing and growing and growing with that client. What we do for them is we help them better monetize the ad inventory that they have. We allow them to understand audiences much better than they would otherwise. We get more effectiveness out of their existing labor, and they’re able to grow more profitable. We’ve significantly increased their revenue in a dramatic way. In the case of News Corp as in our other clients, we typically start building a relationship in the U.S., we continue to do that and at the same time we’re putting in people off shore, that do various work that candidly is less expensive than if they were hired to do the work in the U.S.

Are the media and marketing buys related to social media?

It’s related to trafficking adds, selling unsold ad inventory, doing data science — all kinds of modeling work associated with trying to figure out the value of the inventory. It’s planning and executing media buying of various kinds for a wide variety of different kinds of clients. It’s both business to consumer and business to business.

Do the media buys typically include Facebook, Google?

It’s typically digital and it’s all programmatic. Our expertise is programmatic media marketing. We say that we are the global leader in Programmatic Resource Planning and Execution.

Yes, PRPE. You’ve trademarked that.

Right. What’s happening in our industry, media and marketing, is very much like what’s happened in financial services and enterprise resource planning and corporate software. Essentially, advertising, whatever kind of advertising we’re talking about, is in the process of becoming commodified and commoditized. In that process, as we develop more and more standards and there’s more use of technology and cloud computing — various software, artificial intelligence, block chain — all those things are coming to bear on media and marketing. The clients don’t have enough resources in terms of talent to understand what all of this is, how to apply it, how to make the best use of it and how to sustain employment. What happens in these very hot areas is it’s hard to keep your people. They get some exposure and training, and they expect more compensation and off they go to the next place. We are a point of stability and continuity for a lot of these companies.

You handle a lot of different tasks for your clients.

It’s incredibly wide ranging. You’re going to see this company grow and grow and grow where we’re going to have all kinds of different capabilities, largely driven by our clients. This is a good example of a company where our clients are driving the show. they say to me, who’s our audience? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Did we price this too high? Too low? I don’t have enough audience. I don’t have enough traffic. Can you help me?

Is that why we hear so much about data analytics, because it can be used as a guide to consumer behavior?

From a consumer standpoint, we’re getting more relevant messages. We care about that, right? We need to be careful, however, that we don’t abuse our privilege. Our clients need a great deal of guidance about what they can and can’t do, technically, procedurally, legally, and how to price it. I spend a lot of time training sales people on how to sell it. We’re end to end.

What advice would you give to start-up entrepreneurs who may find a home at Rising Tide?

Your time and reputation are precious. Especially when you are trying to get established. Be ruthless about your focus and prioritization. For start-up entrepreneurs, time literally is money. Make every minute and experience counts. How and where you organize yourself and your team is critical. The market for financial and human capital is really competitive and unforgiving. Conceive, Build, Test, Fail, Learn, Optimize…fast. Reduce your drag coefficient wherever you can. Follow Your Bliss.

What do you find appealing about Rising Tide?

Welcome, the waters here at Rising Tide are warm and fertile for personal and professional growth as is the community you will be joining. The esprit de corps here is relaxed, but mature and flexible. The vibe is positive, supportive and unpretentious. Management under promises and overdelivers. They care and are paying attention, so you can focus your time and attention on those things you value most. iSOCRATES is lucky and proud to be here.

You’ve enjoyed so much success. You could be out at Pass-A-Grille every day sticking your toes in the sand. What’s driving you?

I think the thing that’s driving me is that I have this vision of the way the world could be or should be, and I’m really interested in making that happen. I know my clients need help and I know that there are other companies out there that can use that help. Rightly or wrongly, I have this vision of the next 10 years and what the needs will be of the community I work in. I think I’m capable of building a substantial business that can systematically meet the needs of those companies. It’s not the same thing as saving kids from cancer, but it’s something within the realm of what I know how to do.

It sounds like you’re talking about your legacy. In 10 years, you’ll be able to point to the impact you’ve had on the automation of media and marketing.

I don’t think of it that way. But in the end, the only real thing that makes a difference is the impact on individual people. I’ve had the benefit of creating thousands of jobs where I can see what I’ve been able to do for people. That’s a lot more interesting to me than the companies.


Bill Bensing

Member Spotlight: Bill Bensing, WB3 Tech and Clatsch

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Bill BensingBill Bensing has five fingers, not three.

His ears are normal, not pointy. He’s never handled a real light saber, he possesses a full head of hair and sports a healthy tan instead of a green-tinted exterior.

Yet if Bensing has his way, he will become Tampa Bay’s experiential Yoda.

The St. Louis native came to Tampa Bay in 2016 and immediately sought to immerse himself in the community through different activities. Now he’s step out of the corporate world and into a start-up role to help consumers answer that question with an application he’s developing through his company, WB3 Tech, called Clatsch.

What’s a Clatsch? It’s a collection of related activities site users can create and then share with others. You can go to a ballgame at Tropicana Field, or you can lunch at a nearby restaurant, cross over to an afternoon game and cap off the evening with drinks at a local watering hole.

The idea is not only to provide packaged suggestions akin to vacation packages, but help businesses connect and collaborate on related forays.

A self-admitted big dreamer, Bensing, 32, hopes that in a year Clatsch will be the No. 1 destination for Tampa Bay residents trying to determine what to do in their free time. And he’s eying taking the model to other cities.
It’s his second startup effort after walking away from his first in 2015, and this time he’s looking to make the Rising Tide Innovation Center his launching pad.

Bensing recently spoke about delving into entrepreneurship, his hopes for Clatsch and why Rising Tide is the best place to begin his business.

What draws you to the start-up community? What motivated you to leave the security of your job and set your sights on being an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurs are trying to find new value propositions, new ways to solve people’s problems and I really love doing that, and I also love software. From the risk perspective, in my first attempt to do a start-up, I had this big set of anxieties — I’m not going to have a job for a year. After doing it, I realized it wasn’t that hard. My marketable skillset after that went up and my career took a different path which was for the better.

So, you feel like your first start-up was almost like a sabbatical. Tell us about that. 

Being put into a spot where I had to figure out how am I going to solve this problem, is the problem I’m solving economical and valuable, how do I implement the problem. When you put yourself in that position, you’re sort of on a sabbatical and there’s a lot of growth there. What I really liked was being able to solve people’s problems, but I also see my own growth and the growth of the people around me.

How did you find the courage to be an entrepreneur?

I’ve never thought of it that way. I think people think it takes a lot, but I really think it’s just more of an inner-drive. I may not be a representative sample, but in the very beginning, before I left my first job, it really took me close to nine months to come up with the courage to do it. It took me almost a year to determine how I was going to mitigate my risk, how I was going to save up money, how I was going to pay for what I’m doing. I had to build it up, and then I just jumped. This being my second start-up, it comes easier. You can’t just wake up one day and do it. I do think there’s some planning you have to put into it. The process of planning, the process of thinking it through builds the courage and the confidence to just do it.

How did you formulate the idea for Clatsch

Clatsch is born out of my experience moving here. I moved here in February 2016. Tampa Bay has always been a vacation destination for me just living in the midwest. All of a sudden, I’m living in a top vacation destination and I’m trying to figure out how do I establish my life. I bought a bike and and I just biked around to a lot of places. You have vacation packages and vacation offerings, I was wondering why can’t I do that in my everyday life? Why can’t I just get on a web site and say, “Hey, I want to do an experience package today.” Maybe it’s beer and wings and the Rays game. Maybe it’s Dali and wine. I want to put my own together, but I also want to see how other people experience life down here and become a part of it. That’s where the idea of Clatsch came from, from my own needs and wants to experience the area.

Do you think people are searching for more than just a singular destination — a package of two to three activities in a single evening?

Yes. I think when you specifically ask someone that question, their mind doesn’t go directly to that. They think of an individual event because that’s sort of our mental model and our construct today. But how they act is different. They act in multiple spots. But in the way I’ve asked it, the light bulbs pop on. There’s been a significant amount of positive feedback.

It seems like an application that would be perfect for newcomers.

Oh yeah. When you talk about newcomers, I think it’s a problem a lot of folks have when they come into a new area … how do I become a local? What does a local mean? So, it’s about having something to help them learn what does local mean here. Every city in the United States is a microcosm of its own culture. Tampa has a neat, cool culture. St. Louis has one. They’re different, but how do I become a native Tampa Bay person? I think it’s geared towards that local aspect. It’s not geared towards somebody doing a vacation. It’s geared towards you living your life in the area you love and becoming part of that community.

What’s the business model for the consumer? Would they pay to be a member of Clatsch?

No. It’ll be completely free for the consumer side. I want them to come on and use the application and share their “clatsches,” create their own “clatsches” and subscribe to other people’s “clatsches.” That’s the model for them. They’ll be able to purchase the aggregated “clatsch” through there. So, say it’s four different events and the events cost a couple of dollars a spot, they can purchase that whole “clatsch and the businesses that are putting the events on will get their proportion of the money through the whole platform.


And it’ll also appeal to businesses because it’s going to help drive customers to their establishments, right?

From the business side, it’s giving them the ability to offer more than just discounts. During the recession, discounts were a big thing, like Groupon. Now that we’re sort of out of it, I’m seeing more people are willing to do those one-off, relatively expensive events. They also don’t just do one thing, they do a couple of things. So why can’t the Dali and the Sea Salt people get together and collaborate, so you and your family could have an exclusive experience. That’s really the attractiveness for the business, giving them the ability to build more service-oriented projects.

Clatsch can be the connector?

It’s a dual-sided market place. I think any great story always has a guide. It’s like Yoda and the Jedis. There’s always a good guy in the background. That’s really what I want Clatsch to be. I want Clatsch to be the guide for consumers, so it can guide them on how they can best experience their life. I’m using machine learning and AI in the background, so I’ll be able to learn a bit about the people and make recommendations. But it’ll also be able to make recommendations to the businesses. There’s a lot of traditional heuristics in business today, but what if there’s a guide that can show them how to make better products and better services? What if I can go to a business and say you should collaborate with this business? I think that’s what Clatsch can really be.

What’s the role that Rising Tide will play in your success?

Co-working is about the community. It’s about building communities of folks for help. It can be as simple as having someone to help you build PR. In our community, someone can help educate us on PR and sometimes we can trade and do something for them. Having that community of help is huge. Fletcher and Fischer being here, they’ve been able to help me with some legal aspects. It’s a community sharing. That’s what I love about Rising Tide and that’s why am here. Talking to Leigh, her vision of building a community is exactly in line with what I had in St. Louis. It’s a phenomenal space, but it’s the community that Leigh and Tina are trying to build that’s really the value proposition.


Manhattan Casino

Member Spotlight: Mario Farias, Farias Consulting Group

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Mario FariasWhen Mario Farias rides around South St. Petersburg, he sees a district longing to recapture its once legendary status as an economic hub.

He sees the Manhattan Casino, where two restaurants and an event center have found a new home thanks to his help.

He sees Commerce Park, where his guidance will help place a marine equipment systems consortium led by EMP Industries.

Most of all, he sees home.

The CEO-managing director of the Farias Consulting Group spent his childhood in South St. Petersburg, and after a whirlwind career, he has returned to put a positive imprint on a place he cherishes for its past glory and its future potential.

His career has taken him to New York University for college, around the world as an employee of a Brazilian airline and up the corporate ladder in the auto dealer industry. These days, however, Farias finds himself spurring economic development in St. Petersburg, including key projects in Midtown and at Harborage Marina, the first and only full-service mega yacht port on Florida’s west coast.

And he’s making his most impactful decisions from his office inside the Rising Tide Innovation Center on Central Avenue.

Farias recently shared his outlook on his key projects, the source of his ambitions and why he has chosen the benefits of a cowork space.

When you look at the role you’ve played in bringing about positive change to South St. Petersburg, a place you grew up, what’s the emotion?

That’s the thing that really turns me on, the legacy that it builds is everything. Somebody told me a long time ago that legacy isn’t what you leave for somebody, it’s what you leave in somebody. Just the idea that I helped create a couple of dozen jobs motivates me to do it again, do it again, and do it again.

You’ve worked with a number of companies over the years, but you take particular pride in your work with the Callaloo Group in bringing new life to the historic Manhattan Casino. The landmark building on 22nd Street — “The Deuces” — that once hosted some of the country’s most famous African-American performers is thriving. Tell us about it.

I grew up going to the “Deuces,” going to those businesses, so when the opportunity arose last year for myself and my partners, it was pretty amazing. I got to do something in an iconic building. We’ve built two great restaurants there and the upstairs (event space) is flourishing and doing what it’s supposed to do. We do events there with up to 300 people. We’ve done corporate events, we’ve done weddings, we’ve done concerts, we’ve done everything up there in the short time we’ve own it.

And you feel like the restaurants are where the “real magic” happens?

Callaloo is a Southern faire restaurant that we’ve injected with some Caribbean flavor to give it a different feel for St. Petersburg. There’s no other restaurant like it in St. Petersburg, there’s no one else who carries our menu. Then we have Pipo’s, the Cuban restaurant chain. So, we have two restaurants and the event space. The fourth component is the huge kitchen which serves as a commissary not just for our restaurants, but for catering. We do 30 outside events a year, weekend-type events in parks. It’s given us an opportunity to train people coming out of culinary school to not only work in the kitchen — but we’re looking to find the right partners to open up additional restaurants.

You’re teaching them the business lessons as well as giving them the culinary training?

Right. That’s a legacy piece of my design. When I left St. Petersburg in 1975, there was nothing here. It was a sleepy little town. … There was nothing happening. When I came back, I said if I ever have the opportunity, I will make sure that no kid has to leave here. The only way to do that is by creating jobs and creating opportunities.

Are you focusing on hiring people from South St. Petersburg at Callaloo?

Absolutely. If you go into our kitchen, I would say 90 percent of our staff is local. Most of them walk to work. And we’re looking to do the same thing in Commerce Park.

It must feel good to help reinfuse where you grew up.

It’s a resurrection of what it was. South St. Petersburg was a vibrant area. There was a lot of pride in South St. Pete for those of us who lived there, who grew up there. My wife was born and raised in St. Petersburg. When we drive by places, we remember all the businesses that were there that are now gone. It doesn’t resemble what I remember growing up. I remember growing up, riding my bike with my brother and my cousins — we all lived near each other — and there would be little places for us to do things. And they’re not there now. That’s why two years ago I took on the project of making St. Petersburg the winter home for the Tall Ship Lynx. I remember being able to ride my bike down to The Pier and play on the Bounty.

So, you pull together the different marine companies, builders and municipal contributions and brought that project to fruition. Tell us about the end result.

Last year, they had more than 1,000 kids experience the ship. The Lynx is truly a learning vessel and, it teaches kids the history and brings them close to the water. To see those kids and how they interacted with the crew, it was all joy.

They’ve probably never been on a boat.

Yes, and they’re first experience is on a tall ship? That’s amazing. You have the marine science industry here, and at the same time, you have Marinetek North America, the world’s largest floating dock manufacturer, EMP Industries, which manufacturers the components that go into marinas, And the Harborage wants to expand. So, you see all these things are starting to work together.

With all your success, you could be in the high rise down the street or have a free-standing office. But you’ve chosen the Rising Tide Innovation Center. Why?

Relationship. Real simple. Leigh Fletcher has been a friend of mine for several years, we were having lunch and she said, “Let me show you what I’m doing.” And I said, “Okay.” It was that simple.

I would imagine this historic space appealed to you. It’s nice.

Absolutely. This space — there’s nothing like it. It was definitely not something I ever intended to do. I really don’t need an office. I work out of the house, but I’ve found I get more work done here than I do at my house. My house has the TV and the dog and my wife. So, it’s good here.

How much does it help to have a law firm right here?

There are a lot of times I need a legal question answered, and instead of picking up the phone to call Leigh, I walk around the corner. She said, I feel very comfortable knowing you’re around the corner, and I feel the same way about her. It’s about relationships. Her and Tina and the staff are an amazing group of people.

What advice would you offer for entrepreneurs and business owners looking to spark their efforts?

Listen more than you talk. Don’t take no as a no, take it as a not yet. Surround yourself with the best people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And know that there’s always someone smarter than you.