Left, ‘Power Broker’ Publisher Gypsy Gallardo interviewing Dr. Cynthia Johnson and Bemetra Simmons as ‘Ignite & Inspire’ guest speakers at Sisters Kin-nect 2021.
ST. PETERSBURG — “Invest, Ignite, Inspire” was the theme of this year’s Sisters Kin-nect Conference, an annual event billed as a “dynamic evening of personal investment to ignite and inspire women of all ages to connect and consider new and innovative opportunities to enhance their lives.”
The Oct. 1 convening did not disappoint. More than 200 people – mostly women – gathered for what one attendee described as an “enchanted evening” on the waterfront lawn of the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg.
“It was beyond amazing,” said Charlotte Anderson, a first-time attendee and vice president at the Pinellas County Urban League. “Especially because I don’t have any sister siblings, it was incredible to be among so many women uplifting and inspiring one another.”
The dockside setting was transformed for the occasion, with a 10-foot-tall sound stage, cushioned lounge furniture, tented seating, and a compliment of 10 local vendors (all women).
The Beat Down Band opened and closed the conference with old-school R&B that helped set the tone for a soulful and relaxing atmosphere.
“The open-air design was our way of creating an open and welcoming energy to the evening,” explained lead organizer Nikki Gaskin-Capehart. “Our goal was for the women in attendance to feel a sense of ‘connection’ to one another and to discover new sources of inspiration among each other.”
Capehart is the director of Urban Affairs for the City of St. Petersburg, which oversees the city’s My Brothers & Sisters Keeper (MBSK) initiative. She and a handful of other women founded the “Sister’s Kin-nect” annual conference in 2019 under the My Sister’s Keeper umbrella, which Gaskin-Capehart said was intended to encourage “sister circle connections that feel like family.”
This year’s conference had three major components, kicked off by Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin, encouraging attendees to build from the strength of sisterhood. Tomalin was one of three honorees for the evening, receiving the “Invest Award” for her role in shepherding the city’s historic investment in the MBSK initiative.
Also spotlighted was Dr. Jeffery A. J. Johnson and his wife, Teasia Johnson, received the conference’s “Inspire Award” for Dr. Johnson’s commitment to developing a regional girls’ conference along with Gaskin-Capehart that annually engages girls in middle and high school on both sides of Tampa Bay. Anjali Queen B of IHeartMedia went home with the “Ignite Award” for her work in the local media, encouraging women and girls to live their best lives.
The Invest focus of the evening was an on-stage interview of two women whose stories clearly reverberated with the age-mixed audience: Dr. Cynthia Johnson, the newly named director of Economic Development for Pinellas County, and Bemetra Simmons, the incoming president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a public-private economic development organization.
“Personally and professionally, their example and the advice they shared was so refreshing,” shared Esther Eugene, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and a Sisters Kin-nect Fellow. “One of my biggest takeaways was Dr. Cynthia Johnson’s testimony about the encouragement and love of her older sister (Sheila Tampa) when she needed it the most.”
Johnson and Simmons are among the handful of African Americans who helm economic development organizations in Florida. Johnson oversees a staff of 33 and an annual budget of $10 million, while Simmons was selected last month to oversee economic development partnerships spanning six counties. Women are also a rarity in this field.
When asked to share their secrets of success, Simmons echoed the evening’s theme, saying, “I’ve always been a ‘connector’ with a gift of bringing people together. This new role is perfect for me because it allows me to do just that, on a regional scale.”
The conference endcap was a brief graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of My Sister’s Keeper Fellows. According to Gaskin-Capehart, the six-month fellowship is a leadership program “designed to meet the unique cultural needs of Black women looking to grow and achieve their business and personal goals,” according to Gaskin-Capehart.
“It was an unbelievable growth experience for me,” remarked Kristal Vazquez, one of six women who completed the training and development series. “Being a part of this program made me realize the meaning, and how important ‘fellowship’ is and how even more important it is to be connected with a sista. I am forever grateful for the committee members and the ladies I have grown with for the past six months. I look forward to continuing the work with future fellowships to come.”
Gaskin-Capehart’s team is already planning for next year’s event. “So many sponsors and organizations are asking to continue this tradition,” said Tahisia Scantling, one of the 13-member Fellowship Advisors and Planning Committee.
“This was a celebration of sisterhood, a clarion call for sisters to come together and stay together and to build each other up,” shared Anderson. “I want to be part of making this a movement.”