Moderators & Panelists


Carl Lavender, Jr., Chief Equity Officer, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg

Gypsy C. Gallardo, CEO, The Equity Institute of St. Petersburg

Esther Eugene, President, St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP

Caryn Nesmith, Director, Community Relations, University of South Florida – St. Petersburg


Dr. Cynthia Johnson, EDFP, Director, Pinellas County  Economic Development

Dr. Cynthia Johnson is the Director of Pinellas County Economic Development.  She manages a team of 33 professionals responsible for retaining, growing, and attracting businesses to Pinellas County.  Her mission is to create a more diversified, sustainable economy, to diversify the tax contribution of business and industry and to increase employment opportunities for the citizens of Pinellas.

Since 2000, she has been a leader in the organization, serving as Division Director of Business Assistance from 2001 to 2021, managing the department’s entrepreneurial and small business assistance and development initiatives. As a trusted advisor to businesses large and small, government agencies, policymakers, and community leaders throughout Florida, she has built her career around the diverse and inclusive interconnected aspects of economic development.  She advocates for public policies and business practices that promote inclusion and marketplace diversity.  

As an economic development practitioner, trainer, mentor, and educator, she has supported hundreds of individuals with the creation, retention, and expansion of their businesses.  She specializes in partner relations, federal and state grants management and compliance, business and strategic planning, entrepreneurial development, finance, and small business innovation.  She has more than 20 years of experience in economic development and over 25 years in training and development.

Cynthia is a graduate of Florida Memorial University, Miami, FL with a BS in Education and holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership & Organization from Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale.

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders, District 5

Deborah Figgs-Sanders has more than 30 years of experience in corporate, non-profit and small business management. Professionally, she is the President of Personal Agenda, LLC, a versatile consulting business serving clients throughout Tampa Bay. Prior to consulting full time, she was the Executive Director of YMCA Resources Centers (2016-2017) and the Childs Park branch (2010-2017).

On November 5th, 2019, Deborah made several historic firsts. Among them, she was elected the first African American to represent District 5 that includes neighborhoods such as Alliance of Bay Way Isles, Skyway Marina District (sections), Lake Maggiore Shores, Lakewood Estates and Greater Pinellas Point. Councilmember Figgs-Sanders currently serves on the City of St. Petersburg Co-Sponsored Events Committee, Public Service and Infrastructure Committee (alternate), Youth Services Committee (Chair), Community Development Block Grant Committee, Pinellas Schools Collaborative, Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, and PSTA Board. She is also a member of the National League of Cities Youth, Education, and Families Council; National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, Race Equity and Leadership Council, and Women in Municipal Government constituency group.

She has numerous boards, civic, and community affiliations including the Citizens Advisory Committee for the South St. Petersburg CRA (Mayoral appointment), Council for Persons with Disabilities (former Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch appointment), South St. Petersburg Democratic Club, NAACP St. Petersburg Chapter, and National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section. Councilmember Figgs-Sanders has received multiple recognitions such as Robin Lynn Young Spirit Award 2014 (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority), Whitney M. Young Jr. Healthcare Hero Award 2015 (Pinellas County Urban League), Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Community Service to Youth and Families Award 2016, Five Fabulous Females 2017 Honoree (Academy Prep Annual Event), and 2018 “Honor Thy Mother” Honoree, Community Service Recognition (PCSB & Advantage Village Academy). Deborah is married (Daniel), the mother of 3 sons (Kevin-Michael, Marcus, Daniel), and grandmother of 2 beautiful granddaughters (Braelyn and Kamari).

Jason Mathis, CEO, The Downtown Partnership

Jason Mathis serves as the CEO of the Downtown Partnership in beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida. The Partnership is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to thoughtful growth and urban redevelopment. The Partnership’s mission is to champion community prosperity through purposeful, transformative projects.

The Partnership focuses on big-picture, long-rage issues and works to form a shared vision for our future, inspired by global thought leadership, national best practices, and local sensibilities. We recognize the relationship between successful cities and green space, diversity, higher education, art, transit, data-based decisions, and a balanced approach to equitable and economically sustainable development. We are nimble, thoughtful, future-focused, collaborative, and humble. 

Jason has a long history of success in nonprofit management and urban development. His professional experience spans nearly 30 years in communication, coalition building, public policy and business advocacy. Jason has a strong record of advancing high-profile issues in complex public settings and he excels as uniting diverse stakeholders around a common vision.

Dr. Tashika Griffith, Provost, St. Petersburg College Downtown & Midtown

Dr. Tashika Griffith is the Provost of St. Petersburg College’s (SPC) Downtown and Midtown Centers where she provides leadership and oversight of several units including Academic Advising and Student Life & Leadership. Dr. Griffith has over twenty years of extensive higher education experience in developing and implementing educational programs and support services. She is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment to ensure student access to education and degree attainment. She has held previous roles within Multicultural Student Affairs, University Police, Career Services, and the Dean of Students Office and was a board member of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrator (NASPA) Center for Women. Prior to joining SPC, she worked within the Dean of Students Office at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and The University of Miami. Dr. Griffith received her bachelor’s degree in English with a certification in ethnic studies from Florida Atlantic University and a master’s degree in higher education and leadership policies from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). She completed her doctoral degree in higher education administration from Northeastern University and obtained a professional certificate in Ensuring Equitable Student Success in Higher Education from Harvard University

Jillian Bandes, Vice President, Bandes Construction & President, YIMBY St. Pete

Jillian is a licensed contractor who oversees the development of mid-to-large scale commercial projects for medical, multifamily, government, and retail clients. She has a personal interest in affordable housing and transportation policy. Her experience includes both commercial and residential construction, as well as for-profit and nonprofit development. She has lived in St. Petersburg since 2015. Jillian’s leadership roles include:

  • Founder & President, YIMBY St. Pete, February 2020 – Present
  • Member, State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) Affordable Housing Advisory Committee (AHAC), St. Petersburg City Council, September 2018 – Present
  • Co-Chair, Housing, Land Use, and Development (HLUD) Task Force, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, January 2019 – Present
  • Treasurer, Bright Community Land Trust, January 2018 – Present

Karl Nurse, former St. Petersburg City Councilman, District 6

Karl Nurse served on the St. Petersburg City Council from 2008 to 2017, and as Chair in 2013. During that time, he led the passage of over 60 proposals to encourage energy efficiency in city operations, spark a renewal in our inner city, promote affordable housing, use city budget and contracting to increase and improve local jobs and improve governmental efficiency. 

Karl currently is on the Board of Habitat for Humanity Pinellas/West Pasco, Pinellas Early Learning Coalition and the St Pete Economic Development Committee.  He is Chair of Suncoast Housing Connections and St Petersburg Neighborhood Home Solutions.

Karl has been a civic activist for over 40 years. He led many organizations including Old Southeast Neighborhood Association (6 years), CONA (3 years), Pinellas Living Green Expo (5 years) and two Chamber of Commerce committees. He served on the PSTA Board (vice chair), St. Petersburg Planning Commission (Chair), and the St. Petersburg Historical Preservation Commission (Chair).  He served on the Citizen’s Advisory Committee of the Southside CRA,  and on the Boards of the Sierra Club, the 2020 Plan, and the the Florida Orchestra (as Treasurer).

In Karl’s youth, he worked as a legislative aide in the State House for 2 years and in the State Senate for 4 years.

Karl started, with his partner and bride, Bay Tech Label in 1986 and today employees 49 people in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg.