Employee Spotlight: Jamal Sowell, Port Tampa Bay

Jamal Sowell, Chief of Staff at Port Tampa Bay

Who is Jamal Sowell?

I am passionate about education, which was instilled in me at a young age because my mother worked in education and my parents met at Florida A&M University. Because of them, I know the power that education has to change lives and communities.

I strive to be a leader, shown in my commitment to the United States Marine Corps where I served in Afghanistan. Being an enlisted Marine and then an Officer taught me the essence of leading by example, which made me a more effective leader.

I served as student body president at the University of Florida, which allowed me to learn from great leaders who became mentors of mine. Two such individuals were Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Federal Maritime Commissioner Paul Anderson, who is now President and CEO of Port Tampa Bay. After UF, I went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where I obtained my Master of Education. Years later, I was deeply honored to be selected as a Pat Tilman Scholar at Indiana University Bloomington.

I am a sixth generation Floridian born and raised in Central Florida, but my family moved around a few times because of my father’s career in the Army. There is not one part of Florida that I would call home since I consider many parts home. My father is from Jasper, my mother is from Leesburg, my grandmother is from Jackson County, and I have a lot of family in Orlando, Jacksonville and St. Petersburg. One thing is certain though, I love Florida!

Why did you decide to move back and work in Tampa Bay?

Like many of my peers, I wanted to have adventures outside of Florida, to be a renaissance man who lived around the world. That’s exactly what I did when I pursued my advanced degrees and joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Eventually, my heart pulled me to return “home” to the Sunshine State. My life came full circle when I purchased a home in Pinellas County, where I had so many fond memories with my family in south St. Petersburg as a child.

What is it like to work at Port Tampa Bay?

Upon returning to Florida, I knew that I wanted to be a part of the monumental economic shift that was transforming the Tampa Bay area as “The Place to Be” in the state of Florida.

Working as the Chief of Staff at Port Tampa Bay is exciting. In the past year alone, as the largest economic engine in west central Florida, we have broken one record after the next – from welcoming more than one million cruise passengers in a year to growing operating revenue to nearly $60 million. The culture at Port Tampa Bay is innovative and always changing as we sit at the intersection of transportation, trade, agriculture and economic development.

It has been truly inspiring to witness firsthand the development of Sparkman Wharf, the port’s collaboration with Strategic Property Partners and watching the USF medical school go up in downtown, all while helping Tampa Bay become the premier destination for the state of Florida. I enjoy my job because I get to interact and collaborate with the leaders who are making the Tampa Bay area the greatest place to work, live and raise a family.

What is your favorite success story for this year?

Throughout my life I have had great role models, so all of my success ties back to them. My grandfather served in the segregated units of WWII, my father was in Vietnam, and my brother served in Iraq where he became 100% disabled. Because of the example they set, the ideal of “service before self” was ingrained in me.

With that in mind, my favorite success story is one of community activism. After heavy rains damaged the Lakewood High School football team’s storage containers, I was proud to help the team receive new storage containers to house its equipment. I connected with active community leaders and leveraged company connections that helped the St. Petersburg school’s team replace the containers. Nothing makes me happier than assisting youth in need and their community.

Which quality was displayed by a colleague that you’d like to cultivate yourself?

Port Tampa Bay Director of Public Relations Samara Sodos (Sam) has tremendous tenacity no matter what situation is thrown her way. This is an admirable quality I aim to cultivate in myself. As a former award-winning journalist, Sam is accustomed to meeting strict daily deadlines. I see how her vast knowledge as a former journalist comes into play in her PR job – she knows many people in the community: journalists, politicians, and other high-profile people from around the state.

I witnessed her tenacity and knowledge in action during Hurricane Irma. At that time, Sam and I were both only a few weeks into our jobs at the port, and we rode out the storm with Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson on an icebreaker ship at the Port. This allowed us to have a command center where we were in communication with the Governor, law enforcement agencies and port partners. I watched and assisted Sam take video of the hurricane and send it out on Twitter, to network news, and ultimately a worldwide audience. She sent constant news updates through social media, allowing for real time updates that notified the community when fuel was arriving at local gas stations. This gave citizens an idea of when things would get back to normal all while branding Port Tampa Bay as a fuel gateway.

What career advice would you give talent considering to…Make It Tampa Bay?  

Whether you go to the beach everyday or go camping in the woods, you can find it all in Tampa Bay. The topography of Florida’s geography is as varied as our career choices.

When explaining Tampa Bay to others, I tell people that the area is a perfect mixture between old Florida, the agrarian culture of my parents’ generation, and new Florida, with the post-WWII population boom of people from the northeast, Midwest, Caribbean and other locations that changed the state from a sparsely populated rural state to now the third largest state in the country.

Regardless of one’s background, Tampa Bay has the best of it all. My advice is to not only focus on Tampa, but also the entire Bay area.

What are you currently involved with in the Tampa Bay Area?

I serve on the Pinellas County Economic Development Council, Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee, the Saint Petersburg College Veterans Advisory Committee and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s Service Academy Regional Nomination Board. I am also involved in the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Pinellas County Urban League and a proud monthly donor to my parents’ alma mater, Florida A&M University.

What is something people find surprising about you?

My major at the University of Florida was religion and minor was in family, youth and community sciences. Many assume it was business or political science, but I had a desire to be a Pastor, so I majored in religion with the plan of going to seminary. Both of my brothers are involved in Christian ministry as well as many of my buddies growing up, so that was a natural path for me. However, as I got older, I realized that I wanted to serve in a different way. I took my major and used it to go to Israel and other places to learn about other faiths and cultures outside of what I was accustomed to in the United States. This gave me a broader understanding of the world, which eventually served me well when I was an officer in the Marine Corps.

Another thing about me that many find surprising is that I have failed at many things. There are too many mistakes and missteps to even count, maybe because I am not afraid to try, even when all odds are against me. I always remind myself of a quote by former Morehouse College President Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who also led the Tampa Urban League: “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.”

As I grew older, I realized that when I fell short, it was putting me on the path to do something unique and distinctive. Therefore, I am thankful for my past failures and setbacks.

PS. I love Monster Truck Racing and World Wrestling Entertainment!