Alex Sink turned a statewide election defeat into a new career: startup sage
The journey from high-level banker to one of the state’s top elected officials to budding tech entrepreneur and startup rainmaker, for Alex Sink, started out at a quiet moment at home.
It came eight years ago, soon after Sink, onetime Florida president for Bank of America and the state’s elected CFO from 2007-2011, lost a grueling election to now-Florida Gov. Rick Scott. A Democrat, Sink came within 60,000 votes of becoming Florida’s first female governor.
There were opportunities to get back into banking, and politics too. She eventually did get back to banks, at least from a board level, joining the board of St. Petersburg-based C1 Bank in 2013, for example. And she’s been active politically, advising and mentoring candidates.
But starting about five years ago Sink, who grew up on a hog farm in Mount Airy N.C., began to find her new career passion: helping tech startups grow and prosper.
She’s been a senior adviser for Hyde Park Capital Investments, a prominent Tampa firm, and she founded a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in several communities statewide, the Florida Next Foundation. Her latest gig, and her highest-profile post since she ran for governor, is chairwoman-elect of Tampa Bay Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build, launch, and grow breakout tech businesses. Sink’s chairwomanship begins in November. Says Sink: “Our goal is to get these companies investor-ready.”
Sink, 69, joins several others in getting behind the area’s startup scene, from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik to a dozen or so co-work spaces and incubators that dot the town. “I really believe we are at a tipping point,” says Sink, adding while a corporate headquarters is nice, local companies are the lifeblood of a community.
Tampa Bay Wave is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2018, having grown from a peer group for local entrepreneurs to a thriving tech hub that supports more than 200 startups. Tampa Bay Wave President Linda Olson, says the organization, like Tampa, is bubbling over with never-before seen opportunities, including interest from out-of-state investors and partnerships with national entities.
“If you haven’t been here in the last six months,” says Olson, of the downtown Tampa digs, on Kennedy Boulevard, “you wouldn’t recognize this place.”
Sink has two core reasons for diving into Wave, at which she’s been on the board since 2016.
'Florida does not have a lot of Fortune 1000 companies. We have a lot of small and midsize businesses. We are the land of dreams.’ Alex Sink
One motivation can be traced back to her gubernatorial campaign vision. She was a big booster for small business interests back then, she says, promoting the idea of homegrown successes. “I’ve always said I’d rather have 100 small businesses hire three or four people each and keep growing than have one business make one big splash with 400 jobs,” says Sink. “Florida does not have a lot of Fortune 1000 companies. We have a lot of small and midsize businesses. We are the land of dreams.”
Sink honed that philosophy during her 26-year banking career. With Bank of America, Sink became something of Florida pioneer, opening the office in Miami. That’s when the bank was NCNB, which became NationsBank, and later Bank of America. Working under legendary BofA executive Hugh McColl Jr., Sink grew the Miami operations into a statewide powerhouse: while she was president, the bank's branch network grew to 800 and deposits more than tripled, from $13.7 billion to $43 billion.
The employee side was her other passion, particularly in guiding young bankers. So much so Sink’s daughter Lexi would often joke that in her mom’s next life she would come back as a high school guidance counselor. “I’ve always considered myself to be something of a mentor,” says Sink, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 H.L. Culbreath Jr. Profile in Leadership Award winner. “I like being able to share my knowledge and experience to help others be successful.”
Her pupils from Bank of America form a top-notch roster of Tampa area business executives, people Sink mentions like a proud parent. The list includes Jamie Harden, who now runs Creative Sign Designs, an $18 million company with 130 employees; Steve Raney, the president and CEO of Raymond James Bank, a Raymond James Financial subsidiary; Gordon Johnson, co-owner of Highway Safety Devices and a board member at Raymond James; Pilot Bank President Rita Lowman, the 2017 Florida Bankers Association chairwoman; and Penny Parks, founder and president of Links Financial.
Sink says her goals at Wave include utilizing both her mentoring skills and her large base of contacts to connect young entrepreneurs with investors, potential investors and customers. “I’m very blessed to be in a position financially where I can pay it forward,” Sink says.
That includes working with a Wave company like Harness, which created a software app that helps nonprofits, schools and other organizations improve fundraising campaigns. One of its features is a roundup part of the app, similar to Amazon smile, where people can donate leftover change to groups. Founded in October 2015 by Miraj Patel, 27, and Andrew Scarborough, 26, Harness has nine employees and had about $250,000 in revenues last year. “We want to disrupt the fundraising space by bringing these new tools to donors,” Patel says.
Patel and Scarborough met Sink at a Wave breakfast event late last year. The young entrepreneurs and the veteran businesswoman connected over a shared passion for helping nonprofits while also building a business. Sink has since connected Harness with a bevy of nonprofits for potential business, including the board of the United Way. Says Patel: “She’s opened doors left and right at some of the biggest groups in town.”
Sink has also mentored the co-founders on everything from the nuances of targeting nonprofits to constructive criticism on elevator pitches. “Alex even called me on a Sunday morning once to talk about a presentation I had just given,” Patel says. “She’s just a genuine human being.”
Olson, at Wave, agrees that Sink’s sincerity is both what draws people to her and will also be an ally for Wave going forward. “She has a true passion for this, and she just gives and gives and gives,” says Olson. “And her attitude is infectious.”