Yvonne Fry has been a force for economic good in Plant City, the hometown that she once wanted to leave behind forever.
If cities and towns could hand out MVP awards for economic development, Yvonne Fry would have a strong case to receive such an honor from Plant City.
The founder of Fryed Egg Productions — she uses the title “chief fry cook” — Fry is a jack-of-all trades when it comes to branding, marketing, public relations, event management and many other business development functions. And, in addition to being a single mom, the 50-year-old is an unabashed evangelist for Plant City, where she was born and raised.
“I’m in a fierce competition, but I want to be the head cheerleader for my community,” she says. “I love it. I am so grateful for a place to call home … a special place that has a sense of community, where people care about each other and care about our place.”
That sense of caring is evident in Future Career Academy, a workforce development initiative Fry helped develop in her role as CEO of Workforce Development Partners, a nonprofit that also created the Best Florida Jobs program for adults. Now in its seventh year, FCA has been a big hit with non-college-bound high school students in Plant City, East Tampa and southern Hillsborough County, who, prior to graduation, receive classroom instruction on topics that will set them up for success, such as resume writing, how to dress for work, interpersonal communication and other soft skills they’ll need to not only interview for and land a job, but set themselves up for a productive career.
Then, as the students prepare to matriculate, they take part in a “Future Fair” — designed to be much more than just a standard job fair, it features food, fun and energetic talks from local leaders such as Plant City Mayor Rick Lott — that connects them with dozens of local employers. This spring, Future Fairs were held at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre in East Tampa, Hillsborough Community College’s Plant City campus and The Regent, an events space in Riverview.
The Future Fairs are followed by signing days — celebrations of FCA participants who’ve been hired by local companies or are entering training and apprenticeship programs.
During the 2021-22 school year, FCA reached some 7,000 students, and it partnered with employers such as TECO, Mosaic Co., Publix, BayCare, Coca-Cola, Stingray Chevrolet, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Ace Hardware and others. Several sponsoring companies paid for career training opportunities for students, ensuring the graduates will enter the workforce as debt-free as possible.
Next year, Fry says, FCA will expand to all high schools in Hillsborough County, and it could quickly grow even further. “We’ve had queries from counties all over the state,” Fry says, adding that businesses, too, want to help the program branch out to more communities. “The demand on both sides is there.”
Fry further describes FCA as a synthesis, maybe even the culmination, of the many facets of her professional life. In her marketing work, she frequently deals with business owners and CEOs and has found that, invariably, “the No.1 thing that keeps them up at night is workforce,” she says. “Having a broad spectrum of understanding of different types of businesses, and being able to feel their ‘heartbeat,’ has helped me prepare for what I’m doing with this nonprofit.”
Even as a busy professional and single parent, Fry has made time over the year to volunteer in her kids’ schools. That experience led her to question how students are being prepared for successful, productive careers and lives, even if they don’t plan to pursue higher education.
“What’s their pathway forward once they graduate, if they’re not going to college?” she says. “How are we truly preparing them for that next step? I look at what I’m doing with this nonprofit, and I tell people, ‘No matter where you find yourself, everything in your life has uniquely prepared you for today.’”
That statement could easily apply to Fry’s personal journey. Graduating from high school in 1989, she was determined to leave small-town life behind and enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
“I followed a boy there,” she says. “Obviously, that didn’t work out. But being in that place, the poorest state in the union, was one of the greatest gifts.”
It didn’t take long for Fry to make friends at Southern Miss. One of them invited Fry to her family’s home for the weekend — a memory that has stuck with her decades later.
“I get there, and her house has dirt floors,” she recalls. “The whole weekend, we ate red beans and rice because it’s a nutritious meal that’s cheap to fix. Those things were just the realities of what people around me were dealing with.”
That experience, so early on in her college years, awakened Fry, who spent some of her childhood years on the family farm but didn’t struggle with dirt floors and lack of food. After graduating from Southern Miss, she returned to Plant City.
“It’s ironic that I came back pretty quickly,” she says. “At the time, a lot of us wanted to get out of (Plant City)— we thought there’s nothing here; there’s no opportunity.”
With FCA and Best Florida Jobs, Fry has created an abundance of opportunities for subsequent generations of Plant City and Tampa residents. But there’s work yet to be done. She’s looking for more companies to join FCA’s business advisory boards, which meet a few times per year to assess needs and plan events in the communities the organization serves and plans to serve.
“You put the right people at the table with the right process, meaning you’re building relationships and opening dialogue,” she says, “and magic will happen.”