CEO Leadership Forums: Teaming Up with Valencia College for the Next Generation of Leaders

Brianna Gonzalez
Brianna Gonzalez

CEOs and business leaders are used to talk of investments. Time and money, short term and long term; most have heard it all. But CEO Leadership Forums have tapped into an investment with an even more promising return: people. Walking into a classroom at Valencia College’s West Campus Building 11, that promise is palpable.

The Beginning

“From the very first meeting, I knew, ‘This is a great spot,’” said Tim Bach, owner of Patterson Bach Communications. “It’s not just a networking event, it’s a place to speak with other business leaders about business in a space dedicated to learning and sharing.”

Finding that perfect space proved to be easy once the partnerships were rooted. Dr. Nasser Hedayat, assistant vice president of career and workforce education at Valencia, recalls the very beginning, when he received a phone call from Geoffrey Gallo, senior vice president of marketing and strategic consulting at CPA firm Grennan Fender.

Doug Foreman and Nasser Hedayat
Doug Foreman and Nasser Hedayat

“I didn’t know it at the time, but he would become my best friend,” Hedayat said. “He said, ‘I’d like to come and speak with you about this vision I have.’ He came over to my office and told me about this idea that he applied when he was in Houston.” The program Gallo pitched turned out to be the CEO Leadership Forums, allowing Central Florida business leaders to meet for educational discussions alongside Valencia students and sometimes faculty.

“We have the opportunity to bring value to the business owners while also helping students who are eager to learn and work with local companies,” said Doug Foreman, CEO of Fringe Benefit Plans.

Hedayat was sold. In fact, the program Gallo proposed could not have been more of a perfect match for the college. Hedayat described the goal of Valencia as one of providing talent for the community, connecting students to leaders of companies shaping the region, and Gallo was looking to connect his business leaders with the vibrant and hungry talent pool thriving in Orlando. For three years now, a window-lined room in the heart of Valencia’s campus has seen a return on their investment, giving rise to internships, opportunities and collaboration.

Filling the Gaps

That return is even more far-reaching than expected. At each forum, two to four students and several leaders hear insight from every part of the talent pipeline from those just starting out to those at the top of their fields.

“This forum really helps our students to see that they are needed,” Hedayat said. “It gives them the confidence to see that they need to finish because they know someone will need them when they graduate. Otherwise they ask themselves while in the classroom, ‘Who exactly will hire me, what exactly will I be doing?’ When they see the ‘who’ right in front of them, it’s very powerful.”

“I do know that if I start with the right people, ask them the right questions, and engage them in vigorous debate, we will find a way to make this company great.”

— Jim Collins, Author of Good to Great

Chris Cucci
Chris Cucci

In the same way, the business leaders are able to connect with exactly who is making up the next wave of talent. “I find that when they ask questions without any bias from past experiences, it helps me see solutions I may not have otherwise thought of, given their fresh perspective,” said Daryl Dixon, CEO and cofounder of VALiNTRY Services LLC.

In one of the sessions in early June, a student named Brianna Gonzalez was in attendance. Before enrolling in Valencia, she had earned a degree in psychology and was working as a supervisor at a residential behavioral health center. She realized she was drawn to the field of technology, however, and that while psychology still interested her, it wasn’t the right track. Following a growing interest in cybersecurity, where her talent for understanding human behavior and her love of tech would click perfectly, she enrolled at Valencia to pursue her new passion.

“The field of tech is fun and it’s challenging, and there are so many things you can do,” Gonzalez said. “This is something I’m always going to be hungry for.”

As she explained her journey, engaging everyone in the room with her eloquence and clear vision both of her past and for her future, Aurora InfoTech’s Managing Partner and Cofounder Aluska Harms-Richardson and Managing Partner Roy Richardson were among those listening.

“There were 700,000 available positions in tech as of early this year, forecasted to go up,” Richardson said. “And today, cybersecurity has zero percent unemployment. One of the biggest challenges with that is the retention of talent.”

What ensued was a conversation about employee retention, including everything from the value of soft skills to the importance of employee empowerment, from every side of the table. The discussion offered a chance for each person in the room to learn.

“We have amazing talent, but it can be hard to find. It’s not easy,” Aluska Harms-Richardson said. It’s invaluable for the students, the workforce of tomorrow, to be nurtured in a safe environment and get that interaction with CEOs, she said. The forums allow them to ask questions, develop their skills and know exactly what they need to study to build their qualifications so they’re better ready to get the jobs they want.

Educating at Every Stage

 Daryl Dixon
Daryl Dixon

The investment goes far beyond just the classroom meetings. CEO Leadership Forums and their partners have supplied funding for scholarships for students, bringing tuition to the recipients down to as low as $2,500 a year — another example of the forums’ alignment with Valencia’s pledge to being “accessible, affordable and achievable.” Students with scholarships are then considered through the network for internships.

“If Orlando can get better at retaining and attracting young, talented individuals, it can help our region become a hotbed for new startup activity and provide a solid talent pipeline for existing companies in the local market,” said Chris Cucci, senior vice president and commercial banker at CenterState Bank.

At every stage of the journey through the business world, from education to apprenticeship to employment and even empowerment to start their own enterprise, CEO Leadership Forums and Valencia are ready to offer a hand to those willing to invest in themselves and their community.

“One person can be a force multiplier,” Gallo said. “And that’s what we’re talking about here, being a force multiplier to help the business community at every stage get what they need.”


Orlando’s CEO Leadership Forums consist of two groups, with Orlando Group One including 17 local business leaders:

Gary Cohen, CFO and consultant at Nperspective CFO & Strategic Services

Chris Cucci, senior vice president and commercial banker at CenterState Bank

Tim Bach, owner of Patterson Bach Communications

Paul Dietrich, managing partner at law firm Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears

David Poparad, tax partner at Grennan Fender CPA firm

Phil Zeman, senior vice president and commercial relationship manager at CenterState Bank

Doug Foreman, CEO of Fringe Benefit Plans

Glyn Griffis, financial advisor for Raymond James

Brian Fatigati, president of ARX Payments

Daryl Dixon, CEO and cofounder of VALiNTRY Services LLC

Timmy Rupeiks, senior vice president of sales for VALiNTRY Services LLC

Bernie Piekarski, managing partner of Piekarski Consulting LLC

Ray Watson of CEO Nexus

Eric Shulman, president of Sandler Training Institute

Aimee Collins Hitchner, senior associate at law firm Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears

Geoffrey Gallo, senior vice president of marketing and strategic consulting at Grennan Fender, who has led the charge in creating the program since its inception

About the author

i4 Business

i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment