Suzanne Ricci's aptitude for bringing people together has transformed the lives of thousands of technology professionals.
She's established herself as a renowned educator, networker, author, and host of the Talent Acquisition Talks Podcast, all while building not one but two small businesses from the ground up.
And to think, she could have just settled for a career in marketing.
"I graduated from the University of Miami with a public relations degree and got a job working as the marketing director at a commercial real estate company. The president was really tech-focused," Ricci explains.
Of course the president was tech-focused—this was the Dot Com era, when companies everywhere were practically in a tizzy over the most disruptive technology of the 20th century: The Internet.
"I started realizing tech was so ingrained in what I was doing in the marketing department. The websites, the digital brochures, the email marketing, all of that. I was essentially operating as the IT person, plus the marketing department."
But designing websites without understanding things like, say, technical infrastructure isn't exactly a cakewalk. Eager to deepen her knowledge, Ricci enrolled in various technology courses.
There was just one problem.
"I found myself lost in most of them because they were all taught at a high level by techies."
Of course, Ricci managed to master the material nonetheless. But her struggle helped her recognize the knowledge barriers many newbies faced trying to break into the burgeoning tech scene.
If she could do it, anyone should be able to do it.
So by 2001, Ricci was ready to change professional course, and that's when she decided to make technology education more accessible for all.
"I found my passion for helping others and my ability to translate complex topics into simple terms that people who weren't technical by nature could understand. And then, at a very young age, I said, you know what? I want to do this for the rest of my life. I wanna change lives."
Her mission was simple: provide training to bridge the gap between high-level technical expertise and non-technical-minded individuals. And just like that, in 2001, LaSalle Computer Learning Center was born.
After some research, Ricci settled on Tampa, Florida as the best place to set up shop.
"I realized, wow, Tampa has so much potential. So I started in Tampa, and I had a lot of people help me along the way that I wouldn't be where I am today without. When I got to Tampa, I realized, wow, this is the best thing that could have happened to me," Ricci says.
For the next ten years, Ricci put in the grueling work of building her business. Her relentless dedication propelled LaSalle to success.
"I ended up selling it to, at the time, one of the largest private equity groups in the knowledge sector. So it was quite a compliment. They acquired it for a company within their portfolio."
This transition opened doors to consulting opportunities, where Ricci gained insights into running a large business.
"That was an amazing opportunity because it really allowed me to fine-tune my leadership and my management skills."
But after five years, Ricci realized her deep longing to continue changing lives through her educational work.
"As much as I appreciated the opportunity for consulting, I was one of many, wherein a small business, I really had the opportunity to impact and do a positive change in my community personally."
That's when she decided to found her second business, Computer Coach. The name may be different, but the mission and the people she served remained the same.
Computer Coach continues to go strong today, offering students opportunities to break into the tech field with a variety of tech bootcamps and classes, apprenticeship programs, and job coaching.
"I cater to individuals who are either career-changing, looking to pivot into tech, or those looking to enhance their careers in tech. And that has not necessarily changed over time. Professionals still need to improve their skills, and there's still a demand for IT professionals."
The best part about Computer Coach? There's no reason you need to break the bank to attend.
"If there's a grant out there, I'm passionate about helping individuals continue their education and upskill without going into debt. Over the years, I've become good at that."
Of course, Tampa has undergone notable changes since Ricci founded her first business. The local government has since placed a strong emphasis on bringing tech to the city, evident in the expansion of tech programs in universities and the investment in tech-focused initiatives.
"We saw this development of quality of life over the last two decades. So many people noticed it and wanted to move here. They want to live here, and they want to open their businesses here. There have been a lot of moving parts working on the same goal, which is bringing more high-wage jobs to the Tampa area and focusing on tech as a result of that."
Despite Tampa's expansion, the tech community Ricci has helped build and sustain remains tightly knit.
"The community is very close, the tech community in particular. And that's why I say it's the biggest small town you've ever been in. There are people in Tampa Bay that have worked really hard to keep that by developing different programs. I've also established some different networking groups in Tampa to make it more welcoming."
Even if you haven't taken classes at one of her computer centers, if you're a tech professional in Tampa, you'd be hard-pressed not to find yourself at one of Ricci's events throughout the year.
First, there's LinkedIn Local Tampa Bay, a networking group that adds a personal touch to the digital platform by fostering in-person connections.
"The premise behind that was I have a pretty active LinkedIn, but sometimes it bothers me not to have a face to a digital presence. You know, I'm very much an in-person type of person. I like to give a hug; I like to give a handshake."
Then there's the End-Of-Year Tech Extravaganza, offering a single gathering for the tech community to celebrate the holidays (and avoid the need for multiple holiday parties).
"There are all these parties, we have to take time away from our family, and I don't believe I'm the only person that doesn't wanna go to ten holiday parties in a row. So I teamed up with another local meetup and said, hey, you know what, why don't we just do this and see if everybody wants to come out to one party? And the very first one was at Armature Works; we had over a hundred people show up."
Ricci also co-created Cyber X Tampa Bay, an event combining learning and networking opportunities in cybersecurity.
"I co-created an event called Cyber X Tampa Bay with a friend of mine, Ashley Putnam. And we said, you know what? It would be great to have an event where we can learn and network during cybersecurity month. Ashley and I sat down and said, if 50 people come, that would be amazing. Well, 300 people later, we have Cyber X Tampa Bay. We had amazing speakers. It was full of content networking. The vibe was so amazing. And that just goes to show you the amazing cybersecurity scene that's thriving in Tampa Bay."
One of the more heartwarming of Ricci’s endeavors is the 100 Techies Who Care Meetup, an initiative Ricci co-created with Erica Woods of Apex Systems that brings together tech professionals and enthusiasts to support local STEM-focused nonprofits.
During a meetup event, three tech-focused nonprofits present their projects, and members vote to distribute funds totaling $10,000. The nonprofit with the most votes receives $5,000, while the other two receive $2,500 each.
"That is actually something I love. I love donating and giving back to the community because I have seen it grow so much, and I want it to continue to grow.
She especially enjoys coordinating volunteers at the Synapse Innovation Summit.
Recognizing the time constraints budding entrepreneurs face, Ricci lauds the Synapse Innovation Summit as a remarkable platform that enables startup founders to momentarily detach from their demanding schedules and immerse themselves in the community.
"Watching Synapse grow from its first year to what it is today makes my heart warm because I love knowing that Tampa can sustain that. In 2001, that was not possible. There wasn't really much networking. Like, you would go have drinks with your coworkers for happy hour on a Friday after work, but there wasn't really this way to collaborate with others that weren't within your organization if you didn't know them in a different way."
She also attributes this paradigm shift to organizations like Embarc Collective, which offer aspiring business owners invaluable guidance, financial literacy, and a nurturing environment to foster their ventures.
"In 2001, we didn't have an Embarc Collective where you could go and have these amazing classes and learn how to grow a business. It almost seems unfair to me! I feel like the mom who's like, 'we walked to school in the snow uphill five miles each way.' But I love to see that because that means more people can start their businesses here."
Ricci underscores the pivotal role of other organizations spearheading community-building initiatives, such as Tampa Devs and High Tech Connect. Ultimately, she believes these collective efforts will drive the city towards becoming a thriving hub of technological innovation.
"Somebody has to raise their hand and say, 'hey, you know what, I'll put together a Tampa Devs, or I'll put together a High Tech Connect. So there are a lot of individuals in Tampa willing to do that now. There is very much a community of people willing to help others, which has developed over the years.
If you've missed out on any of the events mentioned so far, don't worry—Ricci and the rest of the community always have a few things in the works.
For instance, October 3rd is National Techie Day, so be sure to connect with Suzanne Ricci on LinkedIn for updates about that.
The Tech Success Network Meetup is also available to anyone in the United States. It offers resources for career success and job searching.
"That meetup was created because not everybody can be a Computer Coach customer. This particular group is really special to me because I bring in guest speakers who are in tech. And through that, we've been able to help thousands of individuals, and that actually has expanded beyond Tampa Bay."
As Tampa's tech community continues to evolve, one thing remains certain—Ricci's unwavering passion and dedication will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the city's technological landscape for years to come.