Somewhere along the way, Rob Panepinto‘s pursuit of the American dream in Orlando took subtle turns toward something about more than just business and personal success, toward social responsibility and support for other entrepreneurs.
The Republican venture capitalist from Winter Park who is president of the board of Orlando’s regional chamber of commerce, Orlando Inc., last week entered the Orange County mayor’s race for 2018, seeking to succeed term-limited Mayor Teresa Jacobs. That looked to many as if Panepinto would be the business interests’ candidate, up against some well-known and influential veteran politicians, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, School Board Chairman Bill Sublette, and, presumably, County Commissioner Pete Clarke.
Yet while Panepinto is passionate about promoting traditional Central Florida business interests such as the tourism and service sectors, in an interview last week with FloridaPolitics.com he came off as far more passionate about what many of his business and nonprofit interests are really all about: supporting entrepreneurship, and promoting business and nonprofits that make differences in people’s lives.
Panepinto, a 50-year-old Republican, conceded Central Florida is behind the curve when it comes to developing an entrepreneurial base. But he said that the private sector, the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, local governments and the community are coming together to address that.
“I think it needs to be amplified because I think that’s a big part of this economic diversification that needs to happen,” Panepinto said.
“But by the way, the next group of companies, the ones that are past the startup stage, the $5 million to $20 million companies, that are our next group of high-growth companies, they also need our focus and attention. And there’ve been some efforts there as well. So there are some pockets of some really good stuff going on. I think it needs to be consolidated and amplified, so that the broader community begins to understand how important this is in where we need to be in the next 20 to 25 years,” he said.
A New Yorker, Panepinto and his wife Stacey moved their family and dreams to Orlando in 1993 because Central Florida seemed to them to offer a better lifestyle for themselves and their children. A business he joined in Winter Garden grew and became Connextions, a successful software innovator in health care technology and business processing solutions. He became president, and the company was purchased by UnitedHealth in 2011 for an undisclosed sum. Earlier this year TeleTech bought it for $80 million.
Panepinto now has founded Florentine Strategies, his primary business, which provides support, strategic consulting, and investment capital for health care, social enterprise, and technology companies; and is in leadership roles for CTW Global, which he describes as a “social innovation consulting” company working with nonprofits such as Clean the World Foundation, Global Soap Project, and Clean the World Asia; and Health Hero, which he describes as a health engagement and behavior change technology company.
He’s also chief executive officer and chairman of the Central Florida Social Enterprise Accelerator; chairman of the Central Florida Foundation, and of Entrepreneurs In Action; and a board member of the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at Rollins College; Canvs, a nonprofit co-working space for entrepreneurs in downtown Orlando; the FireSpring Fund, which provides seed money for such entrepreneurs’ companies; and the Central Florida Zoo.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see the community through, certainly, building a business and raising a family here, so certainly I see it as a citizen. Being the chair of the chamber, and with the OEP [Orlando Economic Partnership,] and being the chair and vice chair of the Central Florida Foundation, you get to see the community through the business eyes, and the nonprofit eyes, and how that interacts with the public sector,” he said.
“So for me, what I’ve seen is, I’ve been in the room for a lot of these conversations, there is a lot that is wonderful about this community,” he said, stressing its position as the tourist capital of the world, its youth, and its diversity. He also said he’s convinced there is “a sense of energy about what we can become.”
But there is a flip-side, he noted.
“We continue to be at the bottom among most major metropolitan areas in terms of average wage. We have an issue with cost of housing, particularly rental properties, and we’re a community with the third-highest percentage of millennials in terms of population,” he said. “That’s an issue we need to address, more effectively, more aggressively. And clearly, there are types of social issues along with the type of economy we’ve been.”,
Panepinto said the answer is not to do anything to disrupt the service and tourism industries, which he said the community relies on now and will continue to rely on as it develops other sectors. What’s needed, he said, is a strategic vision for building out the future economy that looks to broaden and deepen it. The vision has got to look ahead, he said, five, 10, and 20 years, a vision that focuses on bringing up average wages, and deals with an affordable housing challenge where, today, he said, 80 percent of renters are paying 50 percent of income in rent.
“I really do truly believe that, because you’re going to effectively need government to work very closely with the business sector, with citizens in the community, with the broader region, and with the other nonprofits and social service companies, you need someone who comes with a lot of experience to be able to understand how those things really work together,” he said.
“And that’s really what drove me into the race.”