Tonight, nearly 300 people came to see who would win the 2017 Polk Emerging Leaders Awards at the Bartow Civic Center. This collaborative event between young professional groups Endeavor, Emerge and Engage recognized 29 young professionals who were nominated for this award. The Winter Have Chamber Foundation founded this event in 2011.
The winners for the 7th annual Polk Emerging Leaders Awards were Derek Oxford, Merissa Green, Chad Tagtow, Ronald Shell and Alice Koehler. (Read more about the winners below.)
Derek Oxford is known for his dedication and "family man" mentality in and out of the office. He believes in bettering his community and shows it through his actions. Derek is a great model for anyone looking to successfully navigate the choppy waters of work/life balance.
After graduating from George Jenkins High School, Derek Oxford went on to receive his Bachelor’s Degree in Finance from Florida State University in 2004.
After graduation, he worked in the back offices of two of the largest brokerage houses in the world – Merrill Lynch and Fidelity Investments. The knowledge he gained with these giants served him well when he transitioned to CPS Investment Advisors as a Portfolio Analyst and Certified Financial Planner in 2008. The professional guidance he provided his clients about investments, financial planning, insurance, tax strategies, and other related issues resulted in him being named CPS’s Employee of the Year in 2014.
Derek's dedication and hard work doesn't stop when he clocks out. He has served as the alumni advisor for his fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha, is a graduate of Leadership Lakeland Class XXXIII, served as chair of the United Way of Central Florida’s Young Leaders Society, and excelled as a three term Treasurer and later Vice-Chair of EMERGE Lakeland – an organization he now Chairs. He is also a four-time nominee for these awards.
A dedicated employee, a hard working community leader and a family man? Yes! Derek likes to bring his family, including his wife and young children, into his community involvement whenever possible. Whether it is painting a house or working at a car wash fundraiser, he said he wants his kids to see the impact had in even the smallest gestures of kindness. In this way, he isn’t JUST an emerging leader – he’s helping raise them, too.
A graduate of Florida A&M University, Merissa Green received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Media and Graphic Communications with a minor in Criminal Justice.
She was hired after college by The Ledger and covered several beats throughout her 13-year career with the paper, including the City of Winter Haven, Criminal Justice and K-12 education. She is well-known for her investigative reporting of the murder of Abraham Shakespeare, a Lakeland lottery winner. This coverage garnered her national recognition. She has, and still does to this day, appear on national crime series including E! Investigates, CNBC’s “American Greed,” Investigation Discovery’s “Deadly Women,” and Oxygen’s Snapped. Merissa's star-like quality doesn't stop on the Television screen. In fact, she is a star for so much more!
Even with national attention, Merissa's primary focus has always been on developing the next generation of leaders, instilling confidence and determination in young people and her peers. The most satisfying moment of her career was developing and coordinating the Focus on Leadership program with the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, which was a program aimed at educating and inspiring minority professionals to become civically engaged. To her it revealed that she could lead, problem solve and make a difference.
After leaving The Ledger, she served as the City of Auburndale Communications Manager, where she started Polk County’s first Comic Con – an event that married two of her passions, civic engagement and superheroes. She has also served as the Chair of Leadership Development for the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Building upon her career as an education reporter, she is now a Senior Analyst of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships with Polk County Schools.
Merissa is also making a difference by creating a peer-mentoring group for minority women in the community to learn about civic engagement and how to strengthen their leadership skills, very aptly titled Queens of the Roundtable. She wanted her experiences to be a tool for other women to use to impact their futures and what they want to do to better the community. She has even started a campaign with the hashtag “I am here” to encourage people to step up and step out for their communities and be examples for youth.
Merissa recently brought together over 50 women, many of which didn’t know each other, from different careers, races, communities and social economic status – but all with a passion for making Polk County the best it can be now and for future generations. The best part – because each of these women have been inspired or influenced by her, they were willing to don Wonder Woman costumes and gear at her request to build each other up by professing why they are a Wonder Woman.
Chad Tagtow graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Central Florida in 2000. During his time at UCF he also worked at Boeing Aerospace at Kennedy Space Center as a Network Design engineer and after graduation as an Information Assurance Architect at Raytheon.
There he did a lot of technical work, but one of his more interesting roles was to be a hacker – finding vulnerabilities in the Navy Marine Corps intranet. This experience as well as being a certified Information Systems Security Professional, certified in National Security Agency Assessment Methodology and a Six Sigma Certified Specialist makes him perfect for the role he has held since 2004 as Chief Information Officer for Citizens Bank & Trust. He has led the bank through challenging new technological horizons, such as online banking and the latest chip-card required conversion. Citizens Bank takes security very seriously – and they have the right man in the job looking out for your assets.
Chad is also a graduate of Leadership Winter Haven class 34 and Leadership Polk Class 10 and he strives to challenge the young professionals of Winter Haven to be leaders, entrepreneurs and successful businessmen and women through his chairmanship of the Endeavor Winter Haven young professionals group. He also serves on the Growth and Prosperity Funding Program of the Central Florida Development Council aimed at awarding Micro-Loans for small and start-up businesses and the Polk Vision Smart Communities Committee and Talent Pipeline Committee.
Not only is he a community man, he is also a family man. With his beautiful wife and three children, he spends time teaching them service, morality, humility and work ethic. By example, he strives to make every member of his family better every day and takes that responsibility very seriously.
Chad is on the executive board of the Florida School of Preaching, a non-profit that provides free training to men desiring to become preachers. He serves as Deacon the Orange Street Church of Christ where he also leads the education program and is the Founder and Director of the Spring Youth Retreat at Weeki Wachee Christian Camp that focuses on 13-18 year olds. Since 2009 he has preached part-time for a small congregation in Zephyrhills. In 2005 he began a regular semi-annual mission trip to West Africa to work with the Village of Hope Orphan Home and most recently travelled there this summer. Through evangelism, medical clinics and seminars on church leadership they are able to assist and inspire growth in the Village of Hope.
Ronald graduated from Winter Haven High School and then attended Polk State College where he received an Associates of Arts in Elementary Education. He went on graduate with his Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of South Florida and in 2016 received his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from National Louis University in Tampa. During his time at the University of South Florida, he was involved in the Black Student Union, Teaching Education Council, Student Government Association, Phi Sigma Theta, Project PRIDE Scholar and USFP Homecoming Lord.
Ronald’s heavy involvement didn’t stop upon graduation. Presently, he dedicates his quote, unquote, spare time involved with the Citrus Center Boys & Girls Club, non-profit All About Kidz, Chain of Lakes Achievers, Adopt-A-Grandparent at the Pughsville Community Center, and “It’s a Girls World Foundation” in Auburndale. At the Citrus Center Boys & Girls Club he is “Da Club” Choir Director, Big Wheel Team Coach, Basketball Coach, Summer Baseball Coach, SMART Moves Coordinator, Club Steppers Coordinator, and was named Staff of the Year on several occasions.
He aims to inspire hope and happiness in those around him. He has a strong belief that life is more than just being, it is all about doing. Leadership is not defined by a title, but rather something that is earned through the respect others have for you. Ronald exudes that belief by his actions in his community and in the workplace.
Whether he is speaking at a graduation ceremony or to the students in his classroom, his goal is to lead through his words and by example. He was named Lake Shipp Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2015 for his dedication during school hours and after hours. From tutoring students to heavy engagement with parents, this recipient’s hard work and commitment to his profession is what makes him an emerging leader.
When asked to pick a personal theme song he believes describes him, Ronald said, Pharrell Williams’, “Happy.” Not because it’s just so incredibly catchy, but because it reminds him of two quotes that he has used to define his life. One is a quote from Frederick Douglass that reads, “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.” He adds that if we learn to be happy despite all we go through then we will all see progress.
He also quotes his late great Aunt Dr. Neva Wilson, who told him that people need to know that no matter what they have gone through, it’s important for them to know that there is always hope. Perhaps another quote from Frederick Douglass would be appropriate to define the work that Ronald brings to this world – that it is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.
Alice Koehler is an especially community-minded individual with more than a decade of experience in what she calls the “social betterment sector.” She has written grants, memos, resumes, press releases, love letters, executive summaries, lunchbox notes, research papers, and Facebook status updates. Though, she has never tweeted anything. She has learned to speak French and dance Salsa. She’s tasted termites and bush rat.
A Lakeland resident, Alice Koehler received her Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology, along with a minor in Education, from Florida Southern College in 2001. After graduation she spent time in the Peace Corps and later returned to Florida Southern to receive her Master of Business Administration from the Barney Barnett School of Business & Free Enterprise in 2014. If that isn’t enough she is also a graduate of Leadership Lakeland Class XXX, Leadership Polk Class IX, and the Public Leadership Institute, Polk County Class II.
Alice currently serves as the Chief Development Officer for Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, a volunteer-run medical clinic providing free quality medical care to the working uninsured of Polk County. As the Chief Development Officer, she is responsible for the strategic direction and development strategies related to LVIM’s revenue growth. Robert Yates, the President and CEO of LVIM, admits our recipient’s job is, “a tall order considering that LVIM experiences over 25,000 patient encounters and delivers more than six million dollars in health services each year.” But, he says, with her professional leadership and her collaborative approach to problem solving she is not only successful, she is thriving.
In 2012, at the request of then-Mayor Gow Field’s Council on the Arts, Alice led a group of fellow MBA students in a study to determine the economic impact of the non-profit arts community in Lakeland. Through interviews, document reviews, organizational data tracking, and number crunching the impact study revealed something astounding: Lakeland’s non-profit arts community has, at a minimum, $26,410,688 economic impact on the city. The work continues to influence Lakeland’s City Commission in financially supporting the arts.
In the summer of 2004 when she was a Peace Corps volunteer she dedicated herself to working on a project aimed at eradicating the Guinea Worm from Togo, a West African country. Guinea Worm is a parasitic infection contracted through the consumption of contaminated stagnant water. The details of this once neglected tropical disease will be left for you to research on your own. The project focused on making Guinea Worm the first human disease in history eradicated without the use of a vaccine or medicine. She was a part of a group tasked with organizing volunteers to bike out into the bush to bring education, awareness, and water filters to those most impacted by the parasite. Her time sleeping under the open sky on pallets made of dirt was not in vain. In 2011, the Guinea Worm was declared eradicated from Togo and now only afflicts 126 people in the world. Though Alice classifies her efforts as small and insignificant, she credits this experience with showing her how collective and continuous small acts of individuals can make true and lasting change.
Thank you to our sponsors!
A.C.T Environmental & Infrastructure
Broadway Real Estate Services
Chuck & Kati Thornton
DSM Technology Consultants
Sessums Law Group