Glen Gilzean’s Innovative Leadership of the Central Florida Urban League

Glen Gilzean is the President and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, a position he has held since 2016. He joined us as our guest on Episode 80 of the Agents of Innovation podcast.

In 2019, Glen was named one of Central Florida’s CEOs of the year by the Orlando Business Journal in recognition of his leadership at the Central Florida Urban League. This is even more remarkable since this was the first time that a CEO of a nonprofit earned these honors.

The Central Florida Urban League is an affiliate of the National Urban League, which was founded in 1910 and was birthed out of the Great Migration movement, when African Americans were moving from the South to the North to compete for jobs in the industrial north. They realized that segregation and racism had no boundaries so organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League were formed to help blacks overcome discrimination and finds jobs, education, health care, and other opportunities.

When Gilzean took over the Central Florida Urban League, he encountered an organization that was in debt by $1.2 million. He turned it around, found new partners in the community, and built new programs. In 2018, the Central Florida Urban League was recognized as “affiliate” of the year by the National Urban League. While Gilzean was at the head of leadership, he stresses that “there is no ‘I’ in team” and gave much of the credit to everyone on staff and on the board for working together to turn the organization around. And they haven’t just gotten by, they have soared to new heights.

While many Urban League affiliates are city or even county based, the Central Florida Urban League is “the affiliate of the future,” said Gilzean, with programs and outreach covering seven Florida counties: Polk, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Brevard, and Volusia. With headquarters in Orlando, they will soon open a satellite office in Sanford (in Seminole County) with others that will follow.

Born and raised in Broward County, Glen Gilzean has gained experience all over Florida and knows the challenges African Americans face. “I was on the verge of going down a path too many African American boys follow,” said Gilzean. “I have friends who are in jail and I have guys I grew up with who are not even around anymore – they are six feet down.”

He credits his mother from saving him from a life from destruction by teaching him the value of earning an allowance by doing his homework every day, doing house chores, and helping his mother sell Mary Kay products. With Gilzean’s contributions to his family, that included his three siblings, his parents were able to put him in a small private school and after school tutoring.

He ultimately graduated from Nova High School, a public school that was an early innovator in educational choice by bringing together students from around the entire county, despite their zip code. He was even able to do some on the job training through a program set up by Nova High School. While he has always told people his first job was at Circuit City, he revealed to us that “technically” his “first job was working, helping mom sell Mary Kay products in the community” when he was in middle school.

One of his most memorable experiences as a youth was doing a high school semester in Israel. To pay for the trip, he went to the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) and persuaded one of the directors there to fund his trip to Israel so that they could have an African American perspective. He sold them on this concept, and he was accepted and spent four months being educated in Israel. “That was the most amazing trip and also prepared me for life – living in a dorm and working independently,” said Gilzean. “It really transformed me to see life outside of the South Florida bubble.” He is hoping to one day set up a fund at the Central Florida Urban League to help other African Americans have an opportunity to visit the Holy Land.

Glen graduated from the University of South Florida, earning his B.A. in Biomedical Sciences and his M.A. in Entrepreneurship from USF’s Center for Entrepreneurship. He told us these two degrees helped build his analytical mind and his creative side. Ultimately, he formed a passion for educational policy.

Following college, he worked for U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, in an unpaid position. From there, he went to Tallahassee to work for the Florida Department of Education, beginning in the last year of Governor Jeb Bush’s term. He served for three and a half years and then went out on his own to start a nonprofit organization called Educate Today. They grew from three volunteers to a staff of 42 employees with $8.9 million, in the first year. Educate Today received additional support from state and federal grants. They infused academics and homework with fun, engaging activities. The nonprofit was later acquired by a for-profit tutoring company called Quantum Leap out of Jacksonville, Florida.

Glen was then tapped by Governor Rick Scott to fill a vacancy on the Pinellas County School Board. When that term ended, he was recruited by Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that administers scholarships to low-income families to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. This organization now serves over 100,000 students each year. Governor Scott also appointed Gilzean to the Board of Trustees at Florida A&M University and to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission.

In November 2015, Glen moved over to Orlando to help run the Central Florida Urban League and get them out of $1.2 million of debt. He “jumped out on faith” and didn’t take a salary for over seven months, living off of his savings alone. He finally collected his first paycheck from the Central Florida Urban League on July 4, 2016 and was permanently named President and CEO.

“You should be interviewing my mom. She’s the innovator of change. I’m always quoting her,” said Gilzean. He emphasized the fact that his mom is the one who instilled in him the importance of learning to read and acquiring work experience. He’s been putting that philosophy to work to help other black people in Central Florida. With his board of directors, the Central Florida Urban League revamped their mission statement to be more meaningful and impactful. “The way we are doing that is now through the three E’s: Education, Employment, and Entrepreneurship,” said Gilzean. “We believe the three E’s will really eradicate generational poverty.”

On Episode 80 of the Agents of Innovation podcast, Gilzean provided us with “breaking news” for the Central Florida Urban League, announcing that they just became an approved Microsoft Office Specialist provider – a first for any Urban League in the country. This means that they will be providing programs to train those in the IT industry to become certified to be a Microsoft Office Specialist. “We realized that if you have this certification, you can demand roughly about $17,000 more a year (in salary),” said Gilzean. And in today’s COVID world, with so much being digital, this makes this skill set even more important. “We are working to get people … gainfully back to work as soon as possible,” said Gilzean. Their first Microsoft Office Specialist course kicks off in September 2020.

“Our target community is the African American community because we are one of the oldest civil rights organizations, but we don’t discriminate against anyone,” said Gilzean. “Anyone who comes through our doors, if they need any services, we’re here for them.”

The Central Florida Urban League is also always willing to partner with organizations and companies. Most recently, they began a partnership with the NBA to host COVID testing at their offices in the Pine Hills neighborhood in Orlando.

For over four years, Gilzean and the CFUL have been out in the community bridging the divide between law enforcement and the black community. They started a program, “Coffee with a Cop,” where they would have opportunities for black youth and law enforcement to meet in a friendly environment over a cup of coffee at a McDonalds to have open conversations.

Central Florida Urban League lunch in June 2016: Then-Sheriff Jerry Demings, Then-Candidate for Congress Val Demings with Glen Gilzean and Francisco Gonzalez. Jerry Demings now serves as Orange County Mayor and Val Demings serves in the U.S. Congress.

They also asked black youth what they could do to improve this relationship with law enforcement and the young people came up with the idea of giving awards to police officers who have had a positive impact in their lives and in the community. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Gilzean.

Lt. Deborah Clayton, a black female officer, received one of the awards in the first year of the program. She was later killed on duty while responding to a crime. CFUL has renamed the annual program in her honor. Since these programs have been put in place in Pine Hills, crime has dramatically decreased there and then-Sheriff Jerry Demings released a report attributing some of the decrease in crime to the CFUL’s programs.

Last fall, Gilzean and the CFUL hosted an event with Ashley Bell, the White House Policy Advisor for Opportunity Zones and the Regional Administrator for the Small Business Administration. That day, Gilzean and Bell both signed a Memorandum of Agreement to partner in developing Opportunity Zones here in Orlando – the first Urban League in the country to be a partner with the SBA. “The concept behind it is how can we incentivize private capital in underserved communities” with tax incentives for businesses and access to capital for entrepreneurs of minority-led businesses and impoverished areas.

October 23, 2019: Gilzean with Ashley Bell

Recognized by the sheriff and mayors from many counties, as well as Governors, and even the White House, Glen Gilzean has brought a lot of innovation to his role leading this nonprofit organization, one with a 110-year history. As he said, all of his contributions have been built on the foundation of his experience of “using entrepreneurship skills, analytical skills, customer service jobs, being an entrepreneur selling Mary Kay – using all of that experience – to a social service job that can make an impact in the lives of so many.”

Gilzean is often recognized for the integrity and professionalism he brings to his work. In 2019, Gilzean was appointed to the Florida Commission on Ethics by Governor Ron DeSantis. And, in 2020, the Governor also appointed Gilzean to serve on the State of Florida’s 2020 Census Statewide Complete Count Committee. He was also recently appointed to the Reopen Florida Task Force, following the COVID19 lockdowns.

Gilzean brings community leaders together to meet with Governor Ron DeSantis

“I am the product of the American Dream,” said Gilzean, who is the son of two parents who did not go to college and grandparents who are immigrants from the Caribbean. He also has a grandfather who was born in Cuba and migrated to Jamaica, where he met Gilzean’s grandmother.

His advice to entrepreneurs: “Dream big, know that you will get knocked down,” said Gilzean. “What’s interesting is people see all these wins. They don’t see all the failures, all of the hard work, and the struggle and the challenges.”

“I remember going funders and telling them I was this new, fun innovative guy,” said Gilzean. “I had well over a hundred proposals that got denied before I got my first proposal accepted and it was only for $5,000.”

“What I can say to any entrepreneur is it’s not going to be easy. But trust me. If you stick to it and you work hard, it will pay off. And people will see that you’ve overcome the odds and the obstacles. And whatever you’re doing … you’ll transform people’s lives,” said Gilzean. “Try, try, try, but don’t give up … it will pay off, and you will be so happy that you didn’t give up.”

You can listen to the full interview with Glen Gilzean by tuning into Episode 80 of the Agents of Innovation podcast, on Apple podcastsGoogle podcastsStitcher, and SoundCloud. You can also follow the podcast on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter. We welcome your comments below and encourage you to write a review on Apple podcasts.

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