This determined Gator blazed the way for a University of Florida presence in West Palm Beach. A UF professor saw it coming.
It started with a typewritten note. Addressed to her parents’ home in Palm Beach County.
It was December 1985, and UF sophomore Kelly Smallridge was relieved to be home on break after an intense fall semester. Like all undergrads then, she was required to take Introductory Economics, and the course had been a “bear”: complex new concepts and challenging assignments, little of it directly related to her communications major. But her professor, David Denslow, had an engaging way of explaining how the world operates on a financial level, and, to her surprise, she had taken a liking to the subject and scored a final grade of A.
And now here was a letter from Dr. Denslow himself, saying she had stood out among her 1,000 classmates and might consider pursuing a career in economics.
“Honestly, I hadn’t really considered that path before, but his letter planted the seed,” said Smallridge (BSPR ’88) in a recent interview. “Here was a subject I had thought would be excruciating to study … and I ended up excelling. I still have that letter somewhere!”
While Smallridge went on to earn a degree in public relations, not economics, Denslow’s words proved prophetic.
“My UF degree in public relations has led me to where I am today. When you are in a quasi-public role, like I am in, you’re going to deal with a myriad of issues that require a public response: you serve on the frontlines every single day.”
— Kelly Smallridge —
Today, Smallridge is the much-lauded president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, the region’s official public-private economic development agency. During her 18 years at its helm, the BDB has assisted around 400 major corporate relocations and expansions, creating nearly 38,000 high-salary jobs and generating more than $2 billion in capital investment and $13 billion in economic impact for the county. In the last decade, she spearheaded a migration of hundreds of New York financial firms that has turned Palm Beach County into “Wall Street South.”
Currently, Smallridge is facilitating two vital expansions for her alma mater: the integration of the research branch of UF Health with the Jupiter-based Scripps Research campus, and the proposed creation of a satellite UF campus in West Palm Beach. In recognition of her longtime efforts, the university honored her as volunteer of the year at the Academy of Golden Gators awards ceremony in March 2022.
The longest-tenured economic development president in South Florida — and the first woman in the region to fill those shoes — Smallridge credits UF with laying the groundwork for her success.
“My education at the University of Florida properly prepared me for the very large role that I play in Palm Beach County,” she said in a recent interview. “It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence; it taught me to strive for the highest possible level in my career and to be an expert — not only at the local level, but at the state and national levels.”
“Stand Up and Communicate”
Promoting growth in Palm Beach County isn’t just a job for Smallridge; it’s her passion, originating from her deep roots in Palm Springs, a village near West Palm Beach, where she was born and raised.
Her father was design chief at Pratt & Whitney, the county’s largest employer, where he oversaw development of engines for military jets. Her mother was a teacher who owned and operated an acclaimed preschool. Both parents gave her and her two siblings “a tremendous amount of support,” she said.
“My mother encouraged me to try on many leadership roles growing up,” she said. “I was in sports, I was a cheerleader, I was president at one point … and class valedictorian.”
Her father stressed the importance of being an effective communicator, a skill whose lack had limited his own career trajectory, he freely admitted to his children.
“My dad was very transparent about it, that you can be one of the brightest people in the group, but if you don’t have the ability to stand up and communicate your message, it will hinder your ability to climb the corporate ladder,” she said.
She took that advice to heart and at an early age began giving presentations and speaking on stage. As a high school intern, she appeared on TV and represented her school at official events.
“That led me to want to be a television news anchor,” she said.
When college beckoned, Smallridge and her father toured institutions around the country, but a visit to UF’s College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) sold her on the Gainesville campus.
“I was just so impressed with the college,” she said.
“Hey, I Could Do This for a Living”
Like many university students, Smallridge spent several semesters seeking the ideal career track. Following her “aha” moment receiving Denslow’s letter, Smallridge experienced another epiphany while taking a course in public relations, required for all CJC students.
One role-playing assignment required Smallridge, as the hired PR agent for an oil company, to do damage control in a tight-knit community that had suffered a major oil spill.
“My project was to stand up in front of the class … [and] deal with the onslaught of inquiries coming from disgruntled neighbors, politicians and others who were going to sue to company for being irresponsible,” she recalled.
To contain the fallout, the well-organized student put together a five-step strategy that included returning all calls within 24 hours, never running from the media and having honest, transparent messaging.
“My professor was so interested in and impressed with my strategy that I thought, ‘Hey, I could do this for a living,’” remembered Smallridge.
She changed her major from broadcasting to public relations the following semester, a decision she has never regretted.
“My degree in public relations has led me to where I am today,” she said. “When you are in a quasi-public role, like I am in, you’re going to deal with a myriad of issues that require a public response: you serve on the frontlines every single day.
“My UF training taught me how to strategically present any message — in the boardroom, on TV, to print reporters, to public officials — whether it’s at the city, the county or the state level. I always clearly go back to what I was taught at the University of Florida.”
Breaking Barriers as a Woman and Working Mom
Shortly before graduation, Smallridge answered a newspaper ad for a membership position with the BDB. Two hundred people applied; the 21-year-old was one of about 40 who were shortlisted.
“I cannot begin to tell you how intimidating it was to be brought into a boardroom filled with 40 high-powered business executives from Palm Beach County,” she said. “And I was a woman — no, that’s an exaggeration — I was a kid among 40 white males.”
Determined not to break under pressure, Smallridge summoned up the skills and mindset she had forged at UF.
“I was trained to do that, to stand up in front of an audience and have pointed questions thrown at me, and I approached the interview the same way,” she said. “And, you know the end of the story, I obviously got the job. That was 34 years ago.”
Within a week of graduating from UF, Smallridge began working as vice president of membership at the BDB. Her decades-long career rise there was accompanied by personal growth: In 1991, she got married and subsequently had three sons, Grant, Cole and Rhett.
Her mother helped out with the kids during the week, but Smallridge sometimes had one or more babies in tow at the office, a scenario she admits she found incredibly challenging.
“I’d be dressed in my suit with a baby on my hip, a baby in my hand and another baby in a stroller,” she remembered. “I would do the phone calls, and my staff would help feed them. It was a balancing act, but I did it — and now my sons are men!”
(Grant Smallridge, now 28, is in his third year at UF’s College of Health and Human Performance. Cole Smallridge, 26, earned a bachelor’s degree in building construction from UF in 2019. Rhett Smallridge, 19, is studying construction management at Santa Fe College.)
Smallridge also found support from her boss, Larry Pelton, who gave her plenty of leadership opportunities until she had worn nearly every hat in the agency. Her coups would include luring to Florida the world’s two largest bioscience players: the Scripps Research Institute, from San Diego, and the Max Planck Society, from Germany.
In December 2004, the BDB board unanimously voted Smallridge to succeed Pelton as CEO and president. But if insiders knew her worth, she still had to convince skeptical clients she was in charge.
“When I became CEO, I was in my mid-thirties, and people would come up to me and say, ‘I’m here to meet the president, can you help me?’” she remembered. “I would say, ‘I am Kelly Smallridge, I am the president.’”
“I shut [their doubts] down pretty quickly because one thing I’ve learned in this world is you can’t argue with experience and you can’t argue with real data,” she explained. “If you establish yourself as an expert … that skepticism just goes away.”
Woman of the Year
Today, Smallridge’s expertise is undeniable. Under her leadership, the list of companies that have relocated to or expanded in Palm Beach County in the last five years includes United Technologies, Amazon, ADT, FedEx, Sikorsky Aircraft and Aldi.
“She’s earned the respect of everyone in her industry,” Troy McLellan, president and CEO of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, told the Sun-Sentinel in 2013. “When you represent a county that’s as big as Palm Beach, bigger than the state of Rhode Island, with all its diversity, that takes a very special person. … She has done an amazing job.”
A decade ago, the BDB launched a “Behind the Gates” initiative to convince Wall Street CEOs with second homes in Palm Beach to open offices in the area. That effort unexpectedly got a major boost when the global pandemic hit in 2020, and finance juggernauts like Goldman Sachs, Virtu Financial and Elliott Management rushed to lease large spaces in Palm Beach and West Palm, bringing their top talent with them.
“We ain’t going back,” Doug Cifu, Virtu’s CEO and co-owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team, told the local NBC news team last year.
The accolades keep pouring in for Smallridge. Highlights include a Governor’s Ambassador Medal (2013) from Gov. Rick Scott, who praised her “tireless efforts to create jobs in South Florida”; Florida Trend’s Florida 500 and Florida’s Most Influential Business Leaders awards (2021); and Woman of the Year (2021) from the Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce.
Married in July 2021 to Gator Rex Kirby (BSCE ’80) — “my much better half!” — Smallridge is, if anything, even more driven career-wise these days. One of her current priorities is bringing the UF West Palm Beach campus deal to fruition. Having a stellar graduate campus in the area is essential, she says, to meet the rising demand for highly trained workers among the leading biotech, financial and IT companies that now call Palm Beach County home.
“With UF here, they’ll have the latest and greatest in ongoing education courses,” she said. “They’ll also have the ability to collaborate on research in the biotech, data analytics and cybersecurity fields.”
Smallridge may not have set out to become a mover and shaker in economic development, but that is the legacy she is building in South Florida.
David Denslow — Distinguished Service Professor and Director of Policy Studies at UF’s Department of Economics — says he is gratified to hear of the outsized impact his former student has made on the region’s economy and to receive confirmation 35+ years later that his early assessment was spot on.
“What Kelly has done confirms my belief that her outstanding achievement in my course indicated she would also be a high achiever later in life,” Denslow recently said.
Smallridge still pinches herself that in 1985, a busy professor calculating final grades for 1,000 students took the time to alert her family to her potential.
“Just that one little stroke of a letter that was typed on a typewriter and sent to my parents,” said Smallridge with a smile. “Saying, ‘she possibly has a future here.’”
Kelly’s Tips for Women in Business
Smallridge was the first woman to lead an economic development board in South Florida. Here is her advice for women seeking to get ahead in business.
- Take your place “If there was a movie made about my life, it would be titled ‘Sit at the Table.’ So many women walk into a room for a meeting, and they sit on the perimeter. I mean that anecdotally, and I mean it literally. Young women walk in, and they don’t know to sit at the table.”
- Don’t cede your spot “For me, not only am I going to sit at the table, I’m going sit at the head. I don’t care. Why should I sit on the perimeter and let 20 others sit at the table?”
- Know your stuff “People are going to question your abilities, but I’ve learned that you can’t argue with experience and you can’t argue with real data. You have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to study the area that you’re going to be questioned about. When you establish yourself as an expert — and you walk in there strong of heart and mind — all that skepticism goes away.”
- Run from the whiners “Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.”