Director of Communications, State Attorney’s Office, 13th Judicial Circuit
Alma mater: Florida A&M University
When she was a student at Florida A&M University, Estella Gray did not necessarily intend to make public policy her career. But from her first student government campaign, she was hooked. Today, Gray is the director of communications for state attorney Andrew Warren’s office, where she leads strategic and internal communications and acts as an advisor to Warren. She says serving others is just part of life on Earth. “I feel like service is the rent we pay to live and to occupy space in this world,” Gray says, echoing a quote by former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm. Gray is on the board of United Way Suncoast, an organization she has been involved with for more than a decade. “United Way was one of the first nonprofits that I felt was a grooming ground for my [service-based] leadership philosophy” she says. She was also part of the team that launched Give Day Tampa Bay, an annual 24-hour online giving challenge that raises money for local charities. Gray describes the first Give Day as “disorganized, pants on fire,” but ultimately one of the most beautiful efforts she’s ever been a part of. “The people who shared that experience with me, we’re bonded for life,” Gray says, “Because we were absolutely crazy enough to do whatever it took to raise $1 million in 24 hours.”
Tell me a little bit about what you do at the state attorney’s office.
I’m the director of communications, and I lead strategic communications, community outreach and internal communications. I act as a strategic advisor to the state attorney and a spokesperson.
How did you become interested in public affairs?
Being involved in student government in college sparked my interest. I would say my first collegiate campaign started the journey. I did not realize I would be on for my entire life. That wasn’t the plan. I wanted to be a teacher.
What nonprofits/charitable organizations are you involved with?
I have a hard time saying no, so if someone asks me to help out, support, buy a ticket, I probably will say yes. Right now I’m on the board of United Way Suncoast. I am a participant and supporter of Camp CEO, which is through the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida. I volunteer at Feeding Tampa Bay. I’m also a Leadership Circle donor for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. I am very active in my sorority [Delta Sigma Theta]. My sorority has been in this community since 1947 doing a lot of community work, giving out scholarships, doing career fairs for youth, all that good stuff.
What appealed to you about United Way?
United Way was one of the first nonprofits that I felt was a grooming ground for my serving leadership philosophy and path. My experience with United Way started in my first job out of college. My CEO was a huge supporter of United Way, and they ended up giving me the campaign because no one else wanted to do it. The campaign at my job became wildly successful. That was in Tallahassee, and when I moved here, although I’m from here, I had no connection to United Way. A friend of mine worked there and said, we think you’d be the perfect, vibrant, energetic person to help our young leaders and get involved, and I’ve been involved ever since. In Tallahassee, I was campaign volunteer of the year, I was a board member there. I was a trainer. I used to train people on how to raise money in the workplace for workplace campaigns. I sat on their community investment board.
You were also part of the team that helped launch Give Day Tampa Bay. Tell me how that effort came to be.
That was absolutely the most disorganized, pants on fire, beautiful thing we’ve done I would say I’m honored to be a part of. The people who shared that experience with me, we’re bonded for life because we were absolutely crazy enough to do whatever it took to raise $1 million in 24 hours. It was a little crazy, a little strategery, and people who love Tampa Bay. That group of people was, I would say a peanut gallery, but all these people were doing different things but were uniquely talented, the people I worked with on that. We are still forever bonded. When we see each other, it’s like we’re all family now because of this one time giving experience having the faith and hope to believe we could do this in Tampa. We’d seen it work in other, larger communities, and we realized Tampa could do it, too.
Fill in the blank. When I’m not in the office, you can find me…
On the Riverwalk or at a happy hour with friends.
Who is your mentor, and why?
One of my mentors is my first boss out of college. I would say my first job out of college probably laid the foundation for the rest of my career. I would say people like John Thomas and Mike Sittig have played an incredible role in my career development.
Do you have a motto or philosophy you live by?
I feel like service is the rent we pay to live and to occupy space in this world. It’s very clichéd, but my other motto is, “If they don’t make room for you at the table, pull up a seat.” Those are the two things I live by. Those are two quotes by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Her philosophies, quotes and speeches still resonate in 2020. She was far ahead of her time.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and from whom did you receive it?
Learn from the job you hated. There is a lesson and opportunity even in the valley. A lot of people don’t like their jobs and spend a lot of time sulking and complaining. If you take the energy to complain, you have to find a way to pivot and reenergize yourself and use that as a launching pad for the next opportunity.
What do you love most about Tampa?
I love that it has big city aspirations with Southern charm. You can get a slice of Chicago or a slice of New York without losing that Southern charm. My mother’s from the South. I grew up in the South, but I was born in Boston. I always describe myself as the kind of person who likes their clam chowder and their sweet tea.
What is the last book you read or your favorite book?
My favorite book is The Warmth of Other Suns [by Isabel Wilkerson] because it’s a tribute to my grandmother, who was a part of the Great Migration from the South to the North. She is the probably the biggest influence in my life, so I keep that book on every credenza, in every office. It symbolizes her strength and her fortitude.
Which app on your phone could you not live without, and why?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary app. I love that app.
What is your dream vacation?
When I vacation, I like to find out about the history [of the place] and the indigenous population and the culture, so I probably would like to take more of a cultural trip. I would like to visit Anthony Bourdain’s top 10 favorite restaurants across the world. He lived a life that I would love to have lived, where you get to go to these exotic, four-star, five-star hotels and properties, but you take the time to get to know the people. Anywhere his top 10 places would be, I would love to go and just spend like three months traveling and eating.