Rising Stars

Kayla Gude, 22, Pensacola

Learned the farming business while growing up on a citrus farm in Central Florida. In her first job out of the University of Florida, where she earned a degree in food and resource economics, she serves as marketing director for the Panhandle Fresh Marketing Association. Tapping into a surprising set of business skills for a 22-year-old, in a few months she built the organization to where it is helping farmers diversify their crops and market local produce to WalMart and several other retailers in the region.

Ryan Cohn, 25, Tallahassee

Started What's Next Marketing right after graduating from Florida State University three years ago. In 2011, the company was named as a finalist by Forbes Magazine for America's Most Promising Companies. The Ad Club of Boston named the company as Emerging Interactive Business at the 2011 South by Southwest Festival. No surprise then that this summer his company was acquired by Ron Sachs Communications — and that he's writing a book to help business and government leaders navigate the fast-changing landscape of social/digital media platforms.

Heather and Chris Thomas, 35 and 39, Destin

Chris left the high pressure life of working for a Fortune 100 company after his father, a Destin charter boat captain, passed away. He took early retirement from corporate life and returned to Destin with his wife, Heather, to start Destin Vacation Boat Rentals, now in its third year of operation. Heather Thomas does PR and marketing for the company. She has a tourism blog and was named one of the Amazing Women of 2011 by a top website for women.

Jeremy S. Johnson, 30, Gulf Breeze

Realtor who works on Pensacola Beach — and closed more than $4 million in sales during the first half of 2012 in spite of the economy. His grandmother established the first Pensacola Beach newspaper, The Islander, which his mom owns and manages today as Island Times. An expert marksman, he is in the process of opening a gun sales shop — and is involved in a rescue program for golden retrievers.

Jennifer Conoley, 29, Panama City

A mainstay for the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, where she heads up the marketing program. She got her professional start with Herrle Communications in Tallahassee and now lives in Panama City, where her job with the EDA is to promote Bay County to businesses looking to relocate.

Valeria Lento, 27, Pensacola

A native of Argentina, worked at global public relations firms in New York and Miami, including Burston-Marstellar and Edelman, before coming to Northwest Florida. She served as communications manager of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa before joining the Pensacola Bay Chamber of Commerce to run its communications department for Visit Pensacola. In 2011, she was named Communicator of the Year by the Florida Public Relations Association Northwest Florida Coast chapter and was honored for her creativity by Visit Florida.

Jonathan Tallman, 24, Niceville

Began his career at Northwestern Mutual but quickly broke off to form his own company in the community near where he was born (Eglin Air Force Base). While advising his clients on a wide range of financial issues, from life insurance to investing for retirement, he is active in local organizations like the Rotary Club and chamber of commerce and serves on the alumni board of Northwest Florida State College. He is chairman of the school advisory council for Collegiate High School, coaches basketball at his church (where he also serves on the board), and works at a Guatemalan orphanage twice a year while serving on the board of Friends of Children Everywhere, which operates the orphanage.

Sterling Scott, 27, Panama City Beach

Has managed parking facilities in multiple states, which he opened with his father, and is now focusing on a facility in Bay County near the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. He's involved with the U.S. Ski Association and has been active in several national charity organizations, including Toys for Tots.

Hemant Patel, 30, Quincy

Owns two award-winning hotels in Gadsden County and has been an active proponent of community economic development efforts. Past president of the local Rotary Club and past chairman of the county's tourist development council, he remains active in the county's chamber of commerce and the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association.