2023's Class of 40 Under 40: Sondra Fetner of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund

The First Coast Business Hall of Fame celebrates local business leaders who have made a significant impact.

2023's Class of 40 Under 40: Sondra Fetner of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund

The Jacksonville Business, along with its panel of local leaders in business, spent weeks sifting through a record-breaking number of nominations for the 40 Under 40 award to select this year's honorees. This year's class of honorees is made up of young men, women and couples who are shaping Jacksonville not only today but also helping it reach new heights for the future. These honorees, who come from diverse backgrounds and industries, were chosen based on their impact on their organizations and the First Coast.

Sondra Fetner

Director of Placemaking, Jessie Ball duPont Fund

What is your greatest accomplishment in your career? It is unorthodox to say the least. But it is my biggest accomplishment, because I am excited to get to work every day. After spending my first four years of practicing law in Gainesville in Florida, I decided to move my family permanently to Jacksonville, Florida in 2013. After the birth of my son in 2014, I began to plan a career that would allow me to have a tangible impact on Jacksonville's progress for the sake of my children. I began my career as a land-use attorney for the City of Jacksonville. I gained experience in late-night meetings, controversial legislation and entitlements processes.

After the birth of my second child, I was diagnosed as having a chronic autoimmune disorder, Hashimotos Thyroiditis. I had to find a job that was less stressful. Lori Boyer was my mentor and she offered me project-based, part-time work to help me find my next job. This part-time job turned into a consulting contract for three years working exclusively with DIA on downtown developments deals and public-realm projects. Inspire by Ms. Boyer, and other "recovering attorneys," I chose to pursue my passion for policy and urban planning. So I returned to school to earn a master's degree in urban planning. In 2020, at the height of pandemic, I completed my degree with a 4.0 grade point average, a new baby in tow and two years remaining on my consulting contract. My work at the DIA gave me the opportunity to work on the Jessie Ball duPont Fund's riverfront activation project and I fell in love its mission - a community where everyone feels like they belong. After my contract with DIA expired, I took a position with the duPont Fund and the rest, as they say, is history. I now develop placemaking strategies and governance plans to revitalize our Riverfront and Downtown public space and to facilitate collaborations with partners and the community in order to stimulate activation on an equitable and inclusive basis. I still have the same goal at the Fund: to have a positive impact on Jacksonville's development, but at a pace which allows me to stay healthy.

What are your involvements in the community (board positions etc.) outside of work? I am a member of the Riverside Avondale Preservation Board of Directors, RAP's Creative Placemaking Committee, and Riverside Arts Market Advisory Committee. I am also a member of the Governance and Historic Preservation and Zoning Committees.

I am a member of the Parks, Open Space, & Ecology Working Group in the Jacksonville Resilience Strategie where the City focuses on identifying action opportunities to increase resilience.

I was a member of the Taskforce Stakeholder Group, which is part of the duPont Fund’s Activating Jacksonville’s Riverfront Project.

I've taken on a number of leadership roles at my children’s school, Riverside Presbyterian Day School. This includes co-chairing 2021 Fall Festival.

How can you demonstrate leadership in your work? As a leader of a small foundation, I must be a leader in placemaking as well as a community convener in order to maximize our impact on the communities that we serve. I can use my experience working in city government to support other organizations and partners with their missions. The process of revitalizing downtown can be compared to that of raising a child. There will be tantrums, giggles, and important milestones as well as disappointing setbacks. I am grateful to have the chance to facilitate conversations and lead collaborations, because it takes a village, just like with a toddler, to raise a vibrant Downtown.

What is it about First Coast that you are most proud of? I am proudest of those who champion Downtown. It is inspiring to see the energy shift Downtown has experienced over the last few years. I'm excited to see how downtown will feel in five years, when major projects have been completed and the city becomes vibrant and walkable 24 hours a day.

How can you support the next generation? I am a source and champion for the next generation. My mentors, who guided me through high school and into my current position, are responsible for a large part of my success. I have experienced first-hand the value of receiving career advice and engaging in strategy sessions with an older mentor. I enjoy seeing others succeed in their career, so I am always available to my friends who are younger and do what I can to help.

Even though it was not in my best interests, I encouraged and supported the nanny of my children to return to college to earn a degree for a career which has nothing to do my children. We have talked about how it's important for her to be able to choose a rewarding career and one that stimulates her. She is proudly applying to a graduate program in the Spring, and I'll continue to do everything I can to get her accepted.

What is it that you believe the community should do more to help shape the next generation of youth? To be able to influence the next generation, the community needs to listen to them. To build trust and support from the future tax base, it is important to encourage and solicit feedback from the younger generation on long-range plans that impact the City.

The duPont Fund brought together a group representing the next generation of stakeholders in the areas of art, activism and media, as well as hospitality, to offer feedback and insights on the Riverfront Activation Plan. The group wanted to be heard, and their input was excellent in the creation of the Plan. I hope the Fund will continue to influence other public and private bodies to engage our future generation.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your life? Lori Boyer said that when I was struggling to decide whether or not to leave my law career, my book wasn't complete. It is only the end of a chapter and the start of the next. Her advice still guides me when I'm evaluating major life decisions. I also remember that each choice I make only moves the storyline forward.