Sharon Johnson’s passion for connecting communities with opportunity will help drive WEDC’s goal of creating a diverse, inclusive and thriving business climate across Wisconsin.
“Providing everyone access to entrepreneurship builds entire communities,” says Johnson, WEDC’s new director of entrepreneurship access and inclusion.
Johnson, who began her role in January, aims to increase awareness of WEDC’s resources, expand access and open doors to success for underserved and underrepresented entrepreneurs.
Often, she says, people who are not well connected may not be aware of the range of resources and programs available to them. Recently, she attended a Black women’s expo in Beloit and spoke with some of the more than 60 vendors in attendance.
“When I’ve asked entrepreneurs of color if they’ve ever heard of WEDC, the Small Business Development Center or the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Center, the answer most likely is no—or if they have, they feel that those organizations won’t support them in their entrepreneurial journey at any stage,” she says. “Of course, that’s not true.”
Johnson, who comes to the job after serving as chief engagement officer for the Economic Empowerment Collaboration in Madison, says spreading the word about available programs and expertise is a matter of equity.
“Equitable access to capital and resources is not necessarily a right, but it’s a matter of fairness,” she says. “No matter where you’re located in the state, we want you to have a place to go with your questions—no matter what your product is or what your business is.”
Johnson hopes not only to raise awareness of entrepreneurial resources in underserved communities, but also to improve access and impact to those programs across the state.
“WEDC found that there were not a lot of businesses of color applying for grants or seeking services, unless the grant was specifically targeted to them,” she says. “We want to make it become all-inclusive, so they feel welcome, no matter what the program is. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Aaron Hagar, WEDC’s vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation, says Johnson brings an energy and enthusiasm that will carry the organization’s resources and expertise into underserved communities.
“Sharon has a great background and knows the vital importance of creating an entrepreneurial landscape where everyone in Wisconsin can excel,” Hagar says. “Sharon has seen firsthand that there are entrepreneurs with great potential that may not have access to the resources they need. She will help businesses and communities across the state get connected and succeed.”
Johnson’s resume is studded with varied experiences in the business and government spheres. She’s done sales and product management at Kraft Foods, real estate sales, communications work and project management, and has also served as an adjudicator and benefits manager at the state Department of Workforce Development.
“I love the fact that I can draw on different careers to solve problems and help people,” says Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Purdue University and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In her role with the Economic Empowerment Collaboration, Johnson led a startup in finding resources and capital for entrepreneurs.
“I saw some of the challenges that they were able to overcome,” she says. “When this opportunity with WEDC came up, I thought, ‘I have the state behind me now. Let’s see what I can do to help these entrepreneurs get the resources and capital they need.’”