Sheba Person-Whitley knows firsthand how economic development can make a difference in someone’s life.
The new executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board grew up in a poor area of rural North Carolina. That’s a stark difference from our county’s relative affluence, having some of the nation’s best winegrape vineyards, acclaimed restaurants and a median annual income of $71,769.
“I’m a statistical anomaly is how I would describe myself. … I grew up in a trailer park,” said Person-Whitley, a 41-year-old mother of two. “I grew up in an area where there was very little long-term economic opportunity.”
For decades, her native Franklin County had been a bastion of textile production until the domestic industry cratered in the 1990s because of cheaper foreign imports. Tobacco farming served as a backstop, but that work dried up, too.
The saving grace for Person-Whitley was a family move closer to Raleigh and its high-tech research hub of pharmaceutical companies. Pushed by her mother, she graduated from high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from North Carolina State University. That put her on a career path that’s now led to Sonoma County.
As an African-American woman, she works in a high-profile role that pays her a $138,084 annual salary in a county with a black population of just 2%, and only a few top black officials such as Barbie Robinson, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, and Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams.
“When you are working on anything, you have to make sure people have a seat at the table,” said Person-Whitley, who previously worked as economic development manager for the city of Stockton. “They need to feel welcome at the table, not that you just invited them.”
Diversity is central to Person-Whitley’s mission as she takes over from Ben Stone, who led the well-respected economic development board for more than 30 years, taking it from a one-man government agency to a 12-person staff.
The agency publishes key reports on various local economic sectors and serves as a resource for an array of area companies, from startup enterprises to longtime businesses. For example, the board helps promote job-training efforts and assists with a popular microlending program.
Person-Whitley has been surprised by the gracious welcome she has received here compared to other areas of the country she has worked in. Her former positions include senior international trade manager for Louisiana Economic Development and various roles with the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
“Everyone here has been welcoming in ways I have not experienced before,” she said.
Still, Person-Whitley acknowledged that in her less than two months on the job she has been the only person of color or one of a few in many of the meetings and outreach gatherings she has attended — a notable exception was a June luncheon hosted by Los Cien, the county’s largest Latino leadership organization. That has reinforced her goal to focus on greater diversity, extending the Latino outreach that the economic development board has established to include blacks, the LGBTQ community, veterans and other groups.
“I would love to see us do more in diversity and serving underserved populations. I think there is a great opportunity around that as well,” she said.