She calls herself a “professional social entrepreneur.”
That’s the nutshell title. There’s also “serendipity concierge,” a matchmaker of sorts for business wannabes.
Officially, she answers to “sustainable community and economic development specialist.”
A mind-boggling resume several pages long chronicles extensive contributions in community development, including her hands-on involvement with WV Create, WV GreenWorks, Katalyst Development Strategies and similar organizations devoted to green business growth.
The titles continue. Extension specialist. Executive leader. Facilitator. Communicator. Project manager. Add teacher, designer and advocate. Whew!
Closest to her heart these days is West Virginia State University’s Economic Development Center, on Kanawha Boulevard, a business incubator and home of DigiSo, her baby, a digital arts studio and social media program catering to mobile professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs in the creative arts.
But that’s just one side of Sarah Halstead. The convoluted journey that brought her back to her home state makes another whole story.
She taught middle school in Boone County, taught African-American grade schoolers in the Deep South and taught fourth-graders in Okinawa, Japan.
How’s that for diversity?
At 48, she looks back on those years, those experiences, as building blocks for the commitments that drive her today.
Her West Virginia accent opened the door.
“I grew up in South Charleston, the fifth of six kids. My parents soon will be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. Mom was from Hinton and Dad from the Beckley area. They owned a small business and he left that to work for Sears Roebuck, in Charleston. He was everyone’s favorite salesman, mostly in appliances.
“I was in love with architecture. I was so excited about design. I got accepted into the University of Tennessee’s program, but I was too chicken to go.
“I went to West Virginia Tech for three years and forced myself into mechanical engineering. That was my fix for not going out of state to study architecture. After three years, I transferred to West Virginia State and I admitted that I love teaching and I haven’t stopped.
“I got an education degree with a lot of science and math behind it. It is at work here. I work in community and economic development, but I’m bringing in kids’ programming, too.
“My first teaching job was in Boone County in Van. I was known as the girl from Charleston. I couldn’t believe that 40 minutes away, I would be considered an outsider. But that was a good lesson to learn. It was a wonderful experience. The kids were warm. The characters I met are still characters to this day. Even when I was working in Japan, I caught a glimpse of my Boone County experience on television. Jesco White. I couldn’t believe it.
“I got a pink slip, a reduction-in-force notice, in Boone County. I never ever dreamed of leaving. That was the kick in the pants I needed. I had gone to a WVSU job fair. I was recruited in northern Virginia to teach at Apple Pie Ridge Elementary School. I went to Winchester, Virginia, and had the sweetest second year of teaching. Magnificent kids.
“I married a man in the military, went to Okinawa, Japan, and got picked up by the U.S. Department of Defense as a fourth-grade teacher. I was able to team teach with some of the best teachers of the world, so I learned a lot.
“The intercultural experiences were amazing and eye-opening. I learned there that I truly am an ambassador for West Virginia. Everywhere I go, people are curious. I was there five years.
“The first leg was three years. We came back to the States. I ended up getting divorced. I was working in Beaufort, South Carolina, and that was the second major re-education of Sarah Halstead. I taught middle school in the Deep South. That’s where I learned that we are not Southern at all. This accent gets confused with being Southern, but we are actually mid-Atlantic. I taught mostly African-American kids American history where the Civil War started. It made me a better teacher. I had never been a minority in my own country. That was good for me.
“I returned to the Department of Defense overseas. I was back in mainland Japan just outside of Tokyo. I married a Marine fighter pilot, ‘Top Gun,’ the whole thing. After a couple of years, we went to San Diego. In between, I went all over Asia.
“In Tokyo, I would say, ‘How did this little girl from South Charleston get here?’ That was never so apparent as it was in San Diego, on the way to Los Angeles with 16 lanes of traffic. I would look up, and a sign would say Pasadena. I would think, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’
“I got my master’s, but I couldn’t get hired. After about 14 interviews, I figured I’d better reinvent myself. This was a highly educated unemployed workforce. That’s where I learned about the ‘sunshine tax.’ You have to be willing to pay the sunshine tax, to do whatever it takes, to be there. You may take jobs you are not necessarily suited to and get less pay.
“I was desperate and farmed my resume out and was just ready to break up with my husband and go back to the Department of Defense where everybody knew me and loved me and paid me well.
“I fell into a fabulous situation. A nonprofit that worked with community colleges in San Diego took a chance on me. I called where I had submitted my last resume. The accounting clerk said the job I applied for was closed. ‘I said, ‘That’s a shame. Thank you very much.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s a cute accent. I’m going to pass your resume forward. Maybe they aren’t going to decide just yet.’ My whole future hinged on my accent and that phone call. She had some pull and it was a total game-changer.
“I ended up working in economic development and workforce development for the colleges. Turns out, what a good first grade or eighth grade teacher does is what the boardroom and corporate America needs. We teach communication, teamwork, how to make clear objectives and goals. A great fit.
“I worked with every kind of industry you can think of and designed training programs. I found myself in a meeting run by what I call teenage girls and all these old engineers crowded around talking about how buildings can produce their own energy. It was the U. S. Green Building Council. That started me down a path that is still a big part of my life in West Virginia.
“In 2005, I came home to care for my mother, father and grandmother. My father had a stroke. I ended up buying a house and they moved in with me. At one time, we had four generations under one roof. Grandma died just before celebrating 102 years.
“I went into business with my sister, Rebecca Kimmons. It’s Katalyst Development Strategies. Those were some of the best days of my professional life. I was sure that you can telecommute and can have incredible efficiencies. My brothers used to asked why we didn’t sell training. We weren’t that far along and didn’t have that much industry diversity, so it focused me on what has to happen with community and economic development.
“I was invited to join a conversation on the industry of culture. That led to Create West Virginia, one of the most influential grass roots organizations in West Virginia. We have quietly supported initiatives that have become legislative. That spawned a nonprofit. I am the founder of the state chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“I also founded West Virginia Green Works with Randall Johnson and the Southern Council of the Mountains. They had a directive to create a nonprofit. I asked Randall why he didn’t just tag on to what we are doing here. He said no, he had to do this. So I became executive director of West Virginia Green Works. That organization had a lot to do with the building codes in West Virginia getting changed.
“All this Create West Virgina conversation led to these conferences we throw. WVSU extension professionals came to the second one and got so excited that they asked something like, ‘If you had $1 million, what would you do with it?’ I was the lucky consultant from Create West Virginia that got to design all this.
“In 2012, we opened the doors to this place. I’m their specialist for community and economic development. I’ve stepped away from Greenworks, but I’m still part of it.
“This is the state’s first coworking facility that was designed from mobile creatives. People who are on the go, who can live and work anywhere, not in a traditional office setting, can come here and cowork and produce.
“This building is one of the only ones like in the nation. It is built for regular people to come in and engage with $100,000 worth of technology. Most people don’t open the doors to studios to regular people or kids. We do. They pay $20 a day.
“We are lowering the barrier to technology. We are trying to improve access to resources to all kinds if startups. I have designed 17 different programs run out of this building that wiill help new economy business development happen here. We think there is a new way to live and work in West Virginia.
“West Virginia State University owns the building and wrote the grants. HUD and USDA gave about $500,000 to retrofit this building.
“One of the big programs is the idea of a maker space, a very sexy retake of the geek in the garage movement. We have 3-D printers here. Kids are learning design thinking, problem solving and entrepreneurship all wrapped up.
“This building is open 24 hours, seven days a week. If you are a creative (we call them creatives — patent developers, scientists, techies, hackers, artists) or a filmmaker, camera person or writer and you are traveling, you could rent space or a studio here. There are commercials shot here regularly. A lot happens here you don’t know about because you are not meant to know. This is a place where creative work can get done. Movie companies come in and rent the space. But the important thing is that regular people can come in, startups in the theater and high-tech.
“The 15-year-old kid you just saw is launching a business. I’m letting him play with a 3-D printer and he’s interfacing with a hacker. This is a place where you can connect with your imagination and other people and move it forward.
“There are challenges in a state like West Virginia where all of this is new. You are constantly proving yourself. But I love it. Every day is amazing. It all had to happen the way it did to get me right here. I had to be forced out of my comfort zone in West Virginia. You will never hear me say let’s keep our youth here. I want them to go and explore and come back when they’ve got something to give back.”
Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org.