As a student at Millard North High School, Sarah Johnson thought she wanted to flee from Nebraska.
The Omaha native didn't want to attend college in her home state, and she certainly didn't want to live here long-term, she thought.
Johnson thought wrong.
This week, at age 27, she will become manager of the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, a group formed by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce in 2004 to draw the next generation of leaders into the city's business life.
In that post, Johnson will help create opportunities for young people in the metropolitan area. That includes promoting the arts and entertainment scene, and encouraging people in their 20s and 30s to start businesses, volunteer, get involved with policy issues, and network.
In short, Johnson will work to change the opinions of young people who, as she did at one point, think they want to leave Omaha.
“It's kind of funny now when I think back to high school when I had the mentality of, ‘Oh, I'm getting out of here.' I don't know why I did have that mentality. Probably a little bit of peer influence and feeling like you're on top of the world a little bit.”
Now, Johnson said, she believes there is something in Omaha for everyone.
“So I want to help them find those things. I think I'll bring a really great, diverse background to this position,” she said.
After graduating from high school in 2001, Johnson didn't know what she wanted to study or what career she wanted to pursue. She decided it made more sense to attend college in the state, where costs would be lower. She enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, majored in journalism, with an emphasis on advertising, and graduated in 2005.
Johnson moved back to Omaha but worked for Archrival, a Lincoln-based youth branding agency that helps companies attract young customers. Its clients have included Red Bull Energy Drink, Honda and the A&E Network.
Charles Hull, co-owner of Archrival, said Johnson was inexperienced when she started there as an intern but was able to quickly take on problems typically handled by more experienced employees.
“We know Sarah to be a very motivated, community-minded individual,” Hull said.
Johnson eventually decided that the daily commute from her home in Omaha to Lincoln was too much to handle, so she became operations manager for the Reader, an alternative weekly, in December 2008.
She has been involved with the Young Professionals Group for several years. Johnson helped plan the 2008 YP Summit, an educational and networking event, and served as the event's co-chairman in 2009.
Anne Branigan, Johnson's new boss at the chamber, said that in addition to developing programs and recruiting members, she'll also work to bridge the gap between Omaha's business establishment and its younger demographic.
“She brings an interesting combination of professional and volunteer experience,” Branigan said. “For as young as she is, she's had a lot of experience managing projects.”
Johnson was selected from more than 170 applicants, Branigan said. Johnson follows Kirsten Case-Penrod, who helped start the group and was its first director. Mayor Jim Suttle has appointed Case-Penrod as chief service officer to help boost volunteerism in the city.
“She loves the city of Omaha,” Jay Palu, a licensed architect and chairman of the Young Professionals Council, said of Johnson. “She has a passion for the people here and the sort of creative institutions and endeavors that make it a place where other young people want to live and work.”
Omaha's Chamber of Commerce isn't alone in recognizing the importance of keeping talented young people at home, Branigan said. Young professionals are an important demographic across the country, she said.
Johnson said she wants to diversify and expand YP to north and South Omaha and to a broader swath of professions, such as the skilled trades and stay-at-home moms.
Now pursuing a master's degree in public health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Johnson said her long-term goal is to reduce health disparities among various segments of the population through education.
“It's a fascinating program,” Johnson said of her UNMC studies. “Public health is going to explode. It's not actually treating the diseases, it's understanding the big picture of what's taking place.”
Good health care and having citizens with healthful habits are as important to a city's future as developing future leaders, Johnson said.
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