CONWAY — Genie Sherard knew she had big shoes to fill when she stepped into her new role with United Way of Horry County.
“It’s very humbling,” Sherard said about succeeding former president Olivia Garren — a homegrown hero who retired April 30 after 39 years of service. “I had three wonderful days working with Olivia, and I’m just honored to be here.”
Those who know — and are getting to know — Sherard say her style may be different, but she is more than qualified to build on Garren’s work and take the agency to the next level. She made her mark in the business world at IBM Corp. before turning to community service with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit, where her strategies and ideas are credited with re-energizing the area’s high-dollar donors.
“She is just one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met,” said Mark Petroff, CEO at Marketing Associates and chairman of Detroit’s Alexis de Tocqueville Society, an arm of the United Way. “She brings so much enthusiasm to the job and can make the connections — she’s going to be great there.”
Focused on service, results
Sherard loved living in Ann Arbor, Mich., but said she is very excited about being in Horry County. The move is a homecoming of sorts for the S.C. native, who grew up in Anderson, married her high school sweetheart and has a 23-year-old son who lives in New York City.
“Coming to South Carolina was a plus, and this is a wonderful area to come to, but the job was the driver,” Sherard said.
Sherard had a successful sales career with IBM Corp. in Greenville, S.C., Atlanta, Phoenix and Detroit. She said she loved both the people and the challenges that came with the job, and retired after 30 years of service.
“It was a fast 30 years,” said Sherard, an S.C. native who grew up in Anderson. “It’s a real fast-paced industry with constant change. IBM also created jobs and helped individuals — it was very worthwhile work — but when I retired, I wanted to do more.”
Sherard said her interests have revolved around sales and social work since she was young, and she had volunteered in the community while at IBM.
Both skill sets merged in 2011 when she became director of the Tocqueville Society, a United Way organization for donors who give $10,000 or more a year, where membership was at an all-time low. Sherard made a big impact in a small period of time, and the society set a record of 80 percent growth before she left for Horry County.
“I was in the job about six months when Genie joined the team,” Petroff said. “We had less than 190 donors — an all-time low — and I’ll never forget it, how she and I sat down and mapped out a strategy for how to re-energize these people.”
Petroff said the plan first was to create opportunities for their high-level donors, such as CEOs and thought leaders, to become engaged with the work and create momentum. The next step was to get into corporate campaigns, where company leaders could spread the word through their senior executives, he said, and they were able to interest large companies, such as Chrysler and Lear.
“Then we got Bill Ford Jr. (executive chairman of Ford Motor Co.) and Lisa Ford on board — and I still can’t believe we did it — to lead a five-year initiative to grow our membership,” Petroff said. “We set a record of about 380 members, all giving more than $10,000 a year and being involved in the work. We were just so fortunate to have this connection that Genie put together.”
Sherard said credit goes to the dedicated volunteers, who are energetic, dynamic and willing to take risks to make things happen. She said the community around Detroit really cares about helping the people of the city.
“At that level, people want to make a powerful impact, and they have the means to do it,” Sherard said. “We have a fabulous foundation here in this county, where United Way is loved, respected and cared for, and we have the opportunity to take that great foundation and build on it.”
The right fit for the job
Sherard hadn’t thought about becoming a United Way president until a colleague took the top position at a United Way in Washington State. The idea of a similar move was still fresh two weeks later, when she heard of the Horry County opening and applied. United Way in Columbia coordinated the search and received more than 100 applications, which eventually were narrowed to four, said Rebecca Hardwick, board chair for United Way of Horry County.
“We had some very good candidates, but we wanted to make sure whoever we chose would fit in and complement what we have,” Hardwick said. “We were just very impressed with Genie’s previous career and ideas, and we unanimously determined she would be the person who would move United Way in the right direction.”
Sherard’s objective is simple: raise more money to accelerate positive change. The recent recession hit hard in the county, and the agency has fallen just short of its $1.275 million goal over the last four years. Sherard said United Way already has a growing volunteer army, and reaching people new to the area through word of mouth will be key to building up the agency and taking it to a higher level.
“There are a lot of people who move who were used to supporting the community they came from and are still supporting it,” Sherard said, “but there are people who also want to support where they are living now, and I would bet we have some of those. We just have to spread the word.”
Sherard has been busy wrapping her arms around her new job, getting to know her staff and trying to connect with others who are involved with United Way. All the feedback so far has been positive, and there’s a lot of excitement, said Hardwick, although the prospect of a leadership change did make some community partners a little anxious.
Barb Mains, founder of Help4Kids/Backpack Buddies, said she was a little nervous when she found out the new president was coming from Michigan, but meeting Sherard put her mind at ease.
“I think she’s going to be good — she’s got the heart for it, and you’ve got to have the heart for it,” said Mains, whose organization delivered backpacks with food to 3,105 students in need the last week of school. “She came over to see us and spent some time, and when she left, we felt real confident that things were going to be alright.”
Shelley Cooper, executive director for the Horry County Literacy Council, said she knew the board would choose someone who would be a good fit. She said Sherard has a different style from Garren, but she is supportive and definitely a good asset.
“I think she’s going to be great,” Cooper said. “She has really good ideas, and her direction for United Way is going to be really wonderful.”
Sherard said the agency is moving more and more toward not just fixing problems, but trying to prevent them. She said there will be a focus on areas of most impact, such as helping families and helping children get an education, and she has been impressed by the professionalism of the partners she’s visited, as well as the volunteers.
“This is just an interest I think all of us have, to do something meaningful, and I’m no different from anyone else,” Sherard said. “I definitely want to see this grow — I want to sink my teeth into it and into the community.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or on Twitter @TSN_VGrooms.