Sara Stephens: CEO, Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce

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“I actually live on my great-great-grandparents’ old tobacco farm on the outskirts of town. My parents are my next- door neighbors. I have two sets of aunts and uncles across the road. We live not far from the plantation my family was on. I’ve had friends say, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe you live around your family.’ [But] it means a lot to me to be able to live on the family property in the same neighborhood, same little community with my family. It’s so important. I feel like I’m still learning so much from them. Growing up, I spent most of my time at the library just up the street. After school, my best friend and I would walk from the elementary school to the library and hang out until my mom got off work. She was the first black library director of the state of North Carolina. I followed in my mother’s footsteps and got my master’s in library science [at N.C. Central], the same graduate school she did.

I worked in county government [in the Register of Deeds office] here for five years. There are two sections to the office, a place that records deeds, easements and land grants. And then there’s the other side of the office, what they call ‘vital records’ – births, deaths, marriages and things of that nature. There’s a lot of record keeping which goes with, you know, my librarian side. The records in the office go back to 1752; it’s really exciting to see my family’s records in the office. You probably saw that I ran for Register of Deeds [in 2014]. During the election time, kids would be like, ‘Look, Mom, it’s the lady from the sign.’ Even though I did not win, it was a great feeling to have done that. If that helped to inspire someone and get folks more involved in the community, then I am happy.

I was actually doing medical sales for almost two years and I loved it. … But it wasn’t a position that was feeding my soul or helping my community. I saw [the CEO of the Hillsborough Chamber of Commerce position] was open and thought it was perfect for me. It was a bit of a process trying to find someone essentially to represent Hillsborough/Orange County because the Chamber of Commerce is the first place people come to visit when they come to town or are researching the town. I think they made a pretty good selection, and I hope they think so, too.

The Chamber of Commerce is the voice of the business community. [Owners of] small businesses don’t have time to get out and promote their businesses. We offer that opportunity, networking events and learning opportunities to help grow and market their business. We started a young professionals group because we didn’t have [one] around here … and there was no networking or support for them. I want to be able to support a lot of people in Orange County. Not just the businesses, but also the community because without a community, you are not going to be able to have successful businesses. This is a small town, and we want our young people to stay here and be active in our business community and chamber.

I love Hillsborough, and it’s so diverse. You’ve got these award- winning authors walking up and down the streets, and then you’ve got the farmers coming down the road. It’s just amazing that [Hillsborough] has come this far. I feel like we’re at a very important time. We’ve got UNC Hospitals opening up here, and we’ve got all these wonderful restaurants and the Riverwalk. There are so many wonderful things going on right now, and it’s so great to be a part of it. I love traveling, but I always want to come back. This is home and it feels right.” – as told to Jessica Stringer

A seventh-generation Orange County native, Sara went to undergraduate at Peace College. Her older brother, Seth, is the chief communications officer for Orange Public Schools. Mom Brenda has been part of the Orange County Board of Education for 14 years while her dad Greg is a member of the American Legion and an active member of their church community.

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Jessica Stringer

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