Early Lessons Inspire Success for JA Alumna Sharon Cates-Williams

img_alumni-cateswilliamsSharon J. Cates-Williams is the Chief Information Officer and Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology for Suffolk County. A graduate of Baruch College, Sharon enjoyed a 16 year career in the private sector, serving as VP of the Global Technology division at Lehman Brothers, New York. In the aftermath of Sept.11th, Sharon entered the public sector by becoming the first African-American Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology for the Town of North Hempstead, orchestrating the implementation of Long Island first 311 non-emergency constituent response system. Her selection in 2005 as Chief Information Officer for Suffolk County distinguished her as the first African-American woman CIO in County history as well as the highest ranking African-American woman in the Steve Levy administration.

She was recently named one of Long Island Top 50 Women; she is also a recipient of the 2006 ListNet Diamond Award; The Long Island Fund for Women and Girls 2006 Women Achiever Against The Odds Award; and she is a past recipient of the March of Dimes Women of Distinction Award.

Sharon lives in Medford with her husband, Andre, and their daughters, Christina and Langston.

Sharon Cates-Williams’ passion for marketing, strategic planning, and accounting started when she was 13. In 1973, Sharon and her family had just moved to Co-Op City in the Bronx when she and her two best friends joined forces with three other teens from Mt. Vernon to start their own business as part of their participation in the JA Company Program.

“We came up with an idea to sell cigarette lighters that we made out of soda cans. Back then, smoking was popular and cool for adults, so from a marketing perspective, it made sense. Our sales strategy was to sell the lighters to our parents, family members and their friends. Sharon recalls that her share of the profits was about $84.

Sharon’s experience introduced her to business-related terms like marketing plan, supply and demand, profit and loss, and revenue and expenses. While she confesses that she wasn’t exactly sure what they meant at the time, Sharon’s early introduction to these terms helped her as an accounting student at Baruch College and then later in her career at Lehman Brothers where she served as Vice President in the Global Technologies division for 16 years.

“I really feel like I had a leg up,” Sharon said. “I felt more comfortable in the classroom – and eventually in the corporate world – because I had this experience and had been introduced to these terms. I truly believe that my JA experience was a major guiding force in my decision to enter the corporate sector.”

Sharon’s JA experience also sparked her interest in government. After the success of her JA Company Program venture Sharon was selected to attend a regional JA conference as an alternate delegate. At the conference, she learned about caucuses, by-laws, and the voting process and while she didn’t get to participate a lot, Sharon says that what she learned from the experience “…remains with me to this day, especially as a government official.”

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Sharon left Lehman Brothers to become the first African-American Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Suffolk County and the highest ranking African-American woman in the Steve Levy administration. As the CIO of Suffolk County, Sharon currently oversees the bi-county initiative to provide wireless broadband access across Long Island. She credits Junior Achievement for introducing her to some of the key skills needed to be successful in her career.

Sharon is a strong advocate of Junior Achievement programs. She believes that every young person should have an opportunity to participate in JA programs: “Like me, young people might not immediately understand the applications of what they’re learning, but down the road, when they finally see its importance and are able to apply it in the real world, it will make a tremendous difference in helping them to succeed,” she said.

In conclusion, Sharon says of her JA experience, “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in JA as a student or else I might not have learned and accomplished all that I have.”