Sheri Collins comes to work every day at the state Department of Community and Economic Development knowing that it could be her last.
Politics and new administrations often lead to shuffling state agency personnel, especially people in executive positions. That’s just the nature of public service.
But Collins, deputy secretary in the department’s Office of Technology & Innovation and a DCED veteran since 2004, doesn’t let that possibility bother her. And she tries to keep politics out of it.
“You do the best you can and keep your head down,” she said. “Our programs are not about me or our partners. They are about Pennsylvania companies and growing business.”
Her job is to help early-stage tech companies find the resources they need to grow in Pennsylvania. She’s also leveraging public- and private-sector relationships she has cultivated over the years to woo big names such as Tesla to the commonwealth.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, has been a top target for Collins. The desire to land Tesla, for a new office or a new supply chain connection with a Pennsylvania company, has grown now that Ford has decided to invest $1 billion in a Pittsburgh-based startup focused on autonomous vehicles.
“Pennsylvania has opportunities,” Collins said.
That doesn’t mean being or imitating Silicon Valley, but to be Pennsylvania, she added. “We just need to stay focused on the assets we have and our opportunities.”
Some tech firms, hoping to spread their wings, have been taking chances in recent years on smaller markets such as Central Pennsylvania. They have been drawn to the lower cost of living.
Harrisburg has seen a surge of tech companies in the last few years, as have Lancaster and York. Collins played a key role last year in bringing BrandYourself, an online reputation management company, to Lancaster.
Collins intends to remain a central figure in bringing other tech companies to Pennsylvania.
The 48-year-old mother of four said she feels fortunate to have worked her way up the ranks of state government. She credits her team at DCED for pushing her to be a better leader every day; her husband for giving her the flexibility needed to do the job.
Unlike friends and colleagues, Collins said she has never felt that being a woman has limited her opportunities to get ahead.
Nor has she been limited by the lack of a college degree.
“Hard work, dedication, loyalty and a willingness to learn certainly can benefit you in the long run,” she said.
The Central Dauphin High School graduate spent the first 18 years of her public-sector career with the State Employees’ Retirement System, or SERS, where she served as the special assistant to the chief counsel and focused on the pension fund’s investment office.
That steady job at SERS resulted from a stroke of good luck and working with the right people at the right time, Collins said.
As a high school senior in 1986, she went on a class trip to take the state civil service test. The test led to a data entry position with the state in Lancaster County when she was 18.
Collins said she hated the job. But her dad was a longtime police commissioner, so public service had always been at the forefront for her.
“I didn’t think I wanted to go to college,” she said.
Also taught at a young age to work hard and get a good job, Collins didn’t give up. A month later after leaving the data-entry job and returning to a job at a candy store at the Colonial Park Mall, Collins got a call from SERS about a temporary position serving the executive director and assistant executive director.
She worked both jobs unsure what the temp job might lead to. It led to another temp role that would eventually turn into a full-time job with SERS. Promotions would follow.
Following a divorce, Collins said she decided to take a leap of faith, which led her to DCED in 2004.
There she administered the Keystone Innovation Zone program, a tech-based initiative designed to promote collaboration between the private sector and state colleges and universities.
In 2012 she was named executive director of the agency’s Technology Investment Office, where she help lead various programs, including a venture capital investment program.
Collins stepped into her current role in early 2015. She believes it’s a job where she can have the greatest impact. She serves as the governor’s alternate for Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Region Commission, a regional economic-development agency that represents a partnership between federal, state and local governments. There are 13 Appalachian states in the commission.
“Early retirement is not on my radar,” she said of the prospect of walking away once she reaches the 35-year milestone in about five years. “I have a number of things I want to accomplish.”
Could she walk away and work as a private-sector consultant or lobbyist? With her connections, sure. But she enjoys helping entrepreneurs and companies with big ideas find their place in Pennsylvania.
One of those new companies is Startup Home, a United Kingdom-based company, that is planning to launch its first U.S. co-living and co-working facility in Philadelphia this spring. Pittsburgh and Harrisburg are the company’s next target areas.
Collins connected with Startup Home’s U.S. business development director, a Harrisburg native, through a family connection with the owner of a local auto body shop. Now she is helping Startup Home make connections in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.