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Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

TU alumnus AJ Johnson and the Oasis impact

Aaron “AJ” Johnson

The images we associate with heroes often involve capes, superhuman strength and great feats against great foes. While the reality is often not as grandiose or flashy as the movies and comic books portray, these selfless qualities still apply to some. The real heroes, the ones who make tangible differences in their communities, are those who provide the necessities of life for others with little access to such essential resources.

Aaron “AJ” Johnson (BSBA ’09) recognized the need for a hero of this kind in his own community, and his service has left a resounding impact on North Tulsa as a result. The University of Tulsa alumnus and founder and CEO of Oasis Fresh Market, the first full-service grocery store in 14 years in North Tulsa’s predominantly Black neighborhood, is ensuring that his work does more than provide food: “Oasis means refuge, shelter. Oasis is a safe place.”

The nonprofit puzzle

Before establishing himself as a business owner, Johnson was executive director of the Tulsa Dream Center — a nonprofit organization in North Tulsa that addresses areas such as economic, health and leadership education — for four and a half years. During that time, he managed the day-to-day of the organization, personnel, financial oversight and development of relationships within the community.

Johnson with TU students outside Oasis

“Growing up as a young boy, I always knew I wanted to give my life to serving people,” stated Johnson, who recognized the tremendous differences between resourced and underserved communities even as a child. After moving to Oklahoma, he learned that there had not been a full-service grocery store in North Tulsa in more than a decade. “The people in these underserved communities have a life expectancy 11 years shorter than those living in other Tulsa communities, and many North Tulsa residents had to travel for miles to enjoy the same resources that non-distressed communities have readily available.” After the pandemic, Johnson realized that he was being called to bridge these gaps. From there, he worked on putting every piece in the right place to create an oasis for North Tulsa.

The road to business ownership has been full of rewarding and difficult challenges for Johnson. Not only does he work seven days a week, but he has also adopted the role of being an on-call counselor, coach, janitor, accountant, electrician and more. “We face challenges every day, whether it be fine-tuning store operations, securing funding or hiring people. We overcome them through our faith in God,” he said.

Sowing the seeds of change

Time and time again, Johnson and the Oasis team have been confronted with tragic cases of loss and dire circumstances from individuals in the community. This is where Oasis becomes more than a grocery store: The Oasis Project is a 501(c)(3) that Johnson launched to help people in need of relief and help.

Johnson listening to TU MBA students present their research to help with his business

This project exists to provide various wrap-around services in the form of rental and utility assistance, support for single parents, banking resources for individuals or businesses, workforce training, diabetic and health-related classes and much more. “With the help of an amazing team and partners, I believe the Oasis model provides not only groceries but also a successful blueprint for underserved communities by equipping people for every aspect of a healthy life,” he said.

As far as what is in store for the future of Oasis, Johnson mentioned a new initiative beginning in June 2023 called Oasis Aspires. This 16-week program allows Oasis to provide financial assistance for housing, utilities, education and childcare as well as to help participants secure employment. “We have five project coordinators who will help guide and encourage participants in the program,” he said, “and we are also preparing to open a second store in downtown Tulsa.” This second store will provide relief to another food desert where many residents either do not drive or must drive miles away for a full-service grocery store. Additionally, the multitude of family-owned businesses and restaurants will have easy access to Oasis when supplies are running low.

Then and now

Johnson with fellow alumnus Angel Okolie, wife Amber and daughter Amayah

Though his life has changed tremendously since he graduated with his management degree from TU’s Collins College of Business, he has carried his experience with him. “I loved my time at TU,” said Johnson, who remains connected to his alma mater by serving on the TU Alumni Board. “All of my mentors and friendships had a profound impact on my college career, and I learned the value of cultivating relationships because of it.”

It is clear that Johnson has a knack for service, and putting others first likely comes naturally to him at this point. However, it is important that heroes take a step back from time to time and care for themselves as well. When Johnson is not solving critical issues in his community and his store, he is most likely spending quality time with his wife of 10 years, Amber, and his three daughters, Amayah, Mila and Isla. “They keep me going every day,” he said.

Do you want to have an impact on your community through service? Do you see yourself pairing that desire with entrepreneurial exploits? Check out the Collins College of Business’ new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to get started.

New Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to fund future Tulsa startups

The city of Tulsa has been immersed in efforts to establish itself as a leader in the region for entrepreneurial activity, a goal that is getting a significant boost from a new endeavor in The University of Tulsa’s Collins College of Business.

On Wednesday, TU announced the establishment of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, with a goal of raising $10 million to help the campus community commercialize intellectual property, create new ventures and attain venture capital funding. The university aims to provide seed capital for the next 100 companies started by TU students, alumni and faculty.

The announcement came during TU’s monthly Friends of Finance luncheon, which supports scholarships for business students.

Left to right: Sean Kouplen, Kathy Taylor, Chris Wright and Scott Asbjornson

The center will be led by Chris Wright, a TU graduate and local entrepreneur with a history of creating new, technology-driven enterprises.

Kathy Taylor, dean of the Collins College of Business, said that 220 TU alumni have started more than 130 companies and raised more than $1.7 billion in venture capital funding during the past decade. “It’s an amazing achievement for these alumni founders and companies,” she said. “But going forward, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at TU is going to cultivate and seed-fund the next 100 start-ups.”

This focus stems from the fact that of the scores of companies started by TU alumni, only a few are based in Oklahoma. The center is on a mission to change that.

“For the next 100 companies that are started by TU students, faculty and alumni, we are going to be a part of that journey,” Wright said. “We will cultivate those businesses right here on TU’s campus. We’re going to seed-fund these entrepreneurial ventures and keep those businesses and jobs here in Tulsa and in Oklahoma to drive economic development.”

What’s more, there is an appetite among TU students for the school to take a more active role in encouraging startups. A recent survey of TU students revealed:

  • 81% believe TU needs a clear strategy for cultivating innovation
  • 78% believe TU needs to help students and faculty commercialize their innovations
  • 90% believe it’s important for TU to support student entrepreneurship
  • 80% believe it’s important for TU to have a dedicated center to support innovation and entrepreneurship

“The students were clear, the data is clear, and TU and the Collins College of Business are responding by launching the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” Taylor said.

Initiatives that are part of the center’s launch include:

  • Enhanced curriculum and opportunities – Students will have more opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and venture capital and develop the skills they need to be successful.
  • Hurricane Venture Fund – Entrepreneurs will have access to funding through our partnership with 46VC, a Tulsa-based venture capital firm. A portion of the fund will also be carved for student-led venture investing.
  • Venture studio/accelerator – The center will develop an on-campus startup accelerator that will involve programming, hands-on support and access to mentorship and capital.
  • Nova Fellows Program – A one-on-one mentorship program to help founders grow their ideas into sustainable businesses.
  • Commercialization support – The center and Hurricane Ventures will work together to commercialize intellectual property and ideas developed within the TU ecosystem.

Wright has been a cofounder or investor in numerous Tulsa-based tech companies including Reliant, Medefy, MeIn3 and Plannly. He has been an adjunct faculty member at TU for more than 10 years, teaching courses in leadership, entrepreneurship, human resources, marketing and research methods.

Wright was a founding member of TYPros and The Forge – Tulsa’s first business incubator program – and has served on numerous professional and advisory boards throughout the Tulsa community.

The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship already has secured $500,000 in pledges toward the $10 million goal with $250,000 apiece pledged by Scott Asbjornson (BSBA ’91, MBA ’95) and Regent Bank.

“Regent Bank is so excited to partner with The University of Tulsa on the new TU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. We believe fully in the new venture and tech ecosystem that is exploding here in Tulsa, and we applaud President Brad Carson, Dean Kathy Taylor and Dr. Chris Wright for their vision and boldness to take this exciting step to bridge the gap between brilliant ideas and commercializing them to start up successful businesses. Regent Bank is honored to partner with TU to make this vision a reality, and we will do our part to help this exciting ecosystem continue to flourish,” said Sean Kouplen, bank chairman and CEO.

“When I served as secretary of commerce for the state of Oklahoma, we spent a lot of time studying our state’s most successful companies and what they had in common. With very few exceptions, we learned that these companies started in Oklahoma and decided to stay and grow here. I believe the key to Oklahoma’s economic future is ‘growing our own’ and Regent Bank wants to do our part to help make this happen,” he said.

Asbjornson will chair the center’s advisory board, which comprises a number of representatives from Tulsa’s business and civic communities as well as from the university. The board held its first meeting Wednesday afternoon. Asbjornson, former chief financial offer for Aaon Inc., said he is eager to get started preparing TU students to take the first step in starting their own businesses.

Friends of Finance Featured Speaker

Beverly Carmichael

Collins College of Business also hosted Beverly Carmichael, current Blue Apron board member and formerly of Southwest Airlines, Ticketmaster and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, during the monthly Friends of Finance luncheon.

Carmichael, a Tulsa resident, attorney and corporate executive, detailed her rise to leadership positions in the business world as well as her views on how companies can be more successful by focusing on their workforce. Business leaders should be open to new ways their employees work, and to pay attention to new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, she said.

Carmichael also noted the strategic importance of committing to diversity, equity and inclusion, saying diverse workforces get better results. “Statistic after statistic say that the more diverse your organization is, the better it will perform,” she said. “That’s easy to understand because you get diverse perspectives you otherwise wouldn’t have.

“If you don’t have diversity, it’s like talking to yourself.”

Please join us for the next Executive Speaker Series event, which features Sid McAnnally, president and chief executive officer of ONE Gas, on March 22, 2023.