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.
“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.
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
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.