News November 30, 2017

USDA Rural Development Announces New Executive Leadership

by Jackson Hole. Media

Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett today announced the appointment of new leadership in several key roles within the Rural Development mission area: a Chief Innovation Officer, who will lead the new Rural Development Innovation Center; and a Director of External Affairs, who will manage the Agency’s legislative and public affairs activities.

Gina Sheets has been selected to serve as the Chief Innovation Officer for Rural Development. Sheets has more than 20 years’ experience working in economic development at the local and state level, building prosperity in rural communities through small business development and economic attraction. A long-time small business owner, she served as a local elected official at the start of her career and later as Director of Agriculture under Indiana Governor Mike Pence. In addition to her economic development and local leadership experience, Sheets and her husband served as volunteers in Liberia, where she was responsible for coordinating a farmer-to-farmer capacity building program and extending agriculture education and small business development practices.

“Rural communities need fresh and innovative solutions to face their unique challenges head-on,” Sheets said. “I’m looking forward to leading the Rural Development Innovation Center to add value for our communities by making Rural Development’s many tools and opportunities for partnership easier to understand and access.”

As Chief Innovation Officer, Sheets will oversee the creation and management of the Rural Development Innovation Center, a team within Rural Development working to streamline, modernize and strengthen the delivery of Rural Development tools effectively and efficiently.  The Innovation Center will focus on improving customer service to rural communities and increasing rural prosperity through strategic partnerships, capacity-building, data analytics and evaluation, and regulatory reform. The Innovation Center will also inform policy decisions and develop creative solutions to rural economic development.

Marie Wheat will serve as Director of External Affairs. Wheat is currently an Industry Economist for USDA and oversees delivery of the Department’s BioPreferred Program. In this role, Marie is responsible for worldwide interactions with regulators, key stakeholders and industry associations to advance the market for chemicals and consumer products made from agricultural commodities. Before coming to USDA, Wheat served as Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer of the United States Peace Corps, overseeing global operations as well as Congressional and Public Affairs, for the world’s largest international volunteer service organization.

“After 10 years of working at USDA, I know firsthand that rural Americans are creative, innovative and entrepreneurial with a great story to tell,” Wheat said. “Growing up in a small town in South Carolina, I understand the importance of economic opportunity to ensure that rural communities thrive and prosper. I will continue to be a champion and an advocate for rural Americans as I lead Rural Development’s outreach activities.”

As Director of External Affairs, Wheat will manage Rural Development’s communications and stakeholder engagement activities, including community engagement, legislative and public affairs.

Sheets and Wheat will report to duty on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit

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