Melissa Houston | The Secrets to Engaging in Public Policy to Keep Your Business Open and Thriving

Contact Us

Melissa Houston | The Secrets to Engaging in Public Policy to Keep Your Business Open and Thriving

On this week’s episode of The Over 50 Entrepreneur, we speak with attorney Melissa Houston, Founder and Principal of 929 Strategies.

929 Strategies is a government affairs consulting company committed to helping businesses pursue opportunities by overcoming challenges through providing public policy advice, so you can protect and grow your business. 

After serving decades in the public sector, Melissa wanted to continue to move Oklahoma in a positive direction by helping businesses. Listen as she walks us through:

  • How you can attract better people for your open positions—tapping into a workforce that has been disrupted
  • How federal funds are being used to impact the trajectory of our state
  • How to help legislators understand your business’s bottom line—insider advice for the entrepreneurial community on engaging in public policy solutions
  • And much more

 

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:


Transcript

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Over 50 Entrepreneur, the podcast that’s dedicated to the business builders who are only getting started, when most are winding down. This is the place to discover how to create more freedom from your business while growing the value of your business. Now, here’s your host, Rick Hadrava. 

Rick Hadrava: Hey Everybody, this is Rick Hadrava. And it is another installment of The Over 50 Entrepreneur podcast, just want to make sure you’ve downloaded the right episode. This, I think will prove to be the right episode for you. And as always, really appreciate you taking the time to join us today. You know, one thing I have observed over the years about Oklahoma City and the greater Oklahoma City area, is it truly is one big, small community. And today’s guest is no, no exception to that. I had a friend of mine call me up and he said, hey, do you know Melissa? And I said, no. And he goes, What? What do you mean? And he said, you need to interview her for your podcast. And so I called Melissa, we had coffee, we sat down. And it didn’t take long for me to recognize that this was somebody that I wanted to dig into deeper for my audience, get to know Melissa and share her expertise with my community. So you know, I don’t like to do big, long intros. So let’s get to it today, and welcome my guest, Melissa Houston to The Over 50 Entrepreneur podcast. Melissa, thanks so much for taking the time to be here.

Melissa Houston: Absolutely. Thank you for the invite, I appreciate it. Of course, I don’t know, you know how I feel about the over 50 label being out there even though I am. That’s a, I’m sure my grandmother would be proud of people knowing my age.

Rick: Well, you gave it up. But I would say you can always put that on me. I’m definitely over 50. And we’ll we’ll take that title. But you know, you know, it’s like, it’s a great example of, you know, I think where you are in life and the journey that has gotten you here. And so for those that maybe don’t know you, let’s introduce you and tell us a little bit about your path to where you are today.

Melissa: Sure. Well, currently, I am the founder and CEO of 929 Strategies, which is a public policy consulting firm. And it has been an incredible journey, not horribly well planned out, I did not have a roadmap for all of this, I did not have a hey, I want to be a business owner kind of mentality going into it. But really, how it all came about is wanting to be of service. That’s really how my career began at a at a very young age. At the very beginning of my career as an attorney. I have two degrees from OU. A letters degree and a law degree. And at the very beginning of my career, I was actually in the bombing in downtown Oklahoma City, which you know, being at the at the very start of my career really propelled me to try and be of use in some way and to try and make a difference in some way. 

And so that led me to a career in public policy and in public service. I spent over 20 years in public service in a variety of roles. I was the chief of staff at Homeland Security. We started the the Homeland Security organization in Oklahoma. I was the Chief of Staff for the Attorney General. I’ve been the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Workforce, I was the Deputy Director of the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association, another kind of random part of my career. And I finished up my career in public service as being the state labor commissioner. And so I have had a very interesting and very diverse career and not one that you go to college saying, hey, I’m going to do this. But I’ve always tried to be of use in some way. I’ve worked for four different governors, and developed the reputation as being the Swiss Army Knife of public policy. 

And so that was what I was doing. And I was doing some work for Governor Stitt during the during the transition. And helping him I mean, as he would say, he was a business person, not not a government person. And so I helped him on some of the the policy issues at the beginning. And I realized that it was probably time for me to be in the private sector. It really was, turning 50 was some of you know, I’ve done my entire, you know, public service journey, but I wanted to see if I could be in the private sector, and still do what it is that I enjoy doing. Solving big problems, making a difference, navigating government. Could I do that in the public in the private sector? And so that led to starting 929 Strategies. 

My first client was Governor Stitt, working on his policy agenda, which is not a bad start for a public policy company. And, you know, honestly, I thought I would start an LLC, I would see if I’d have a couple projects that I could work on, you know, pay the bills, that would be interesting. And I’ve really stumbled into this, this market, that there is a lot of need out there for businesses, to have someone help them navigate public policy and navigate bureaucracy and help them solve problems and find growth opportunities. And so the company in you know, two and a half years has really taken off, and we’re adding to the team and growing and it’s been an incredible journey.

Rick: Well, it sounds like it and I can’t wait to dig in a little deeper here with you, with some maybe some examples, if you will. But first, and I apologize if I missed this, I didn’t hear you say, is there a story behind 929 Strategies?

Melissa: So 929 strategies. I am a I am a person of faith and 929 Strategies is actually the feast day of St. Michael, the Archangel. And so it’s kind of a nod to my faith and in a nod for, for me it for the foundation of the business to be, you know, committed to to doing the right thing for the right reasons, and hopefully making a difference.

Rick: Well, I love that. And I think thank you for sharing that with us. So can you give us like an example of what the day in the life for you with 929 Strategies as you work with business owners in some of these policy issues? So that our audience gets a better understanding of what that might look like.

Melissa: Sure, and it’s a it’s a, we don’t do a lot of marketing, because it is a really unique niche. And if you know, you know, and if you don’t, it’s, it’s like now what do you do? Explaining it to my mother in law has been has been interesting to say the least. But we have a portfolio of some government clients and some business clients. And so for our government clients, we are working on big strategic public policy issues. So for example, one of our clients is the Oklahoma legislature. And we were retained to help the legislature determine the best strategies for the American rescue dollars. So that’s about $1.8 billion that’s coming into the state of Oklahoma. It’s a historic investment. How do you determine the priorities of the state? How do you engage people in the process? How do you prioritize? Like those kinds of things. And so we’re helping them navigate, navigate that. 

I also, for some government clients, we’re focused a lot on entrepreneurship. Interestingly, really, it’s it’s again, pulling on my background of you go figure it out, which is pretty much been every position I’ve had. Go, here’s a problem, go figure it out. And so in the entrepreneurship space, that’s what we’re doing. Oklahomans are some of the most resilient, collaborative problem solvers in the country. Well, that is the very nature of being an entrepreneur. So why are we not leading the country in entrepreneurship? What are the obstacles that are standing in our way? And how can we, how can we grow that? And so recommending a policy agenda to Governor Stitt helping him enact some of those policies is another area. 

For our business clients, you know, one of one of our business clients is McAfee and Taft. And so any of the clients that the firm has, they may have questions. They we track policy issues that are taking place. And when I say policy issues, sometimes it’s legislation, sometimes it’s administrative rules. Sometimes it’s interim studies, I mean, just kind of being aware of what are the big picture issues that are taking place. How do you position yourself as a business to respond to the policymakers? As you know, these are some of the problems this is going to cause in my business. The policymakers aren’t trying to harm business, they just don’t know. And so how do you connect a CEO with the state legislature so that they understand when you draft a bill, the the word and versus the word or can make all the difference in a bottom line for a business. 

And so how do we let businesses know what’s going on? How do we help them to engage in the process and tell their story? Because the policymakers in Oklahoma especially want to be helpful to business not hurtful, but they don’t know what they don’t know sometimes. And so you know, providing those connections, we also for our business clients, we look for opportunities. You know, here, here are some of the big things that we see coming at the federal level at the state level. How do you position your business to take advantage of some of those opportunities moving forward? So it’s, you know, it’s really strategic advice and counsel predominantly to CEOs.

Rick: Yeah, that’s very interesting. So I have to ask, though, before I forget. So are there any big things coming from a federal or state level that small businesses should be aware of?

Melissa: I think, well, yes, a lot. You know, when you talk about the agenda at the federal level, I mean, obviously, the world has been disrupted. And when you’re talking about the pandemic, you know, especially when you talk about changes in administration that have different philosophies towards the role of government, towards the role of government regulation. I mean, all of those things are impactful on a business. Some of the things that we’re, we’re seeing right now, as far as the disruptiveness of the pandemic, I mean, obviously, the the laws around, you know, mandating vaccines and things like that, but longer term, how do you tap into a workforce that has had a different experience now? Do you go all remote? Do you go part remote? One of the things that we’ve been seeing is the record number of women that are dropping out of the workforce. 

I mean, every CEO will tell you, they’re having a hard time getting people. Why are we having a hard time getting people? What can you do to attract better people? How can you change your culture or your environment to be responsive to that? So women are a prime example. A lot of women and you know, my peers, too. Working women juggling taking care of elderly parents and taking care of kids and you know, trying to work full time. They’re going to need more flexibility. Are you as an organization prepared to provide more flexibility? What does that look like? Getting away from kind of that eight to five model and having accountability in the work getting done? But creating an environment that attracts the best and brightest? I mean, those are the kinds of things that I think are interesting. 

For the state of Oklahoma, you know, the diversification of energy. You know, we know that at a national level there, there’s definitely a push to diversify. What can the state of Oklahoma do to be pivoting in all the areas around that? Is that EV? Is it battery technology? What are we doing in the battery space? What are we doing from a workforce standpoint? What are we doing to research in those areas that will position us moving forward as a state? So yeah, there’s a lot, and I think the other big thing is the unprecedented level of federal funds. We saw this a lot when we had 911. 

That was really the last time that we had, you know, a national crisis, the federal government responds with a large sum of money, and they tell the states go figure it out. Like, here’s your pot, go figure it out. After 911, the state of Oklahoma was uniquely positioned because of the Murrah bombing, that we knew the solutions, we just didn’t have the money. So now all of a sudden, we had the money, and it was easy for us to invest that money to solve the problems. So now here we are, you know, 30 years later, 20 years later. What are the problems that need to be addressed now with these investments? 

How do we use these funds to change the trajectory of our state? From a business standpoint, we learned a lot about businesses and, and how, how and why they are not accessing these resources. It was as simple as you know, small startups, not having financials. Not knowing, you know, here’s the paperwork, bank that I need to take advantage of the PPP. So what can we do moving forward to improve that? And I mean, so it’s a, it’s an interesting time to be involved.

Rick: And that’s a great example, because I don’t have the data on it. But I heard story after story on the PPP, for example, on the number of small businesses that couldn’t get access to that information. So as you think about the federal funds, and that, you know, are we doing anything different to make sure that our small business owners that need that access can continue to get the support?

Melissa: We are. I mean, I think we’re trying to be at the state level, we’re trying to be more collaborative. And you know, one of the things I’m constantly advocating for is one front door. You know, how do, I and some of this grew out of me as a business owner, again, a career in public service. I’m an attorney by training. I’ve been a statewide officer, I’ve been in the cabinet like, I’ve had a great career. I had to Google how to start a business. I mean, where do where do I go? That’s, that’s not my skill set. And how do I turn and so as a state, we need to do things like deregulate, but we also need to do things that create those opportunities and make it easier for people to access these opportunities. We have lots and lots of resources. 

But if you’re using Google to find them, that’s probably not the best and most efficient way to be doing that. And so we’re trying to identify what are some of those barriers? How do we make it easier, easier to navigate, easier to find, easier to access? What are the trainings? You know, when you talk about high tech companies, people who are coding and building high tech companies aren’t financial people. Like, do they have a P&L? Who’s keeping that for them? How do they find a responsible accountant who can help advise them? And so that’s, that’s some of the things we’re just trying to make it easier. Not create a new program, but how do we navigate the existing resources we have and make it more accessible?

Rick: Fantastic. So I have kind of a off the cuff question for you. Because, you know, not to get into the investment world at all, because that’s not what this is about. And we don’t do that on this show. But I have really started to look at the trend in this country, towards boomers retiring. And, you know, you talked about women dropping out of the workforce in Oklahoma. And, and really, I would say, the over 50 population, right? When you look at the data, and you look at it on a national scale, and you realize that we don’t have a population as a whole that is saved enough for retirement, the Social Security benefits that, you know, we know that they’re already talking about reducing those down over the next 13 years, even though we’ve recently gotten an increase for inflation. 

But you realize that we have a whole population, a big population of people that are going to be challenged with what retirement means. I for one, think that one of the answers for a certain segment of that is to think about lifestyle entrepreneurship. And, you know, we don’t need to go build startups necessarily, maybe some want to, we don’t have to go build and scale big companies. But we can be of service to people. Find that, you know, find where people need help and are willing to pay for our services in being of service to them, keep active, do it a little differently. 

And so I share that with you because I’m curious, as you know, you talk about trying to figure out what are the things that are important. And one thing I know in this environment today, is there’s always a critic. It doesn’t matter what we think is important, somebody is going to disagree. Is there any thought to this as we look out 10 years from now, right of what the potential impact is to our workforce, our economy, and these kinds of things? And what what are some of the things that we could be doing to support that? And that’s a lot. I’m unwrapping that in a whole lot, but I just curious what your thoughts would be on that, Melissa?

Melissa: Well, I think and it goes back to that collaboration, especially in the state of Oklahoma. We are, you know, the friendliest state and and never meet a stranger and willing to roll up our sleeves and help one another. And we do all that. Instinctively. What we’re not doing is doing it in a very formalized way. So when you talk about entrepreneurs and startups, for example, we don’t really have a great mentor network. It is hard to tap into that if I’m a you know, 20 something kid coming out of the University. I’m not hanging out at Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club with the CEO. 

Like I don’t know how, and we have such a depth and breadth of knowledge in our workforce that is retiring that can be such an asset to those coming up. And so what can we do to you know, kind of play matchmaker. One of my business advisors actually is a, he worked with me and through the years, but anyway, he is a CPA and a JD and had been in private business. He’s retired. And I was like, you know what, this this is not my skill set. I really could use someone to help me on you know, cash projections and cash flow and like that’s not where I hang out. Could you help me? And he was so excited to help me just because he’s retired, and he’s like, hey, that would be interesting. 

You know, it keeps him active, and it is his skill set, and he enjoys it, I hate it. And so I’m like, well, let me pay you to do this. Like, but that, again, is just because of my network. So how do we create those opportunities, and that network for people in a little bit more formalized way? And I don’t mean a new government program or anything, but what can we do to make those connections, because I think that’s such an incredible resource we have in our state.

Rick: Totally agree. And I love what you said about your friend, because let’s face it, as we get older, sometimes we feel like, you know, as a dad, with some teenagers, every now and then I’m like, my opinion doesn’t matter, right. But to engage our older folks, the wisdom, you know, comes from not just the the technical skills, but the experiences. When you when you bloodied your nose against the wall a couple times you learn a thing or two, right? And I’m very interested to see us encourage that with our, you know, we jokingly call them, you know, over 50 entrepreneurs, but the truth is, it’s a big thing. 

And I, it doesn’t have to be a million dollar small business. I mean, matter of fact, most small businesses don’t even make that kind of money. But there’s opportunity, and I hope for one that we can figure out a solution to that, because I look at it, and it’s obvious that we’re going that direction, we’re going to have this issue. And and we’re gonna have to find some some solutions. You talked about it. So let’s drill into a comparison. You’ve been on the public and private sector sides, now. As a business owner, what have been some of the biggest contrasts that you’ve seen versus being on the other side in the public sector.

Melissa: I can’t say that the the time is horribly different. Because I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic. And so you know, when I was at Homeland Security, it was definitely 24-7, depending upon what was going on. Same thing at the AG’s office. And so the fact that I’m kind of 24-7 for my clients is is nothing new to me. I’m used to having that kind of crazy work ethic. I think this is this sounds awful. But one is the I think that business private sector, people don’t realize the challenges of being in government. 

And I think that Governor Stitt and his cabinet members, it has been wonderful to have so many private sector people injected into the bureaucracy. Because they are learning that sometimes when government is not responsive, it’s not because people are lazy or they’re unmotivated. It’s because we’ve created a system and a culture, that intentionally slows things down. You don’t want government to move fast when you’re dealing with three branches of government. You don’t want government to move fast. When you’re dealing with taxpayer dollars. You want it to be slow, you want it to be intentional. 

Sometimes you do things like you have a mandatory state contract for buying, you know, pens, that goes to a disabled organization, because you’re trying to create a social good by employing people in this community, which results in it’s more expensive, and it takes you longer, you don’t just buy a pen. But there’s a reason behind that. And I think in the private sector, you don’t understand all that. And it’s very just frustrating. Why does it not move faster? Why can’t I do what I want to do? And in the government sector, there is a reason we have set up some of those boundaries and some of those guardrails. 

And so I think it’s been great to have Governor Stitt and his cabinet in learning that there are so many good people in government who want to do the right thing, but sometimes they’re just chained by the by the bureaucracy and some of the guardrails. So that’s been that’s been interesting. So it’s fun to go to an office supply store and buy whatever supplies I want to buy. I mean, you know, instead of a 30 day purchase order wait for you know. 

So that’s been kind of fun. I think the other thing is the the scrutiny on public employees. Especially right now. You know, any email you write any any conversation. I mean, it’s just it’s such a toxic environment. And when you’re in government, you’re under even more scrutiny just constantly. And anything they say is just, you know, and so I think, hopefully, people in the private sector recognizing there are some good people trying to do the best they can within the system we’ve created.

Rick: I think that’s wonderful insight, and I appreciate you sharing it because you’re absolutely right. I mean, outside looking in, we always question, right. Like this thing is moving. It’s bloated, it’s moving slow. They’re spending our money. And we have no idea. But we know that, you know, there’s the truth always is somewhere in between, in my experience, so.

Melissa: Right, and Oklahoma and Oklahoma, especially because we’re a very populist state. Our Constitution is populist. It’s the longest constitution in the state of Oklahoma. And so our founders intentionally set up distrust of big corporations. Distrust of business. You know, so that is embedded in our legal framework and infrastructure. And so I think Governor Stitt’s done a great job of responding to some of that, and and making it more efficient where you can. But sometimes, I mean, it’s going to be a vote of the people to really, you know, change something. So I think just recognizing those challenges.

Rick: Well, so Melissa, as you think out the next three, four or five years, what does business look like for you, as you continue to do you know what you enjoy doing?

Melissa: Yeah. So funny, I’m actually contemplating that position, that decision right now. And trying to decide how fast to grow. How fast is too fast? How many people do you add? When do you add them? The revenue that I make, we’re investing back into the company. And so that is something I’m wrestling with at the moment and trying to identify, those members of the team, that have a heart of service that are problem solvers, that are intelligent, that are networked, have good relationships. I mean, I’ve worked for four governors, Democrat and Republican. 

And so we’re adding people to our team that share those values. You know, we’re not just here to make a buck, we’re here to solve a problem and make the state better. And so we continue to find clients that align with that. You know, if it’s a business, that’s just, we’ve, we’ve been very lucky that we’ve been able to cherry pick those clients that we take on because we can be very impactful for their business. And so how big is the portfolio? You know, again, I started two years ago, hoping to have three clients, you know, I’m now over 10. 

And we have three more pending at the moment. And so, I don’t know, I mean, five years from now, I think there is a role for business to play in public policy. There is a role to help CEOs navigate what is taking place trend wise in public policy. And I think continuing to be of service that helps grow business that helps grow the state of Oklahoma, and it’s kind of a win win for everyone. So I I see it continuing to grow. We’ll see.

Rick: On that, kind of on that same note, as we come to the end of our of our podcast today. I’m curious, like, what advice from your side, you know, your experience and insight. What advice would you give to our small business or entrepreneurial community as ways that we can be engaging in the solutions and doing that? Just wondering what your thoughts would be there to share with our group?

Melissa: Yeah, well, first of all, feel free to give us a call. 929 Strategies. We’ll help you if you have a specific problem, or a specific issue you would work on, but on a on a daily basis, I just encourage people to get engaged. But get engaged in the right way. I mean, it’s so hard when you’re running a business, you’re focused on running the business, like, what is my revenue? What are my expenses? What about you, what is my quarterly going to be like, you’re focused on that. And there’s so much noise going on right now that it is easy to tune it out. It is easy to just say I don’t have time to deal with that. I’m just trying to keep the doors open. 

But there are ways that you can engage in the process that can help you not only keep the doors open, but grow and thrive. And you have to be engaged. I think you have to have those relationships really before you need them. People are often surprised in the legislative process that as many is you know, three to or as few as three to five calls to a legislator from a constituent can make all the difference. I mean, they get robo calls, they get robo email. They have all these groups that are. But when you sincerely, you’ve met your legislator at the Rotary Club, you’ve you’ve talked to them at your local community bank, and you call them up and say, hey, I was reading in the paper that this bill was coming down. 

Are you aware what impact that would have on my company? They will take that call, they will listen, that does make a difference. That’s one phone call. Doesn’t take that long. So as tempting as it is to tune it out, and to say to heck with all politicians. There are a lot of good people that are serving. A lot of good people trying to do the right thing. Develop those relationships before you need them and do stay engaged.

Rick: I love that. I love that. Well, Melissa, this has been wonderful. And I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. So you mentioned it, if people want to learn more about 929 Strategies, or maybe give you a call. You know, make email, whatever. Do you want to provide that information for our audience?

Melissa: Sure. It’s 929strategies.com. And then my email is Melissa@929strategies.com. It’s pretty easy.

Rick: Very good. And we’ll have that in the show notes. Guys, if you check us out on our website, or check us out on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts. Melissa, if you’ll just stay with us, we’ll wrap up and guys, you’ve been listening to this edition of The Over 50 Entrepreneur podcast. Be sure to check out the website epicsbiz.com. That’s epicsbiz.com/podcast actually to go right to our podcast. But check it out. Send us an email at Rick@epicsbiz.com. And let us know what you think. Any questions. We’d love your feedback always. Be sure to give us a good rating if you liked the show that that helps. And until next time, remember, we’re only getting started.

Voiceover: The Over 50 Entrepreneur podcast is sponsored by Epic Business Advisory where we help entrepreneurs escape the owner’s trap, build businesses that can succeed without you, allowing you the opportunity to realize more freedom, think bigger and pursue next level goals. Download our freedom formula at epicsbiz.com/formula. And remember, we’re only getting started.

Share this post?