Huntsville, the Silicon Valley of the South, may be the ideal city for business and networking. Politician Anthony Daniels, business owners Tammy Blish-Honeycutt and Tharon Honeycutt, and Deloitte leader Carey Miller tell us why.
“One of the most powerful things we can do are just to get to know people of other races, ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, much better. Deloitte held a diversity session a few weeks ago and one of the professors that spoke called us walking strangers and that we walk and talk to one another an awful lot, but don’t really get to know one another at a personal level.” — Carey Miller
Tanya Ott: Unlocking the next big innovation requires bringing a lot of different kinds of people to the table. Today on the Press Room, what DEI means for the defense industrial base.
Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott. Usually on this podcast we take a geography agnostic view of business issues … but today we’re doing something a little different. We’re zeroing in on one community—Huntsville, Alabama. You might be surprised to learn that Huntsville has one of [the] highest numbers of engineers per capita in the United States.1 How did it get there?
For the first half of the 20th century, Huntsville marketed itself as the watercress capital of the world.2 But that changed in the 1950s, when the federal government turned a former chemical weapons outpost into Redstone Arsenal, and built NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Today, the city is a high-tech hub, home to hundreds of aerospace companies and other companies serving the defense industrial base.
Huntsville is an outlier in another way. A recent Deloitte survey found that business leaders there almost universally reported that they found their peers to be open and interested in networking, even if they were competitors. Carey Miller, a managing director with Deloitte & Touche LLP, coauthored the survey.
Carey: I was born, raised, and educated in the state of Alabama. I have built a career in consulting for the last 20 years, most of those at Deloitte focused in cybersecurity, until I moved to Huntsville about eight years ago, broadened my focus, building on our presence here, building the cultural foundation and the team to solve hard problems for local clients in areas like IT modernization, improving the cyber resilience of weapon systems, digital engineering, and workforce development.
Tanya: We asked her to invite some other guests on to talk about what exactly makes Huntsville such a ripe area for networking and collaboration.
Anthony Daniels: Hi, I’m Anthony Daniels, state representative representing House District 53, which sits in the city of Huntsville, and I also serve as the Alabama House minority leader, where my role is to try to get folks moving in the same direction on issues of economic development, growth, education, and criminal justice reform specifically, finding areas of common ground so that we’re able to move our state forward.
Tammy Blish-Honeycutt: My name is Tammy Blish-Honeycutt and I am the CEO of MSB Analytics Inc. It’s a small government contracting business that originally was founded by me and Tharon, my husband, in a small little room in our home. We had some skills that we thought we could bring to the government.
Tharon Honeycutt: My role at the company, I see it in many different ways, but [I] execute things from a business development standpoint and a networking standpoint and community service standpoint. Where Tammy is really trained as a sales and marketing professional having worked for Fortune 500 companies, I learn from her in that regard and I’m trained in accounting, having been with the background not only as a CPA but also in the media business itself. So, it’s a great compliment to our company to be able to bring those two skills to bear. Huntsville’s being good to us.
Tanya: Let’s start with the state of diversity in the defense industry. What are the big issues related to diversity in the defense industry right now?
Carey: Candidly, the status of diversity in the defense industrial base is similar to the diversity in other industries. There are efforts being made, but there is a long way to go. The fact that representation there is not what it could be merits some attention.
Tanya: That’s interesting because in defense contracting there are several women in very top leadership positions. But what you’re saying is it may be happening there, but it isn’t trickling down to other levels of leadership within companies.
Carey: From where I sit even when it happens at those levels, it is not enough. There is still some measure of equity that could be attained. We have to see more of that in order to believe it can happen. I also think there’s a pipeline issue. Women and minorities are much more likely to seek STEM careers and jobs in the defense industry if they see people like them successful in those roles. I do think that there is an opportunity there for us to highlight some of the successes there and ensure that less experienced leaders are given those opportunities and are exposed to the great work that others before them have done. [According to] the research in our study, female executives in the entire aerospace and defense industry are estimated at between 19% and 25%. That’s pretty low when you think about the percentage of the population that’s female.
Tanya: The workforce in this industry is aging. I read that more than 50% of employees in the defense industrial base are over 50 years of age. The Aerospace Industries Association refers to it as a “grey tsunami.”3 And that speaks to that pipeline issue.
Carey: Absolutely. And again, especially in those STEM fields, which are absolutely critical to innovation in the defense industrial base.
Tanya: So why should we be worried about diversity, inclusion, and equity in industry?
Carey: The thirst for innovation in DOD is exceptional. Our clients in the Department of Defense, and this is borne out even through looking at the current budget, they’re investing more in research and development than they have in a very long time. The research that Deloitte has done on this subject really bears out the fact that innovation requires diversity of thought and incorporation of multiple perspectives. And while that diversity of thought can be accomplished in a whole bunch of different ways, two of those ways are certainly through the inclusion of women and minorities.
Tanya: So why is Huntsville such a good place to talk about this issue?
Anthony: For me, we’re [a] smart city and we pride ourselves on the diversity and inclusion as a community and that’s been our pitch to the rest of the world in attracting people to Huntsville. But I do think that there are areas that we can improve on, and this is one of those areas—making certain that people of color as well as women have more opportunities. Even in the defense contracting world, as you talk to many of those individuals that have woman-owned or minority-owned companies, oftentimes, once they’ve gone through the 8(a) Program, it is very difficult for them to be able to retain a lot of the business that they received as a result of that program, which is used to give them a leg up and give them an opportunity to get started.
Tanya: For those who don’t know, the 8(a) Program is a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration that gives management and technical assistance to socially and economically disadvantaged people and companies—women, minorities ... so they can compete for certain government contracts.
Anthony: Oftentimes the relationships are not necessarily there for them to sustain that growth long term. Many of them have to have more of a reduction in force. This is something that I’ve seen firsthand from a lot of different companies, not just one or two, but many. And then, there’s not a whole lot of engagement among people of color, women-owned companies within the city that actually get contracts here locally. A lot of their work is from outside of Alabama. So that’s of great concern for me as a lawmaker because of all the investments we’re making at the state level. We’re guilty of that at the state level. That’s why we’ve been addressing those issues of rewriting or updating our procurement code, making certain that we’re providing bills, like access to capital and other things, some of the barriers that have kept some of the government agencies from being able to engage as many minority-owned or women-owned companies. We want to remove the excuses. But I think that Huntsville, we’ve got to do better at approaching this and focusing on the problem. This is a blind spot. Anyone would admit to you that they had no clue that this is going on. But I will tell you, I talked to those individuals that start companies every day, and those that are more experienced have had the same issue. Now it’s time for us to make certain that we’re opening the doors of opportunities even wider for those individuals that are going through the process now and not limit them to just having an 8(a) certification as a way for them to generate business and growth.
Tammy: Anthony, I agree with you. The 8(a) Program is a wonderful program that does help you get launched, help to win some contracts, but the contracts that are available are less technical. They are less in dollar revenues. And because of that, you’re on a pathway where if you get these contracts, they become your past performance. Then when you begin to migrate out of the program, you have a hard time because your scope and your magnitude, when you’re going after larger context is so small. There’s a disconnect. There is a huge gap. It puts you at a disadvantage in terms of having the scope and the magnitude to compete at a larger level and a higher dollar threshold.
Tanya: So you’ve talked about some of the barriers. There’s also the networking issue. There may be networking going on, but it may not reflect the diversity that you want to see. How has Huntsville addressed that?
Carey: One of the things that surprised me a little bit actually coming out of the study was that Huntsville was such a positive outlier in the networking dimension. As a relatively recent newcomer to Hunstville, I personally experienced that. Talking with Tammy and Tharon, I know that a big part of their business success is just having people around who are helpful, who are engaged, who want to answer questions and help small or large businesses and newcomers or longtime Huntsville residents overcome whatever business challenges they have. One of the things that we uncovered—and I’ll be honest, I was telling Tammy and Tharon over dinner that I was disappointed in this initially—was that so much more needs to be done in that networking area in order to change the paradigm around diversity, equity, inclusion. I was disappointed because I really wanted there to be a systemic issue that we could tackle collectively and reset a policy or take something very tangible and change it. [But] what some of the research uncovered is that one of the most powerful things we can do are just to get to know people of other races, ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, much better. Deloitte held a diversity session a few weeks ago and one of the professors that spoke called us walking strangers: We walk and talk to one another an awful lot, but don’t really get to know one another at a personal level. It’s those personal connections that really change the world and that make you want to invest more, not just in someone’s business and in the question that they’re asking you, but in that person as a human being and their future in Huntsville and the future of their business. I’ll also say, maybe on a personal level, I feel very responsible as the mother of three children to normalize that natural curiosity about people that might not be like them and try to encourage them to want to learn more and to recognize the richness and the value that comes out of connections at that level. So I do think that that’s one thing that that the local government is really committed to, is trying to enable those networks to develop. Now, it takes a real personal commitment on the part of all of us and all of our peers to show up to those events and to be much more intentional about the connections we’re making. But the research showed that Huntsville is a positive outlier there.
Tanya: Anthony, Huntsville has a new high school, the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering. It’s meant to build a pipeline of people in STEM and it’s the first of its kind in the country. Tell us little bit about how the school came to be, and what distinguishes it from other STEM-focused magnet programs around the country?
Anthony: The mayor of the city of Huntsville made a commitment several years ago when he created a cyber group here in the city. At the time, the former superintendent focused a lot of his attention on creating a cybersecurity pipeline with having smaller teams creating the different teams around the city of Huntsville. And so there is an emphasis in our K-12 system, also an emphasis from the mayor of creating cyber Huntsville. So it was natural. Based upon our recruitment strategy of the FBI and other areas and in the growing need for cybersecurity in our community, it was a no-brainer for us to create the School of Cybersecurity and Engineering. That’s going to create a tremendous pipeline.
One of the things that we were intentional about in developing this piece of legislation: There is a requirement on the part of the admission to the school to open up their cybersecurity and engineering emphasis at the K-12 level and [build] the foundation even in places like the black belt of Alabama, because there is a percentage of African-Americans and minorities that must be in attendance at that particular school. The school has to address the diversity and inclusion part of it. That was one of the things that I wanted to make certain was in the actual legislation, that we were not creating a school for the “haves” and that we were being intentional about our focus. If our mission is to educate and create a pipeline or the next generation of individuals in science and technology, we needed to make certain that there are no children, regardless of where they are located in the state of Alabama, regardless of their socioeconomic status, [who won’t] have an opportunity to get into the school. You could not use just test scores or something of that magnitude to allow them to get into the school. If we’re looking at ninth grade—our focus will eventually be seventh grade through 12th—we’ve got to understand that there are some deficiencies at the state level, which is why we also passed a bill adding computer science to the high school curriculum.
We do have to do more. On the front end, we’re making these investments in early-childhood education, even really cradle-to-pre-K in my mind, to build a pipeline, so that we can increase the quality and the rigor of education throughout the state of Alabama, so that it will be very competitive to get into the school. But for parents that are moving to Alabama, seeing the cybersecurity and engineering school, especially located in Huntsville, that makes them more optimistic about the future of our state. And that’s something that each and every day when I’m in the trenches down in Montgomery or here in town, diversity and inclusion is a priority for me. And making certain that we’re not just talking the talk, but we’re walking the walk.
Tanya: It’s important to let the audience know that the School of Cybersecurity and Engineering is a public high school and the tuition and housing are free, which starts to level that playing field.
Anthony: Absolutely. And there are three schools like this in Alabama, really four. You have the School of the Deaf and Blind down in Talladega. These are independent schools that are public schools, but they’re independent. So they have their own president or principal, whatever you want to call them. They’re governed by their boards of trustees, not a school board or local school board. So you have the math and science school in Mobile. You have the arts in Birmingham, and then you have the cybersecurity engineering in Huntsville. And it is a public independent school that would be considered really a magnet school that’s specialized.
Carey: One of the things that Deloitte is really humbled and excited to be a part of is we’re helping the school meet their mandate of recruiting minorities and those with perhaps fewer educational opportunities from other parts of the state to Huntsville, to give them a high-quality education and a high-demand STEM area like cyber and digital engineering. When you talk about breaking the cycle, that happens when you overcome some of those economic and geographical barriers to really great jobs in a community like Huntsville that is growing, growing, growing. Those are some things that I really think that the city and the state have started to do well to address these disparities.
Tanya: Let’s widen the lens. What are the lessons that other cities, other states could take away from Huntsville’s experience?
Anthony: The cybersecurity and engineering school is one, and wherever there’s a research park or a heavy defense or large military bases across the country, this is something that they should consider because it is going to feature your workforce and it also helped retain talent within your community. You’re building a pipeline to go and serve our country in a different capacity because the cyber threats are more prevalent today than they were yesterday. But we’ve got to be on the cutting edge of fighting this fight. And that’s something that they should certainly look at. Making certain that they’re creating an opportunity and a pipeline regionally, making certain that the local government and county and state government are all working together and building out a strategic plan for the community, and everyone has buy-in and input. Making certain that the chambers and all of the different stakeholders understand the big picture and there’s a path created on how you get there, because it’s not going to be possible without the buy-in of more of a regional approach.
Carey: I would add to that, too. Anthony, so much credit for this study goes to you, right? I mean, I want to say maybe a few words about the origin of this, because when Deloitte moved to Huntsville, we are all in from the beginning. It’s an important part of our value system and structure that we give back to the communities that we serve in. And I had lunch with Anthony one day and we asked him, what can a firm like Deloitte do, particularly in the area of diversity and inclusion, which is something our local office is very passionate about. What can we do to help drive conversation on this topic? And Anthony, you said two things. You said, first, we have to be able to quantify where we are today. We have to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and see exactly what we are and are not doing and the impact of those actions in the community as they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So in my mind, one of the things that other communities could take from that is exactly what Anthony proposed, which is you have got to quantify where you are today and really use that to look at where you want to be in the future.
The second thing that seems really obvious, but is an important connector, is you’ve got to talk about it. All of the things that we uncovered quantitatively can’t be changed without the work of many different people and institutions. The recommendations you made there, Anthony, certainly drove our thinking about the kind of study we wanted to conduct and the impact that it could have. We probably didn’t directly discuss this, but we engaged the local Chamber of Commerce in the study. They helped us access the data we needed to really take a look at some of the populations in and around the Huntsville community. One of the things that they really helped us do was make sure we talked to lots and lots of different communities, not just the successful business owners, but those that are struggling. Not just business owners, but nonprofits. Not just state and local government officials, but federal government officials. We couldn’t talk to everyone, but recognized the fact that this is a web, this is a network of opportunity, if you will, for us to try and change the game in a certain part of the world. And if everybody did that in their own little corners of the universe, think of the impact we could have.
Tammy and Tharon, I feel like in hearing your story, you overcame like 100 barriers to get from the idea of a passion project of a new company to where you are today. And I would love to hear what made the biggest difference for you in Huntsville or outside of Huntsville. What made you think you could do it, know you could do it. And what help did you get along the way that made the most difference?
Tharon: I’ll say circumstances started. Working in corporate America and being in a position where new management comes in, and if you’re not part of that team, then you’ve got to go. That was the case for us in the entertainment/multimedia media business. At that particular point where you’ve got husband-and-wife cofounders prior to actually founding something, husband and wife with small kids trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do—Do you stay? Do you leave? What do you do if you stay? Once we realized that the things that we needed and wanted were actually here, we felt like starting a business here in town as opposed to moving someplace else. And it turned out we had a network of people in this community that had been developed over the years and that network of people we accessed and talked to and met with and wrote notes [to], and this network of people was not limited to meetings in front of them in offices. It was on ballfields. It was in grocery stores.
Tammy: On your kid’s baseball team where you [are] talking, networking, saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about starting this business. Tell us how your business works.” And people were so gracious with their time, with explaining how government contracting work. Again, Tharon and I don’t come from the government. We have never worked for government—Fortune 500 companies [for me], CPA firms for him. We just had a different understanding about business. But we felt that we had the skills to offer the government something.
Carey: I love that and it lends such credibility to some of what the study bears out also. It’s that personal curiosity that makes a really big difference. It’s often easy to believe that those small things on the ballfield don’t make a difference when it can be the catalyst for somebody to start an entirely new business and to have the confidence to work through whatever barriers exist to do that is pretty incredible.
Tammy: Also, when you talk about networking, Carey, you know it’s different. And I love that about Huntsville because you didn’t have to just go play golf with someone. You didn’t have to just go out to lunch with someone. You’re talking on the ballfields. You stopping someone saying oh, hey, you know, and see them in the grocery store. Hey, can I ask you a question about blah, blah, blah, blah. And that’s what is unique about Huntsville. Everyone in this business community is more than willing to share and to help you develop. They’re more than willing to share their time. And that’s how those relationships were formed, just because people are gracious. Tharon and I mentor people all the time. There will be people that will call us and say, hey, you know, such and such is starting a business. And a lot of it’s just encouragement, because people need encouragement to think to know that, hey, if you could do it, I could do it, too. And that’s really what Huntsville did for us.
Tharon: People in Huntsville want to be in Huntsville, and they want Huntsville to be successful. And I believe they are willing to spend time and effort sharing their knowledge, network, you have it for the benefit of all. A rising tide lifts all boats ... that’s what we believe.
Tanya: So that’s the “why Huntsville” ... but “why this industry?” Why is the defense industry one more [reason] people should think about engaging? How is it, maybe, different than other industries?
Tharon: Well we’ve been in a few different industries. The thing about government contracting is it encompasses so many different kinds of work, so many different kinds of products, so many different kinds of services. So you can probably find something that you can do, that you can be passionate or have knowledge about to do.
Anthony: We all know that the most successful organizations are those that focus their attention on diversity and inclusion. That story of success should be an example. And understand that people of all different races and backgrounds and genders are starting to become more engaged. But specifically Alabama, when you look at Huntsville being the Silicon Valley of the South, we must reflect the diversity that exists in places like California and understand that diversity is good, is a strength, not a weakness. We’re so accustomed to not trading old friends for new friends that we’ve allowed that to really seep into the business opportunities instead of helping grow diversity and inclusion, because it’s going to make things better, it’s going to help you with your recruitment and pipelining, and it’s also going to help you with your retention.
Carey: I was just going to add to what Anthony was saying. Never settle for the status quo. Huntsville is all about rockets and moonshots and reaching for the stars. There is always another planet and another galaxy. And I’m sure there’s an even better analogy to use there. But one thing that Anthony said well is really never being satisfied with what we are today and knowing that we can always do and be better because we are Huntsville, and with the talent that we have with the rocket scientists and the brainiacs and the business leaders and the entrepreneurs and the political leaders we have, I really think the sky’s the limit. And that might be trite, but it is true for Huntsville.
Tammy: The ingenuity, the concepts that come from different backgrounds, it’s just so much more than we can even imagine. And in a place like Huntsville that has that all together, for us not to put it all together and to explore what we can be would be a shame.
Tanya: That was Tammy Blish-Honeycutt and Tharon Honeycutt, cofounders of MSB Analytics, a Huntsville-based company that provides business and technical services to government and commercial businesses; state representative Anthony Daniels, who is Alabama’s first Black and youngest house minority leader4; and Carey Miller, a managing director with Deloitte & Touche LLP. She and the team at Deloitte recently released a study on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the defense industry. It has a lot of insights and suggestions for local and state governments on how to tackle the talent pipeline issue and build and retain a diverse workforce. You can find that full study at deloitteinsights.com.
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