A profile on Melissa Huston written for the Oklahoma Venture Forum on the subject of Making Legislation Work for Businesses.
With over 20 years of experience, Melissa Huston has made a career in public service in various roles. She has recently served as the Oklahoma Labor Commissioner, Secretary for Education and Workforce Development, and previously as Chief of Staff for the Oklahoma Attorney General and the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. She’s worked under four governors, both Democrat and Republican, and has been referred to as the Swiss army knife of public policy.
“I’ve had some really interesting positions,” said Melissa Huston, founder and principal for 929 Strategies. “And everyone, I didn’t know anything about when I walked into it. It’s not like you go to law school to go into Homeland Security. It didn’t exist then. So as I was finishing my term as labor commissioner, I was trying to figure out what I was doing next. I knew I wanted to stay in public policy. I really enjoy finding solutions to complex public policy issues that are facing the state of Oklahoma. Ended up starting at 929 Strategies.”
The mission of 929 Strategies is to help businesses and governments navigate complex public policy issues. Houston elaborated her job ranges to finding growth opportunities, solving a regulatory environment challenge, or consulting in a major project. One of the projects Huston is currently assisting the legislature is on The American Rescue Plan funds and how to set up a process in the state for the legislature to assess the needs of the state following the pandemic. She has learned that it’s about bringing the right people around the table and discussing and brainstorming solutions.
“You’ll find that we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” said Houston. “And that’s what our company does. We try and bring together different sides of the equation, brainstorm some solutions, and then hopefully help to make those solutions a reality. That’s what we’re doing in the entrepreneurship space and for several other of our clients.”
An example Houston shared was during her time as labor commissioner, and they regulated amusement rides. To do this, she sat down with members of the business community and the state’s inspectors, and learned how the regulation worked for them. Both the parties had a common goal of providing a safe experience. They were able to come together to find a solution to protect the public without having unnecessary or burdensome regulation in a way that made sense. Oklahoma became a model for the rest of the country on how to regulate amusement rides. Houston said when you have practical solutions and you can get bureaucracy out of the way, you can really unleash the creativity in Oklahoma to address some of the challenges that we have as a state.
“As far as entrepreneurship is concerned, I am very passionate about entrepreneurship in Oklahoma,” said Houston. “People in Oklahoma are very resilient. They’re very innovative. They’re pioneering. They’re let’s figure it out, let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out and let’s help one another to get there. Those skills are the same skills of an entrepreneur, of a successful entrepreneur. So how is it in the state of Oklahoma that we aren’t leading the country in startups?”
Houston has been trying to solve that problem for the department of commerce. To have a thriving entrepreneur ecosystem, Huston said two things are needed simultaneously: founders and funders.
“If you talk to the funders, they will say, there’s not enough deal flow,” said Houston. “But if you talk to the founders, they will say, there’s not enough capital. You’ve got to be addressing both sides of that equation simultaneously, and both of them have different issues. From a founder’s standpoint, it’s about creating an environment in the state of Oklahoma that encourages innovation, that supports mentorship. Oklahomans are always willing to help their neighbor and willing to help one another, but how do you make those connections? Especially if that’s not the world that you’re living in.”
On the funder side of things, Houston said it’s a similar situation with issues like connecting funders with the founders that have an idea that’s ready for investment and educating funders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“We have a lot of investors in energy and in oil and gas, which is a very risky investment, but those investors understand that market,” Houston said. “They understand if you invest in a well, how many times the well isn’t going to hit and that’s okay, that’s part of the market. Houston compared technology startups. For every ten you invest in, maybe there are three that will take off and hit. And so, they have that risk tolerance, but how do you educate them and translate that skill set into something like technology startups?”
Houston noted that Oklahoma already has an incredible network of resource providers across Oklahoma, with more to come. The state has several accelerators across the metros, both in Oklahoma City and in Tulsa. The pandemic has also pushed to make tools and resources more accessible by bringing them online.
“Our universities are doing a great job of nurturing those ideas and helping our founders to start thinking about how to take those ideas to market,” said Houston. “We have a very robust SBDC network across the state of Oklahoma for businesses who are first starting and need help with business 101. So it’s a really exciting time to be in Oklahoma. I think that resource provider network is strong and getting stronger every day.”
Melissa Houston will be speaking at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. Houston said organizations like the Venture Forum create opportunities for like-minded people committed to growing this ecosystem to find ways to connect and network. Be sure to register for the event to learn what legislation and programs are in the works to help founders and funders and connect with other Oklahoma entrepreneurs.