Shawnee Huckstep, CEO of defense contractor TechWise, is a forward thinker who is so passionate about business growth that she uprooted her family a few years ago to move to the United Arab Emirates to become a trusted source in the defense industry overseas.
Huckstep launched the company in Colorado Springs 20 years ago. The company started as a software development business then transitioned to information technology. Huckstep is now delving into simulations, logistics and cybersecurity. In 2016, TechWise won several contracts for air traffic control from the Department of Defense for the Coast Guard, and another contract for the same services from the Department of Homeland Security — its first non-DOD contract. In October, the company announced it had won a fourth air traffic control contract for the Mississippi Air National Guard.
With six locations in the U.S. — Colorado, Washington, California, New Mexico, Georgia, Texas — TechWise opened its first international headquarters in Dubai in 2011 and plans to open a third overseas location in Europe in January.
The business leader from Texas spoke to the Business Journal about lessons she’s learned as a top executive and figuring out how to compete in a global market.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received came from my grandmother. She grew up in a very depressed economy — what we now would consider dire circumstances. Her saying was always: ‘When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.’ She said it so many times, and with such a positive twist. Because of her love of people and doing a good job, she ended up being very successful. I believe that in all circumstances, there is always a silver lining.
What have you learned from failure?
I fail all the time — but success is repeated failure. You fail and then try again until you get it right. I’m a big believer that through failure you grow and learn how to be more competitive and resilient. Failure is a critical aspect of success and may be the most important.
Why did you launch TechWise Global?
Six or seven years ago — during military sequestration, with cuts in government spending, especially in training — it was getting more competitive and difficult to get contracts in the United States, especially as a small business.
As we were experiencing a real downturn in the market space that we’d just expanded into, we had to look at, ‘How do we do this?’ Those same services were being highly sought out in overseas markets, and so we looked to expanding there.
Had we not expanded internationally, I’m not sure TechWise would still be here in the same capacity. By expanding overseas during a very difficult time for the United States, we were able to continue to employ all of our core staff and learn about another country [its languages and laws] and do the same kind of services.
What’s been great from overseas growth and prosperity, I’ve been able to feed it back into my North America business and the domestic and international businesses have been synergistic with each other.
What’s something about you that might surprise people?
I have no military experience. People always ask, ‘How did you get in this position?’ I don’t have any military experience, but think what I’m good at is finding the strengths in others and building teams that work together well, and making sure all of the processes are in place so that we accomplish the goal of the customer. Also, I’m an ESTJ [Myers-Briggs personality type] hardcore.
Did you always picture yourself being a CEO?
It wasn’t something I ever aspired to be. Growing up, I saw myself as a schoolteacher because I love educating, sharing and helping other people.
And I don’t know if being a CEO is much different from being a teacher. You tell stories, hope they’re relevant and that people learn from them. You hope they take those stories to make a difference in their output within the company, share them and continue their professional development — all those things a teacher might do. Maybe an element of risk-taking is the difference.
How do you re-energize?
I have an artistic outlet that rejuvenates me, such as listening to music, singing and dancing. Anything that feels creative. I also spend a lot of time organizing and processing to make sure I feel ready to perform — that is therapeutic to me.
What is your next goal?
I want to figure out how I can continue to grow my business and provide stable opportunities for employees — but with more of a focus on Colorado. I want to focus on bringing jobs to Colorado and leveraging our new National Cybersecurity Center. There is a lot of work we do within training and simulations, and we want to figure out ways to diversify that in gaming development. I’m very excited about opportunities within that market space.
— Amber Baillie