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COLUMN: Force Multipliers: Rep. Chrissy Houlahan

In their monthly column, Defense Daily highlights individuals from across the government, industry and academia whose efforts contribute daily to national defense, from the program managers to the human resource leaders, to the engineers and logistics officers.

Originally published in Defense Daily

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s (D-Penn.) career has been a merging of technology and engineering through business.

Elected in 2018 to represent Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district, the longtime industrial engineer has experience as an Air Force program manager focusing on, among other things, ballistic missile defense, and as an entrepreneur running logistics and operations for several companies and nonprofits with her husband and universities friends. She was the chief operating officer of both AND1 and B-Lab. Houlahan worked for Teach for America as an 11th grade chemistry teacher in Philadelphia and as an early childhood literacy advocate as president, CFO and COO of Springboard Collaborative. She currently serves on the House Armed Services Committee on the readiness and intelligence and emerging threats subcommittees. In May 2019, she formed the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are the themes you have noticed in your career path?

A: The commonalities are skills-based, but also service, trying to do something that matters to people.

I went into the military [after completing Air Force ROTC at Stanford University and becoming an industrial engineer] and was a program manager on Strategic Defense Initiative and Air Defense Initiative [ballistic missile defense] programs. Where that met my education was design, command and control, thinking about human-in-the-loop: Where do you need a person to make decisions? What kind of decisions do they need to be able to make, and when?

After that, I did a graduate degree in industrial engineering but combining that with policy and business. From there, my husband and I helped to launch a footwear and apparel company. I was in charge of systems, human resources, logistics, distribution, customer service, warehousing, all of the things that brought the product to people.

We did that for 12 years, then sold the company. As a consequence, … a bunch of us started another organization that focuses on corporate social responsibility. My job was to grow and build that idea so that 100,000 companies, in 37 states [and] almost 60 countries have that as part of their vocabulary.

The last stop of my journey was … I went to Teach for America and taught chemistry in north Philadelphia to 11th grade kids who were largely reading at the 3rd and 4th grade level. The last company that I helped scale … was an early childhood literacy nonprofit that focuses on Pre-K through 4th grade kids and makes sure they have the skills to read by the time they leave 4th grade. Last year, we served 7,000 kids across the country. And my job was taking that idea and making it happen; scaling it and making it so it was replicable and profitable.

Q: Did you have sufficient mentorship opportunities over your career?

A:  Sometimes I struggle with when people ask, “who were your mentors,” because I don’t really think I had any. And I think that is a problem. I think that women, full stop, and women who are in the STEM fields and in the military, don’t have a lot of people that they can look up to or somebody that is like them.

Frankly, women are not good at mentoring one another. I know that my husband has had more success, because he makes the time for it. He’ll meet somebody for breakfast, or he’ll go out and play basketball with somebody, or he’ll have a drink after work. … This is going to sound very stereotypical but largely, I don’t think women do that a whole lot. They do their job and they get out, and they’re going to go home and do the things that they need to do somewhere else. And I think it’s getting a little bit better over time, but I don’t think it’s nearly on parity with what men traditionally do.

Today, I went and played softball for the second time in my life, … and there were four women senators [playing]. That’s kind of a network that I would never have seen if I hadn’t have done that.

People who don’t look like us could also mentor us.  It doesn’t have to be a woman or … someone who is an engineer to give you good advice. You also don’t have to be looking up at somebody; you can look over and you can look down.

Q: When you formed the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, was that meant to be a mentorship opportunity, as well as a way to share experience and help to transfer your knowledge across the greater Congress?

A: You don’t have to be a woman [or] a servicemember to be on it, but it is rooted in the four of us who have served [and] who are women. What is really interesting is that just because we are women veterans doesn’t mean we share the same experiences. I was an engineer stationed on a base largely full of officers and engineers, and other people were helicopter pilots or drove ships. And we all had different experiences in our service.

Q: This 116th Congress has the most women representatives who have served in some sort of national security/military role. At the same time, there are multiple women running the largest companies in the defense industry. What do you think it is about this time that finally, there is more visibility and more momentum there?

A: I served before women had access to all-combat roles. Some of the women are just a little bit younger than me … and their experience here is very different because things were really open to them in a way that they weren’t as open to me.

You have got this sweet spot right now where you are starting to see the fruits of that change. I am standing on the shoulders of the women who served before me, when the military had single digits of percentage of women. And now, those mid-40 to 50-somethings, they really have the experience that has allowed them to be the leaders of major defense companies, and to be taken seriously … when they run for something like Congress or run a defense company.

When I went to breakfast with [former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson], there were the four House veterans, there was the secretary of the Air Force at the time, there were two three-stars and one four-star – and they were all women, the whole table. And I would never have thought that was possible when I was a young woman.

Q: Did you feel like there were fewer opportunities for certain positions or promotions within the Air Force while you were in?

A: I knew that when I chose not to be a pilot that that was basically choosing not to be a general. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t generals who aren’t engineers; there are just a whole lot less of them.

Now that I’m on Armed Services, when we talk about cybersecurity and Space Force … if you don’t understand your career path, then it’s harder to recruit the finest and brightest people because they’re going to find other places where they understand what it looks like to succeed. There definitely were opportunities for me; there just weren’t many of them. And I clearly understood that when I decided to separate.

Q: Since you have worked in operations, who are those people who keep a company running day to day, and do you think that those people get as much recognition as they should?

A: There are a lot of programs to elevate CEOs and presidents and to network them. I think there should be just as many that talk about the importance of the glue that binds, which is the chief operating officer. Not all of us are going to be the face of the brand; not all of us are going to be talking to the investors, but a lot of us really matter whether you have investors to talk to at all.

Those ops folks – and I am one of them – you only know that we exist when we mess up. Nobody is going to pat you on the back because your footwear got there on time; they’re going to scream when you’ve lost money.