The graveyard of spring events brought about by the COVID-19 crisis spans far and wide. As I myself packaged returns of dresses for galas, fundraisers and auctions headed back to their makers I couldn’t help but think of those organizations suffering due to all the cancellations as well as the small businesses who are paid to make these events happen. We all might continue to pay a housekeeper or a trusted babysitter during this time, and we can buy giftcards galore to our favorite restaurants – but companies like JHL simply can’t make ends meet in these ways when events don’t happen – firms don’t get paid or they overwork themselves the remainder of the year to make up the difference.
Jennifer Stevens has long been someone I’ve personally admired in the Austin public affairs space – a dynamo running her own firm with as you’ll read, a very no nonsense approach. She and her team are responsible for events like Mack Jack McConaughey, the Art of the Gala and countless others. When I learned that as CEO of JHL she has made the easy decision to bank on her people and is continuing to pay them ALL during this crisis (despite every spring event being cancelled) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk with her all about it. Please enjoy one of my favorite interviews to date – Jennifer Stevens, CEO of JHL and Rocca.
Tell us about your work…
I am CEO of JHL and Rocca. JHL is a consulting firm working in events, communications and public affairs. Rocca is a promotional product company. My days are filled with client work, client recruitment efforts, managing the companies and my team of employees. I enjoy the variety of our work. Sometimes I am working on the grassroots or digital engagement strategy and messaging for a public affairs client and sometimes I am planning a corporate event or consulting with a non—profit on how to maximize their event fundraising revenue. Our work is fulfilling and directly impacts lives so I enjoy the challenge.
Where did you attend school and what did you major in?
I graduated from the University of Texas in 1995. I love my alma mater and am on the Board of Texas Exes now. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college so it’s a big deal to me.
You’re in graduate school now – where are you attending school and what are you studying? What led to your decision to go back to school?
I am just about to wrap up year one of graduate school at Texas Tech. I am working on a master’s in strategic communications. My dream retirement job is to teach at the collegiate level, so I must have a masters degree. Plus, my brother has one so I can’t get left behind!
How did working political campaigns earlier in your career prepare you for a career in public relations and event planning? How did you land that first job in politics?
I grew up in Texas politics. My parents started the Republican party in Denton at their kitchen table when I was a young kid. For as long as I can remember I was block walking, putting up campaign signs, raising money. It was a lot like being a Republican in Austin today – ha! But, I loved it. I love a challenge. I came to UT with the intention of working in politics and my first job was an internship on the Governor Bush campaign in 1994. I just walked in and said “I will work for free and you can trust me”. That was it. After a few weeks I was hired and by the time I was a senior at UT I was working full time at the Governor Bush Committee. He was the first Governor to keep an ongoing political committee after he was elected (everyone else just did that work inside the state office) and I worked there. I didn’t want a job in the Capitol because my dad was still a member of the Texas House and I didn’t want to be too close or seen as working only because of my dad being a member. Looking back that seems silly now but I was concerned about it at the time.
I worked my way up from intern for Bush to being the campaign manger for John Cornyn for US Senate in 2002, then his director of transition and state director. It was a fun, wild 13 years.
My political career perfectly prepared me for my career now. I understand high stakes events and I understand how to put my clients on the front page of the paper or how to keep them off. If you can succeed through 13 years of campaigns you can do anything. I have never lost a campaign.
When did you know it was the right time to go out on your own and who was your first client?
I didn’t really know. I still don’t know! I started JHL thinking I would consult for a while until I found a job. I guess I still need a job. My first client was Governor Perry. In 2004 the State was facing a huge budget deficit and we had no rainy day fund. The Governor wanted to promote the state for economic development and the creation of a program called Texas One was discussed. Myself, Phil Wilson, Tracye McDaniel and many others were a part of a team who created the concept and the idea was simple – raise money to market the state for jobs. TexasOne operates under a 501(c)(3) called the Texas Economic Development Corporation and that was my first client. My job was to raise the money and plan the events to promote the State for job recruitment. When I left TexasOne 7 years later we were the #1 job creator in the country and had more than $15M in the bank to promote Texas. I am very proud to have been a part of the team who turned Texas around.
Anything you would have done differently in your path or see as a really smart decision you may have made along the way that others could learn from?
I don’t believe in regrets, but I can say this – those who say they will help you, won’t. And those who you least expect to help you, will. You can’t trust anyone but that’s ok, keep your head down and keep working. Owning a business is like being on a treadmill and you can’t get off. I was on my blackberry working until 5 minutes before I gave birth to my daughter and was back on it again within an hour after she was born. I would say if you learn nothing else from me learn this – work, don’t worry. Any time spent worrying is wasted. The best decision I have made in 16 years is that I am a direct report for every member of my team. No middle management. I know exactly what is happening at my company and with every one of my clients every day. That’s very important to me.
People teach you who they are. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way. Many years ago I had people telling me not to trust someone and I kept defending him. He later tried to ruin my business and I was so angry with myself. I knew who he was, I saw the way he treated others, but I wanted to believe differently.
Describe what types of client(s) you represent and what you generally do for them. what sets JHL apart?
What sets us apart is my team. We are the best at what we do. JHL makes the connection for our clients. That might be through an event, a communication strategy or public affairs. On the public affairs side we represent associations and corporations and work as their communications and political strategy team. We work hand in hand with lobby teams to give them the support needed to be successful. Digital strategy and engagement, grasstops/grassroots support, communications tools, political messaging strategy, etc. On the events and communications side of the business we represent individuals, non-profits and corporations and help them build their brand, manage their philanthropic engagement and/or plan great events.
We don’t get put into a box. There is not another firm like JHL. We compete with some for public affairs work, and we compete with others for event work. We are unique in that we offer all and we are high touch, high quality. We excel in high expectations. We have raised more than $50 Million for our charity clients.
How do you determine if a client is a good fit for your company, especially in the advocacy/issue space? Do you represent any one party or partisan ideology more than another?
My personal ideology is not usually relevant to my clients, but I can tell you that I am a moderate Republican. Fiscally conservative and socially liberal. So I believe in local control, I believe in a steady regulatory environment, I believe Government should help people but not try to do too much.
I know some people will represent anyone who will pay them and that’s fine for them. I get so personally invested in our clients I could never represent someone I don’t believe in. I start every new potential client conversation the same – I listen. I ask them their definition of success and how decisions are made in their organization. I want to be sure I can meet their expectations.
How many people work for JHL and what do they do?
We have 14 team members right now. Project management, event production and management, sponsorship, communications, digital manager, public affairs director and support team members. It is a smart, busy, loud and lively bunch!
We are in uniquely challenging days right now. How has this affected your business and your team? What is a “typical” day like at JHL right now?
Right now it’s very tough. I know everyone is struggling and we are no exception. Spring is always our busy season so to see that come to a halt has been rough. I find myself grieving the chaos. We are keeping all our standing client team meetings and simply meeting via call or zoom and we are very engaged in planning new events and projects for the summer and fall. I try to stay positive each day and try to keep that energy through my team. We have twice/week staff zoom meetings to see and connect with each other. The revenue loss has been significant, but I am absolutely determined to not lay off any member of our team. Our work is unique and takes a special skill set. I want to launch out of this from a place of success and that means doubling down on my team now.
We have also started a Tuesday/Thursday webinar with various expert guests speaking about events, marketing, crisis communications, digital strategy. 9am and anyone is welcome to listen in. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the invite. Old episodes are posted to our website. Just trying to help keep everyone connected and ready to bounce out of this.
Supporting your employees in times like this – in the events industry especially – is pretty unique. Was/is staying completely staffed a difficult decision to make and how have your employees responded? How did you communicate with them early on the crisis and even now to instill confidence in the organization?
It was not a tough decision. I think it would be very short-sighted to expect loyalty or quality from employees if I were to furlough or fire them at the first sign of trouble. Maybe at first they didn’t realize the magnitude of this decision or how hard it is for me and my family but now that they see the world around them giving up on their teams, I know they are grateful. I am actually a fairly private person so I don’t know that I did a great job communicating with them right away but now I am sharing things like applying for the SBA loan or filing insurance claims.
I believe that whatever you put into the world is what you will get. So I remain as positive as I can and I tell them “everyone row the boat”. If we all keep rowing we will be ok. And if I need to cry, I cry. So far it’s just once a week that I need a good cry and then it’s right back to work.
How are your clients doing during this time? How are you reassuring them?
My clients are doing ok, they are nervous about the long term effects of decisions being made right now. They are optimistic about getting back out there and back to work but want to be sure they are not tone deaf to the current environment. It’s a balance. A few have laid off employees and temporarily halted projects. It’s going to take a long time for all of us to recover.
How are YOU doing? What’s the silver lining in all of this?
My silver lining is spending good time with my family every day. My kids are teenagers now so they are rarely home. It’s been so nice to have dinner together, watch a movie together. I crave their presence, so I have enjoyed this opportunity. There are times in life that really show you the make of a man (woman) and this is one of those. My goal is to rise to the occasion for my family, my employees, my clients, and my friends.
Who have been your mentors over the years? What’s been their best advice or coaching that has stuck with you?
I have been so lucky to have many important people in my life. My parents are so strong and hard working. I respect their commitment to public service. Many of my former bosses, many former colleagues. The best advice I ever received – or maybe I just made this up but it’s the best – is to be careful of the toes you step on today as they will be connected to an ass you kiss tomorrow!
Do you mentor others? What is your best advice for managing these types of relationship or asking someone to be your mentor?
I do mentor. I have had dozens and dozens of young people who have worked for me over the past 16 years and I have enjoyed (almost) all of them and learning from them, with them. I spend a good deal of time mentoring college kids at St. Edwards and UT and enjoy those opportunities. The best advice I have is that you have to regulate how much time you devote, or you will get “coffeed” to death.
What do you do to stay connected to other leaders, particularly women in your industry or area of influence? How do you maintain relationships?
The power to connect through social media is terrific. I write hand-written notes when I read about someone’s success. I try to have coffees or lunches with friends or women I want to learn from. I even take a regular Pilates class with a fellow female in politics. It’s hard to find time with my kids at this age (teenagers are WAY harder than younger ones) but I do the best I can. I also use charity events as a way to host friends or business associates.
What do you find to be essential skill sets/personality traits for being successful in your business? On the flip side what traits or actions could totally sabotage your success?
It takes incredible strength, determination, and know-your-worth (whatever that is called). I don’t know if being an asshole will sabotage your business because I know many of them in business but I personally believe it all comes around so I would say that running your business with the Golden Rule is a good idea.
I’m a young woman and I want a job like yours. What do I do now? Any tips on how to get hired or steps to avoid?
No job is beneath you. Do whatever it takes to contribute to your team. Don’t bounce job to job. I wont even meet with someone if they aren’t willing to work for their previous employer for at least two years. It’s not worth my effort. Take pride in yourself and you are what you tweet. Watch what you post on social media and be sure that’s the perception you want others to have. We are in the PR business so if you cant project your best for yourself then you will never do that for our clients or our company. Lastly, God gave you two ears and one mouth – use them proportionally. My dad always said that a salesman could never know too much but he can talk too much. Listen to people.
If I want to start my own shop what do I really need to know before taking that plunge? What do you wish someone had told you?
It’s 1000 times harder than you think.
Anything you find to be misunderstood about your profession?
Our work is incredibly time consuming and takes meticulous attention to detail. Events and public affairs – both require a lot of time and effort. I don’t think people understand the amount of time we invest in our clients every day. On the event side, if it looks “easy” and seems “simple” that’s because we have killed ourselves to make it as such. On the public affairs side, it’s a tremendous amount of work every day to stay on top of the nuances and messages for each client.
You could never do your job without __________.
The support of my husband and family.
Any leadership programs or organizations you’d recommend for someone getting started in your industry?
When I was young I was in YWA and enjoyed it. Texas Lyceum was terrific, and I still enjoy being an alum. Now I find great value in the Chamber of Commerce and my board service.
Best tip for staying organized?
WRITE IT DOWN. I see especially the younger generation walk into meetings without pen and paper and it makes me nuts. Take notes and refer to them.
What’s always in your bag?
Lip gloss and credit card.
Favorite place for a business lunch?
Four Seasons or Galaxy Café (depends on client)
Last place you traveled?
Favorite place to get your news?
Favorite social media apps?
Mine. Make the Connection
Favorite book for career advice.
You could only buy clothing from one brand for the rest of your life – who do you pick?
Do you wear perfume? If so do you have a signature or current favorite?
Yes. Flower Bomb or Jo Malone Jasmine
Do you collect anything?
Best dinner party tip?
Listen and count your cocktails unless you are with very close friends
Dream dinner party guest list?
My family and closest friends. It’s so rare.
Any guilty pleasures?
What’s your favorite small luxury in life? Maybe you’re missing it now more than ever!
Travel. I love it and I miss it.
What’s the best kept secret in Austin events/hospitality/vendors etc.? Give us a little something we don’t know.
HMMMMM….. I will keep those secret!
If you weren’t in your current job you’d definitely be a ____________.
A lawyer or a professor.
Any final thoughts?
Thanks for what you do – it’s great to see women in politics and business connecting and encouraging each other.
Huge thank you to Jennifer for taking time to do this Q&A with Pink Granite if you’d like to connect with JHL you can find them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Also don’t forget to follow the Make the Connection podcast. It’s so good you guys.