Three women with collective decades of experience in public policy and law launched their own firms, filling in unique niches in the policy landscape.
The women — Beth Lewallen, Jennifer Woods and Kiersten Murphy — say they can peel back the layers of government and help clients win business from the state.
First, Lewallen helps the client get acquainted with the Capitol to figure out what’s going on with lawmakers and where money is being spent. Lewallen, a lobbyist who’s worked for the Board of Regents, Arizona Senate and Maricopa County, opened up her own firm, Italicized Consulting, a year ago. She noticed that lobbyists sometimes need a part-time partner to help out with research and groundwork at the Capitol.
“I have to kind of become an overnight expert in these subjects that I’m researching and really study intensely these things … to really learn it enough to be someone’s resource on it. It’s the ultimate nerd fantasy,” Lewallen said.
Next, Woods comes into the picture. A government relations pro with 15 years of policy experience, Woods launched her one-woman firm, Traversant Group, which focuses on helping companies win government contracts for goods and services.
“There’s a real need in the business community to have somebody build that bridge with government decision-makers to help them sell their products and services,” Woods said.
Murphy gets involved at the end of the procurement process. She recently opened a three-person law firm, Henze, Cook and Murphy, after a decade as an attorney. Murphy represents companies after a government contract gets awarded if a company didn’t win the contract and wants to contest the award. She could end up representing the losing company, the winning company or the government entity in the proceedings, she said.
“Not every single contract is going to be worth challenging, the numbers just are not big enough,” Murphy said. But the chance of a legal challenge increases for more service-oriented contracts for things like health care or software systems, where there are subjective elements, she said. “If (the contracts are) big enough, they are likely to be challenged,” Murphy said.
Though the three women operate their own businesses, they can all work together to help out clients with different parts of the process, if needed.
“If there is a business that needed or wanted to do business with state or local government, this is the dream team,” Woods said.
Working with other powerful women is a major appeal of public policy and life at the Arizona Capitol, Woods said. The state has had female governors and statewide elected officials and lots of women in leadership roles at state agencies, she said.
“It can be intimidating sometimes to work with a lot of men. It’s just important for young women to figure out who they are, what they believe in and find that voice and stay true to that voice,” Woods said.
Part of finding your voice comes from other female mentors who reach out to younger women to guide them through their careers. Lewallen, Woods and Murphy all said they’ve had great mentors and strive to be great mentors to other women.
Murphy said older male lawyers have occasionally called her “sweetie” or “honey,” but she’s never been treated differently because she’s a woman in the male-dominated legal field. Instead, she used her position to help recruit other women to her previous law firm and advocated for them.
“I used it as an opportunity to be a person that was there for other women. That was something that the men in the firm couldn’t provide,” Murphy said.
For Lewallen, the Capitol community is family, and she recognizes all the ways people who guided her since she first started as an intern back in college. Now that she has her own consulting firm, she finds opportunities to reach out to other young lobbyists, especially women, she said.
“In the Arizona Capitol, in a lot of ways, being a woman is an advantage because it just builds a network. Women at the Capitol and women in public policy really look out for each other in Arizona in a way that I’ve never heard of in another career,” Lewallen said.
Being able to work whenever and wherever is another aspect of going solo that the three women value. It can often mean longer days and more stress, but the flexibility carries a lot of weight, they said.
Murphy, a mother of three young children, said she likes that she can take the morning off to go to a school event, if needed. And technology makes everything easier — she can send emails and talk to clients from virtually anywhere.
“I worked really hard to give myself the ability at some point to be able to make the decisions that I wanted to make and the choice that I wanted to make was, as a person, I want the flexibility,” Murphy said.
Lewallen is an avid traveler and wanted to be able to work from around the globe. Earlier this year, she worked with clients in Arizona while traveling in Asia. Her previous jobs in government had set office hours and established tasks, but being a one-woman firm is more open-ended.
“I really like the appeal. I work a lot more hours than I ever did in an office job, it never really ends, but I can structure it around really early morning when I get a lot done,” she said.
One challenge: When you’re your own boss, there’s no IT department to help when a computer breaks down. There’s no accounting department to handle billing and taxes. There are no clerks to file legal documents. For better or worse, all aspects of the business fall on one person.
Before she started Henze, Cook and Murphy, Murphy said she was nervous about e-filing court documents. Since she worked at a big law firm previously, she would hand documents over to someone else to file them. The first time she filed them herself, though it was a small, simple task, was a huge accomplishment.
“It’s those baby steps that you take along the way that give you confidence, that empower you to say, ‘I can actually do this,’” she said.
And while there may be more pressure and work on their desks, Woods said the stress comes with a big payoff.
“You’re in control. You’re in control of your brand, who you want to be, who you want as clients. … So that’s what I love doing, just that ability, that freedom to brand myself and to have my core values and to have my mission and help my clients,” Woods said.