Julie Simmons never planned to start her own business. After years of hard work, things were falling into place for her professionally. She was leaving a stable, comfortable job for a promotion and additional responsibilities at a larger corporation for which she had been recruited. She was thrilled to begin working with a government contractor, a “brass ring” she notes that she’s been chasing for years. And personally, life was going swimmingly as well; after trying to get pregnant for some time, she and her husband, Greg, were finally expecting twins.
Then, life threw Julie a curveball. She had had her last day of work on a Wednesday and was scheduled to start her new job the following Monday. She called her new employer to disclose her pregnancy to them before she started at the office. That Friday, her new employer retracted her job offer. Two weeks before Christmas, Julie found herself pregnant with twins, unemployed, and uncertain of what to do next.
She immediately called Greg who was concerned and upset, but also supportive and encouraging. “From the minute it happened, he always said that we were going to be fine,” remembers Julie. “I gave myself a little bit of time to wallow in my feelings, and then it became clear to me that I can’t just sit at home and wait for the kids to come.” The following week, Julie got up early to attend a 7:00 AM networking meeting in Arlington with the hope of obtaining a lead. While networking she ran into a former professor of hers who had taught at Marymount where Julie had attended graduate school. “She was so gracious and kind and told me she was transitioning out of a role,” explains Julie. “She offered to talk to the executive director about me taking on an interim role for about four months as a 1099 contractor.”
It was Julie’s first independent consulting gig, and she quickly found she enjoyed the flexibility of working for herself. Four days a week, she brought in income at her interim job, and in her free time she began networking for other clients and contracts. “I quickly figured out there were people who really valued my skills,” Julie recalls. “The combination of uncertainty with employment and carrying twins made my life challenging, but it also gave me purpose. It reinforced my self-esteem and confidence that there is value in the marketplace for my talents.” At the end of four months, her interim employer offered her a full-time position, but by that time, Julie had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. She leaned into her new life as an independent contractor, learned how to navigate the market, set her fees for services, and made more and more contacts. She founded Human Capital Strategic Consulting (HCSC) and never looked back.
“The combination of uncertainty with employment and carrying twins made my life challenging, but it also gave me purpose.”
That was nine years ago. Today, HCSC is a successful HR firm helping small- and medium-size businesses improve individual and organization-wide performance. Julie works with between 12 to 15 consultants at a time and carefully matches the right consultant with the right clients based on expertise and needs. “The first thing I do when working with a consultant is find out what they want to do, what their priority areas are, what they enjoy doing, and what types of people they enjoy working with in terms of leadership style,” Julie describes. “Then when I have an opportunity that comes across my desk, I can match the right consultant with the client. When you can align personality types, interests, and expertise with client needs, it goes very smoothly.”
Julie is similarly thorough when it comes to vetting her clients. She conducts a prospective client evaluation to assess the organization’s leadership structure and style, what the culture and team looks like, and whether her team is a fit for the client. During the interview process she may not accept an engagement if she doesn’t think it is a good match with HCSC’s values. Approximately 60% of their client base is composed of government contractors with the remaining 40% split between non-profit organizations, higher education institutions, professional services firms, and healthcare firms.
Most of our clients have between 25 to 75 employees. “That’s our sweet spot,” elaborates Julie. “Once you hit 25, you usually can start to afford a luxury resource like an HR consultant. I like working with evolved leaders. And building business around referrals is great because I find that those leaders attract other leaders with similar thinking.”
Julie has always emphasized such relationships throughout her career so it stands to reason that she considers them a cornerstone of her company’s success. “I love helping people,” she affirms. “Professionally, what that looks like is solving problems for clients. I love to bridge the gap between a need that a client has and the skills that my team has. Understanding the puzzle to solve and matching the right person to the client is what makes work fun every day.”
Julie is no stranger to adapting to changing circumstances. Her father was a Naval officer which meant her family moved every few years while she was growing up. Born in a Naval hospital in Bremerton, Washington, Julie was only six weeks old when her parents and 2-and-a-half-year-old sister moved to Japan. A couple of years after that the family transferred to the Philippines, then back to the Seattle area for 2 years before moving to San Diego. Julie’s first memories are of idyllic Coronado Island, where she attended first through third grade. She and her sister spent those years biking around in the beautiful sunshine.
With her father often at sea, her mother kept busy as an administrative professional for the government. She loved having her own work to keep her busy, and in addition to her career, she also ran women’s clubs for military spouses. Because both of their parents worked, Julie and her sister had a lot of freedom. Julie describes she and her sister as “latchkey kids” who played outside, watched TV, read books, and basically did whatever they liked. Thanks to their constant relocating, the girls were very close and have remained so.
When Julie was entering fourth grade, the family moved to Ocean Springs, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. For the first time, her father was no longer at sea; he was put in charge of ship repair. Three years later, the family returned to the Seattle area where Julie attended 7th through 9th grade. Academically, she did all right as a basically A/B student although she admits she probably wasn’t living up to her full potential. At the age of 13 she got her first job working at a little diner called The Varsity Inn for $3.25 an hour. Each Saturday and Sunday her day started at 5:30 in the morning and ended at 2:30 PM. “I was bussing tables, but I loved that job,” she smiles. “I had to get up early and figure out how to balance work with everything else in my life. It was a great learning experience.” In her free time, she attended church, learned to ski and loved taking ski trips with friends whenever she could.
“I love helping people,” she affirms. “Professionally, what that looks like is solving problems for clients. I love to bridge the gap between a need that a client has and the skills that my team has.”
Initially, her dad had expected the post in Seattle to be his last duty station, and the family was expecting to settle there for good. But he was offered a position too good to refuse. He was given a post as the Ship Repair Officer for the 7th Fleet in Ukaska, Japan. It was a major role and a big promotion. At 15 years of age and in the middle of high school, Julie was starting over again in Japan. And this time, her best friend and her older sister wouldn’t be going with them. She was starting college in Washington, and Julie was truly alone.
Japan was a huge adjustment. Previously, Julie had always attended public and parochial schools, but now, for the first time, she attended the military school on the base. The school was cliquey, and oddly, she found her father’s position as a respected officer was more of a liability than anything. Other students resented her when their own fathers were reprimanded or ordered around by her dad. On top of that, there were very few other white students in the school; Julie notes that having the experience of being a racial minority was an important one for her. “Having an opportunity to feel what it felt like to be different was transformative,” she nods. “It was a very fundamental lesson, and it enabled me to have an empathy on a level that I think I otherwise would never have had.”
Just before Julie entered college, the family relocated for the final time in her father’s military career. He was offered a position as Dean of the Department of Engineering and Weaponry at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Receiving this role was especially poignant for Julie’s father. By returning to the Naval Academy, his career had made a full circle by returning to the place where had begun his Naval career as an 18-year-old kid. It was a fitting and fulfilling conclusion to a successful career.
“My dad was born in Eau Clair, Wisconsin, and had no money to go to college,” relates Julie. “When he got to the Naval Academy, he thought, the Navy was just a way for him to get an education. But the values and skills that he learned in those four years propelled him forward. He started a life of service and constant learning. He has three master’s degrees today, and I am still benefitting from his example. I have a reverence for education and the military.” In fact, Julie considers one of her most prized possessions to be a copy of a moving and affecting poem called “The Sacred Dixie Cup,” by James W. Conte. The title is a reference to the special hat worn by plebes during their first summer at the Naval Academy. The poem was even read out at the final church service attended by her parents in Annapolis. “It’s not about the hat,” elaborates Julie. “It’s about how people are willing to make those sacrifices for someone they don’t even know. I can’t imagine being 18 years old and signing up to make a sacrifice for your country. It represents the sacrifices, hard work, camaraderie, leadership, teamwork, and commitment—the values I try to espouse every day.”
Julie reflects that she inherited her ability to persevere from her father and credits him with raising her with the military values that got him so far in life. Her mother, meanwhile, was independent and strong in her own right, and she inspired Julie to make the best of every situation. “To marry someone and build a life around the unknown is a challenge,” she points out. “There are plenty of people who shy away from change and who may even find it offensive. And then there are people like my mom, and like me, who can lean in and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t necessarily my choice, but I’m going to make this work.’ I think her ability to navigate change successfully over a large part of her life is definitely something she demonstrated for me.”
With the whole family on the East Coast for the first time, Julie began looking at colleges nearby. She decided to attend George Mason University mostly for its proximity to home and its good reputation. It turned out to be a perfect fit for her. She loved her time there, made friends easily, and got very involved in her sorority. She ended up being elected to sorority leadership and to a Panhellenic council. She stacked her schedule so that she’d be able to take on a part-time job at a local bank as a teller, a job she enjoyed. By her junior year, she started at the business school and graduated with a business degree. And while at George Mason, she also met Greg, her future husband.
Her mother, meanwhile, was independent and strong in her own right, and she inspired Julie to make the best of every situation. “To marry someone and build a life around the unknown is a challenge,” she points out.
After graduation, Julie spent an additional year working with her sorority in what she jokingly refers to as her “fifth year”. Her parents had relocated to Seattle after her father’s retirement from the military so she made Seattle her home base but spent the year travelling from campus to campus working with different chapters as a consultant. Between August and June of that academic year, she visited 52 campuses and helped the various chapters figure out recruiting strategy, interviewing their officer boards, and providing leadership advice.
The job was a lot of fun, but hardly a long-term career. After a year of touring college campuses, Julie was ready to settle down. She picked the DC area over Seattle and once again packed up her car for the cross-country drive. In DC, she quickly landed a gig on Arthur Andersen’s HR and Recruiting team, where she helped run an audit program for their interns. She remained there for about two and a half years before getting restless. Her job was stable and secure, but Arthur Andersen was huge, and she didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a role so early on. She departed and took a job at a small non-profit, where she took on all the HR work.
This was also a great learning opportunity, but ultimately Julie decided she was a bit too fast-paced for the relative calm of the non-profit world. By then it was the late 1990s and she jumped to a technology company when the dot com boom was at its zenith. “It was an employee-owned company so it was fascinating to get experience with a company like that,” Julie describes. “After that, I spent seven years at Grant Thornton which was the last in-house job I had.”
Julie was a Human Resources Manager at Grant Thornton, an accounting, audit, and tax advisory firm. It was stable and was a great job, but she was ambitious for more. “I didn’t have the upward mobility I wanted,” she explains. “I felt like having a government contractor on my resume would really help since there are so many government contractors in the DC area. I was being recruited by a large government contractor and felt like it was time to check that box. But the universe had a way of checking me!”
On September 22, 2001, just two weeks after the 9/11 tragedies, Julie and Greg were married. “He’s been my biggest supporter through everything,” Julie glows. “He always sees the bright side of things; when we found out we were having twins he was the one who had the attitude that ‘this is the best thing ever; two for one!’ My feeling was one of that ‘you have no idea what you’re talking about.’ But I would never have had the courage to start my business without his support and encouragement.”
Julie has come a long way since she accepted the phone call that would change the course of her life. Showcasing the trademark resilience and flexibility passed down to her by her mother, today she’s a successful business owner with the confidence and leadership skills to guide an entire team. As a leader, she emphasizes collaboration. “I like to understand where someone’s coming from when I’m leading,” she says. “I also feel like I’m very intuitive, and I appreciate the importance of servant leadership. We need to make sure we’re walking with our team and giving them the respect and admiration they deserve. I always give my consultants the opportunity to meet the clients before any engagement is considered. I want them to have buy-in. That’s the type of leader I am.”
To young people entering the working world today, her advice is simple: “Put the phone down!” she laughs. “Have conversations with people. Getting business done is very relationship based, and I’ve built my business by making it a priority to go out and meet people who are different and who do different things than I do. Find your commonalities but be able to enter a room and meet someone—a future friend who you don’t know yet.”
She also advises taking risks and surrounding yourself with people who have your back. “Find those five or six people who will be your champions,” she encourages. “My former professor at Marymount University and some of my former bosses are people that were all instrumental to my success. Find your network and the people who are going to rally around you because this is certainly not a solo journey.”