Jessica Shortall is Right Where She Belongs - Elevating the Voices of Business Leaders in Search for a Welcoming & Inclusive Texas
November 7, 2017
Jessica Shortall believes that the world isn’t as polarized as we might think, so she spends her time looking for common ground among uncommon allies in order to make good happen. Her eclectic career has built unexpected bridges among unlikely partners, always sustainably, intelligently, and backed by data.
As Managing Director of Texas Competes, Jessica runs a coalition of more than 1,350 Texas employers and chambers of commerce making the data-driven case for Texas to be welcoming to LGBTQ people. This business-oriented voice has become a national model and is credited with changing the Texas political playing field on LGBTQ issues.
Jessica's first book, written out of sheer necessity, is a survival guide for breastfeeding and going back to work called Work. Pump. Repeat. As a follow-up to the book, her 2015 TEDx talk on the moral and economic case for paid family leave has garnered more than a million views.
I'll be honest. I copied those first three paragraphs from Jessica's press kit on her website. I'm slightly intimidated to attempt to do Jessica justice in an introduction when she is such an accomplished writer herself.
I'm also embarrassed that I've only recently become acquainted with her work, which I discovered after a short-lived spat between she and some Empower Texans folks via Twitter earlier this year. After a dismissive 'whoever she is' sort of reply from MQS - I knew I immediately had to check out @jessicashortall. After all - girl is verified and not afraid to engage!
After digging deeper, I was immediately impressed with Jessica's tenacity and ability to rally businesses across party lines for a common cause through her work with Texas Competes. She is also a fierce advocate for women and mothers in the workplace. The lesson here? Someone else's dismissive snark on Twitter can lead others to find you and very much appreciate your work - so keep it classy, go high and all of that.
So, 'whoever she is,' is pretty incredible and definitely worth a Pink Granite interview. I'm just so thrilled Jessica agreed and gave us a few moments of her time today.
Where do you work, what is your title and what does your job actually entail?
I am the Managing Director of Texas Competes, the coalition of >1,350 Texas employers, chambers of commerce, and convention & visitors bureaus making the economic case that Texas must become welcoming to LGBTQ people. We’re a leading source for data and analysis on the economic risks of a discriminatory state brand, and we elevate the voices of business leaders and small business owners to call for a welcoming and inclusive Texas.
Any Texas employer, large or small, can join Texas Competes for free at www.texascompetes.org!
How long have you been performing this work?
We began our work, building the Texas Competes coalition, in late 2014, and launched publicly in April 2015.
Where are you from?
I grew up in New Jersey, and I think I’ll always feel like that’s where I’m from. My parents are immigrants – my mother is from rural Venezuela and my father from northern England.
What did you study in college and where did you attend school?
I have a bachelor’s in Art History from Wake Forest University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford in the UK.
Political party affiliation?
My role at Texas Competes, as well as the current state of American politics, has taught me so much about the tribalism that can blind us to empathy for each other’s positions. I don’t believe there is a monopoly on good ideas in any party.
"I don’t believe there is a monopoly on good ideas in any party."
How did you get your start in policy or politics?
I have never done the same thing twice – the through-lines in my career are steep learning curves and finding the place where business and doing good meet. I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer (Uzbekistan), a non-profit co-founder (The Campus Kitchens Project), the first Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes, and a consultant to social enterprises. Discovering and making the economic case for equality felt like a logical next step, even if it wasn’t apparent from the outside.
In my current role, I have a vast array of incredible mentors – too many to list here. But in general, I am a member of a women’s networking group called TheLi.st, which has been an invaluable resource for me since I joined in 2015. It’s powerful women from all walks of life, supporting each other personally and professionally. There’s a ridiculous amount of mojo in that group, and as I’ve often found to be the case with successful women, members are really generous in sharing their networks and time.
When did you know you wanted to pursue politics or policy as a career?
I have been obsessed with politics since childhood. The wall in my home office features a political cartoon I drew at age 6 of the Reagan/Mondale debate, Halloween masks of four founding fathers, and a photograph of the Lincoln Memorial being assembled. When I turned eight, I asked my parents if the theme of my birthday party could be “First Woman President” (they obliged). It took me a while to find my way to a policy issue that perfectly matched my skill set and interests, and I feel really lucky and honored to be doing this work.
"When I turned eight, I asked my parents if the theme of my birthday party could be “First Woman President” (they obliged)."
Best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Facts are your friends. Your work is so, so much easier if you get to tell the truth. I see folks who have to tie themselves in knots to explain away facts, and it just looks like so much work.
Advice you wish you could give your younger self?
Take business classes while you’re an undergrad. Speak up when people are being jerks to others. And be kinder.
What is the most rewarding part of your current job? Biggest challenge?
I think I get to talk to one of the widest cross-sections of people in Texas. Small business owners from every part of the state, big business executives, tourism and economic development leaders, LGBTQ folks and parents of LGBTQ kids, faith leaders, economists, and people from both parties.
The biggest challenge for me is seeing and hearing apathy about the state of affairs in Texas. But I’m heartened as I see people of all stripes wanting to learn and get engaged.
"Facts are your friends."
Describe a time that you knew you were “good” at your job.
We recently ran an analysis of earned media and found that Texas Competes has earned an advertising value equivalent of more than $15m in coverage since 2015. Given that I’m director and PR and communications and chief cook and bottle washer, I’m very proud of the reach we have and the ability we’ve shown to influence the public conversation with fact-based analysis.
You could never do your job without __________.
My husband and kids, who cheer me on at every turn.
Best tip(s) for staying on top of your to-do list or staying organized?
I truly don’t have any. I work most efficiently when I’m way too busy; somehow being overwhelmed helps me prioritize and get stuff done.
Something that is often misunderstood about your job?
A lot of people outside of Texas ask me why I still have to do this job at all. While our data in 2015 was hypothetical by nature because it was future-looking (our predictions did turn out to be accurate), by 2017, the whole country knows that a discriminatory state brand has negative economic consequences. So I am often asked why I have to keep repeating this fact, in the face of such overwhelming supporting evidence.
Last time you were the only woman in the room during an important meeting.
I work with a lot of phenomenal women, and most of my meetings are more gender balanced than you might expect. But I’ll tell you a story from 2015, when I was on a panel at a conference talking about RFRAs – religious refusals legislation. The panel was me and three men: a lawyer, the general counsel for a major corporation, and the moderator. Unhumbly, I did a fantastic job, clarifying, with supporting data, the economic consequences of such legislation. At the end of the panel, the moderator thanked each participant in turn, and when he got to me, he said, “You were just adorable up there!”
You can have dinner with anyone, living or dead - who and why?
My Peace Corps host mom, who lives in the small town of Asaka, Uzbekistan where I served in 2000-2001. She is one of my all-time favorite people – just an incredible love of life and people. She doesn’t speak English, but she did make me teach her several dirty words, which she employs liberally.
What’s always in your bag during work/session/meetings?
I travel light – phone, laptop, chargers. What else is in my bag depends on my children. Last week I found a tiny plastic cowboy boot that lights up when you twist a knob on the back. I have no idea where they got it or why they put it in there.
Favorite place for a business lunch?
I eat at my desk and have poor work/life balance. Don’t @ me about this; it’s just who I am.
Favorite place to get your news?
Twitter. I try to have a wide spectrum of opinions in my TL – including folks on the extremes, for perspective. Quorum Report and the Texas Tribune are my go-tos for Texas politics insights.
"This role feels like it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now."
Favorite political TV show/movie?
Are any of your readers old enough to get the joke if I say “Benson”?
If not…I’d go with a tie between “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day Lewis, and “Milk,” the biopic of LGBTQ rights activist Harvey Milk.
Favorite social media apps?
Twitter. I have an addiction. I also play a lot of Words With Friends with my best friend’s mom, who usually slaughters me.
Last book you read?
I’m on book three of NK Jemisen’s The Fifth Season trilogy. I love dystopian future novels. I need the escapism (even if it’s very, very dark). I’m also struggling mightily to finish a biography of Martin Van Buren, as part of my lifelong quest to read a bio of every deceased U.S. President.
Rule of thumb: the more obscure the President, the more difficult the bio will be to read.
If you weren’t in your current role you’d definitely be a ____________.
Honestly, I don’t know. This role feels like it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.