Stay “Human-Centered”. It’s easy to get mixed up when going after a goal and only seeing people as instruments to help you get there. Instead, I think it’s important to stay focused on the human need that we’re really trying to meet through SSE and the human impact of and on our workers and their communities. People that are too motivated by greed have a hard time seeing how everything fits together.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ike Hawkersmith.
Scott “Ike” Hawkersmith II, 26, is the founder, President, and CEO of Southern Solutions Environmental (SSE). SSE is a small government contractor based out of Farmington, NM that is focused on “Biosecurity”. In 2020, SSE created over 100 well-paying Biosecurity jobs in the hard-hit Navajo Nation by working with the tribal government to employ many young local members of the tribe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up between Nashville and L.A. As a child, I worked in film and entertainment. I was always a good student, but I was prone to doing my own thing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If not me then who, if not now then when?” — John Lewis
Sometimes, when things are tough, it’s hard to step up. There’s no knowing if anyone else will do it. But when it comes down to it, I know myself and if something comes my way then ultimately it’s up to me if I’m going to answer the call. Personally, I prefer to answer that call and step up.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Kraut has a really great channel on Youtube. His channel resonates with me because I love geopolitics and I am obsessed with foreign affairs, and his channel is all about both. There is a lot of intriguing political discussion and ideological debate which I thoroughly enjoy.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I’ve worked in multiple industries in my short, but experience-filled, professional life. For the large majority of it, I was mainly focused on entertainment job opportunities. I worked in the theatre and it’s something I look forward to going back to at some point in the future.
A few years ago I shifted away from theatre and refocused on environmental compliance. Prior to the pandemic environmental compliance was the main focus of my business, Southern Solutions Environmental (SSE).
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Southern Solutions Environmental back at the time when I was home in Tennessee was becoming stagnant, and in an attempt to continue evolving and developing in my professional life, I began to look into additional opportunities for the company. I had a suspicion that viral decontamination would play a part in the pandemic. As the coronavirus began to become a bigger issue overseas, I initiated internal research in decontamination efforts being used and settled upon Decon7 (D7) as the most effective. On a hunch, I invested in a significant amount of the decontaminant D7. And, I mean a whole lot of decontaminant. With the help of my friends, Collin Anderson and Stephen Arnold, I set out to begin Southern Solutions Environmentals’s decontamination work. We first began to work in tandem with medical professionals, defense contractors, political leaders, and business leaders to put together a plan for remediation.
In March of 2020, SSE officially shifted its focus from outside environmental services to decontamination, biosecurity, and indoor environmental services. SSE has been on the front lines of the pandemic since then fighting COVID-19 working in some of the hardest hot zones in the U.S.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
My “aha moment” came while I was looking around the world to see what was working in the fight against the coronavirus. I noticed that there was one major component that the U.S. was lacking and that was a decontamination effort. South Korea had an army in the streets spraying everything from parks to public buildings, to sidewalks all in an effort to decontaminate and prevent the spread of the deadly virus. They’ve had much better results so far in their fight against the virus. Knowing that other countries with far better results were taking this decontamination approach let us know we were really onto something. This especially gave us confidence when we first started out.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Very well! We’ve been on the front lines and have decontaminated over 6 million square feet of buildings and public spaces, and in just a few short months we became a multimillion-dollar company. We started with 12 employees last spring and are now well over 100. The average age of employees within our company, from execs to techs, is 28. A large number of our employees are members of the Navajo Nation.
Our decontamination work started out with tribal governments, federal collaborators, agencies, and defense contractors. It took time, trial and error, and a lot of work, but it definitely paid off persevering, working hard, and making ourselves available to our clients for any of their decontamination needs. SSE employees have accumulated thousands of hours in the field fighting the pandemic alongside emergency personnel from the Navajo Nation, local governments, the State of Arizona, the State of New Mexico, and FEMA.
On top of the work we’ve done, we’ve also created economic development and job opportunities for the Navajo Nation. We came to the area with good-paying jobs and a range of support for everyone who joins the team. SSE has stuck to a Navajo First Preference approach to hiring within the Navajo Nation. Roles Navajo Nation members hold within the company range from technicians in the field to upper management. Many of our first employees in the nation were often picked up and dropped off by myself. We have set up a variety of financial services to help the team members grow and find stability and helped many of them open their first bank account with direct deposit.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There’s a group of people that I am grateful towards for helping me get to where I am today. It’s really difficult to pinpoint one person on this journey because without all of them it wouldn’t be possible. However, I would have to say my number one was my mother. I believe my tolerance and durability as part of the person I am today came from my front-row seat to her battle with terminal breast cancer.
When you are watching someone, that you love so much, fight cancer, and you know it’s terminal, you seem to lose all of your sense of fear and a lot of other things become more clear. This experience strengthened me in so many ways, and most importantly it taught me to be fearless and helped me look at life through a clearer lens.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
There are so many stories I could share from our experiences over the past almost year! Uprooting my entire life in Tennessee, traveling out west to the Navajo Nation, beginning our decontamination work there on a whim, and meeting the people I’ve had the opportunity to encounter has definitely been a highlight of my life. Being so immersed in Navajo Nation, their culture, and working the front lines with tribe members made me understand how deep and diverse this country really is.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Stay “Human-Centered”. It’s easy to get mixed up when going after a goal and only seeing people as instruments to help you get there. Instead, I think it’s important to stay focused on the human need that we’re really trying to meet through SSE and the human impact of and on our workers and their communities. People that are too motivated by greed have a hard time seeing how everything fits together.
- Build your profile and build your credit. Everything becomes a lot less difficult in the business sense when everyone involved, including the banks, knows who you are and what your company is looking to accomplish. Have a plan to get out in the world and start building your profile, put it together in a capabilities statement and a website, and start throwing the ball back and forth with the bank as soon as possible.
- Be effective at hiring locally. Ensure that you engage with your community you’re working in as much as possible. Their real-world knowledge can really help you achieve your goals better, faster. Based on our experience, things move quickly when we utilize a local team to service their own areas because there’s less to figure out such as how to get places that have no street names. (Navajo Nation relies on Google Plus Codes) At SSE we pride ourselves on not being the folks that bring a bunch of outsiders into a community to do the work and then when it’s over just pack up and leave.
- Hire a CPA and check your tax credits early on. It’s a good investment! You really want to make sure you aren’t missing out on revenue.
- PATIENCE. Keep your cool! There will be times when money isn’t coming in, times when things just aren’t going your way or how you expected them to. Try and remain flexible with your patience and level headed.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Trying to remain positive as much as possible, no matter what. It’s humanly impossible to be happy and positive all the time. I allow myself to feel everything, the fear, anxiety, sadness, stress, I just don’t leave myself there in that state of mind for too long.
I also, personally, live for the conflict and the challenging of things that are not working or broken by individuals or entities. In my opinion, there are a lot of broken things or things that are not working in the world and I live for the moment those issues are brought to the forefront. While it’s happening though, I don’t let negativity and things out of my control consume me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My movement would be one to show companies how they can be made for the people instead of it feeling like people are somehow made for the companies. It’d be a movement where companies, and the people who lead them, take responsibility and remember, recognize, and act on knowledge and understanding that is clear and apparent. This is especially important when it comes to science and history.
The movement would have to be less about talking and more about taking action and taking responsibility for the challenges that are on the table. When it comes to everything from Climate Change, to a growing racial divide, to a crumbling middle class, to widespread automation, who exactly do we expect to deal with it and when are they going to do it if we don’t do it now?
People before me thought they had all the time in the world to fix things and figure it all out, but they didn’t and we don’t either. We’ve seen many times how avoiding these major problems just spill over into bigger issues and dig us into deeper holes. If we want to have any hope at turning things around and give the next generation a real shot, then we have to make up for lost ground. It’s so important that business owners and key decision-makers understand that. The needs are there, the money can be made, we just have to figure out how to serve them and help things get better, not prey on them like vultures.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
American novelist and short-story writer, screenwriter, and television producer, George R.R. Martin. He’s actually in the New Mexico area as well. George, if you’re reading this I will gladly drive to Santa Fe!
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!