A Navajo Private Investigator’s Journey: Security Intern to Business Founder

Michele Justice, Navajo, never imagined that her first internship at age 16 with Sandia National Laboratories would serve as ground zero for her future career and the business she would launch in 2004, Personnel Security Consultants. Employing skilled security specialists, Personnel Security Consultants helps American Indians protect their communities and children, and meet federal hiring requirements.

“My grandfather had retired from Sandia National Laboratories, and he picked me up one day and said that he was going to help me find a job,” Justice shared with Native Business Magazine.

She applied and was accepted to Sandia’s junior training program. That summer in Sandia’s visitor control center, she fingerprinted and photographed visitors, processed backgrounds, and created photo IDs.

“That’s where I got my first taste of the investigative process. I had no idea then, as a 16-year-old, that I would be in my 50s and still fingerprinting people,” she said.

That experience bolstered her resume, helping her to qualify for future positions in the security field for administrative and clerical support. “I ended up working the Safeguards and Security Central Training Academy, which really expanded my horizons in the security field from a training perspective. I went from training to working as a specialist,” essentially skipping the “expert” level and moving to the top.

Justice soon realized her potential to help her community, “because on weekends I would go to ceremonies, like a lot of urban Native Americans. I started looking at Indian Health Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to see if they had any security-related positions,” she shared.

She landed a position with the BIA as a security specialist, where she worked for six years, performing background checks. “But I still needed more,” she said. “What more could I do to help the community?”

Through the BIA, she was impacting communities, but not working in the community. “I thought about and prayed about it and decided that I was going to leave federal service and take the two skills that I had—background investigations and training—and provide training directly to the tribes to help them establish their background investigation processes,” Justice said.

As a Navajo woman, a desire to impact her community is embedded in the very fabric of her being. “I can’t separate what’s cultural from non-cultural. We always had ceremony; we always had songs; we always had prayer in everything that we did—whether we’re waking up in the morning and just greeting the day or whether we are having a meal. It’s just part of who we are. It was instilled in me as a little girl that everything I know and everything I learn, I have an obligation to give back to my community—not just to my immediate family, but to my actual community. I knew that whatever I learned or acquired throughout my life, there would be a point where I would be giving it back. That made it easier to make that plunge and leave federal service,” she said.

Armed with merely a laptop and a projector, Justice founded Personnel Security Consultants and began training tribes to do proper background checks to protect their children and communities.

“I would go out to communities and I would train on recognizing and reporting child abuse, how to do proper background investigations, and how to set up their investigation programs,” she said.

Today Justice performs background checks for more than 140 tribes—from the top of Alaska to the tip of Florida. “We help them in different ways. Some, we do what we call full backgrounds, which means that we will do everything. Some we just process their fingerprints; some we do online searches for them; some we just do social security cases and credit reports.”

In a nutshell, Justice became a support system for tribes. As President and Owner of Personnel Security Consultants, Justice is also a licensed Private Investigator through the state of New Mexico. Personnel Security Consultants currently counts 10 employees, with core investigative services based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While they have a home base, Justice and her team are constantly on the road, consulting tribal governments, tribal law enforcement or correctional facilities. The firm maintains a few clients within tribal economic development programs, though Personnel Security Consultants primarily contracts directly with the tribal government or their human resources department.

NBM: How have you scaled Personnel Security Consultants since 2004?

Justice: The highest number of employees that I had was 35. That was fine but I did two things that I didn’t care for: We branched out to the government and private sector, and what I found was that I wasn’t giving attention to the tribes—which was the sole reason why I had started this business. I started purposely scaling back down to focus on the tribes.

I’m very selective about what I’ll bid on or work on outside tribal government, because I want to give my attention and focus to the tribes. They are where my soul is.

The other thing is that when I scaled up I had so many employees that I spent most of my time managing employees, and I couldn’t have my hands on the work. I still love the work, and I want to do the work. I think with me doing the work I can come up with new ideas, be more efficient, and keep up to speed with what’s happening in the industry. When I’m just managing or doing administrative work, I just lose that and I feel awful.

What makes us good is we are so on top of the trends, and on top of everything that’s happening.

NBM: What’s trending in the security industry?

Justice: In our industry, there are always laws that are being passed that impact our industry; there are always court cases that take precedent that will impact how we do business. If I don’t keep track of those trends, we could be doing background checks that are not compliant. One of our big things is making sure that the tribes are in compliance with federal regulations or current standards.

NBM: Who comprises your executive team?

Justice: The executive team is pretty much me and my husband, and he’s kind of behind the scenes. I did experiment with having executive-type folks working with me, but we’re just too small to have executives. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We do have senior staff, so they can take the lead for me or support me when I’m gone. I have a core staff of three people that I call our senior staff. Our other folks are what we call our background technicians that support the operations.

NBM: What is one thing nobody asks you that you love to talk about?

Justice: How hard it is. It’s really hard. [Entrepreneurship is] all-consuming. When you’re an entrepreneur, you will not have a 9-5 job, Monday through Friday. You will be working seven days a week, 24/7. When something happens, you might not feel good or want to work that day, but you have to be on it all the time. If one of your employees calls in, you have to cover. If the custodian decides to call in, you have to clean the toilets. You have to do it all. If you’re not ready for that, then think again.

NBM: What makes the work worth it?

Justice: A couple of things make it worth it. I’ve heard people talk about the American Dream, and I really didn’t know what that was until I became an entrepreneur, because I really got to do whatever I wanted to do. I got to create whatever I wanted to create; I could develop a product and go out and sell it; I could develop training; and I could make an actual impact on people’s lives. I could control all of it and be responsible for it, whether it’s good or bad. I really felt what that meant—to earn my own money. Before I would get a paycheck from somebody, but it was someone else’s money, and they were giving it to me for something that I did for them. As an entrepreneur, you’re literally earning every dollar that you have. This is the American Dream. This is what it’s like to really create something.

So many of our Native peoples have been living the American Dream for generations. I don’t know if they realize it. Maybe they do. My father is a silversmith, and he’s been living that lifestyle his whole life.

NBM: What is your greatest aspiration for Personnel Security Consultants?  

Justice: I want to make sure that the work that I do continues, and that someone will continue to work with the tribes. I want to make sure that I’ve trained enough people and that I’ve shown enough people that they can carry on. One of the things that I did this year is that we created Indian Country Security Professionals Association. We had our first conference in April, because I want to make sure that all the work I’ve done to protect our communities carries on beyond me. I want to make sure that the idea of protecting our communities—which was my original idea—continues to prosper and grow beyond me and my retirement.

The other thing that I’ve been doing recently is making sure that people can do whatever they think is right for them. If they have an idea just go for it. I’ve done it with my own children encouraging them to follow their dreams. My oldest daughter has her own business and my son is an artist. My youngest daughter is in education and working to be a teacher. Some of the things that I tell others is: feel free to dream and to go for those dreams. Most people don’t do it, because they are afraid that they might fail. If you’re really passionate about something, you probably won’t fail. You’ll probably succeed in some way. I know all of my flaws and shortcomings; I know all of my own fears; and I was still able to create this. I also know how little I knew. I had no idea what I was doing when I started as an entrepreneur. I had no idea what that meant exactly, but I figured it out.

NBM: What tools or resources do you recommend for new entrepreneurs?

Justice: There were organizations that really helped me especially at the beginning, like the American Indian Chamber of Commerce. I’m not even sure where I would be without their support, their encouragement, or their faith in me. They made me feel like I was a business even when it was just me working out of my home. They treated me with the same respect as any other big business. I called on them a couple of times, and they were always there for me. If I needed a bookkeeper or anyone else, they always had their fingers on the pulse of who could help me.

NBM: Anything else you’d like to add about maintaining a positive entrepreneurial mindset?

Justice: I think that staying grounded and letting others know what you’re struggling with—because they might have struggled with the same thing, or they may have some ideas for you or some contacts. You can be a little bit vulnerable. Sometimes you need a shoulder to lean on. Don’t forget that there are other people out there who can help. Take time to have some coffee and visit with them to see what they are up to. It’s makes you feel better, especially when you are exceptionally busy, and they tell you how busy they are. Then you feel normal.

NBM: The First Annual Indian Country Security Professionals Conference took place April 27-28, 2018, in Albuquerque. What’s next?

Justice: We’re already starting our advertisements and then we’ll send out our notices. They’ll be sent out late October or early November. We trying to coordinate it with Native American History Month. We’re planning to make it an annual event, and we’re talking to the National Native American Human Resources Association to join forces in 2020 and have the conferences coincide with each other.