Government websites don't exactly have the best reputation, with crashes all too common when people most need to use them. That annoys Delali Dzirasa.
The government is "servicing an entire nation, and the tech that supports it should not be second class to just about anything," he said. "It shouldn't be the laughingstock."
Dzirasa is trying to make things better with Fearless, a digital services firm focused on civic technology, and civic tech incubator Hutch. Baltimore-based Fearless has built a dashboard for the city's health department, completely redesigned the Small Business Association's website, and built a gateway for processing Payment Protection Program loans — in about 10 days. Dzirasa thinks there's a big opportunity in providing high-quality tech services like this to the federal government, doing well by doing good because, as he notes, the government "tends to pay its bills."
In a conversation with Protocol, Dzirasa explained the opportunities he sees in civic tech, how he's trying to build an ecosystem of like-minded companies, and how tech can start to fix its diversity problems.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Tell me about Hutch, Fearless' incubator.
Our vision is a world where good software powers things that matter. For that to happen, we know that Fearless can't be the only solution. We shouldn't be the only one that's in this fight. So we wanted to figure out how we can bring more people to the table. We want to ensure that as we grow as a tech company, that our community grows as well, and the technical stuff around us continues to grow and thrive as well. And so Hutch was created to help fill that void: for us to groom and grow other civic tech and socially minded tech companies.
There are 13 companies that we're incubating today, and we're really excited about it. We're starting to get a pretty good lock on the curriculum, and the process, and how to grow these companies. It's very much been a labor of love, and we've self funded the entire program to be able to get these companies off the ground.
We've got an ask from all of them. One, that you grow and make an impact, and give back to Baltimore City. And two, as they continue to grow, that they would at some point learn how to do this, and go help others get started — get more people in the game.
Do you take equity in the companies?
We do. For each year they're in the program, it's 2.5%. Some would say, "that's a pretty small chunk … why would you invest so much for so little?" And for us, it is much bigger than just the return. This is going again to our vision: We want to grow great civic tech companies that want to go do good work and help to change this planet. We also want to grow jobs here locally within Baltimore City, and so our hope is that if we can train and we can grow new companies that begin to hire new talent into the city, it elevates our entire ecosystem. They will benefit, the city will benefit, we will benefit from that.
The other reason is these become key partners for us down the road. There's lots of teaming and partnering within the federal and services space in general. And for us, who better to partner with … they know our practices, they know how we work … They become really logical partners for us down the road. It becomes a growth opportunity for us to be able to have really strong relationships and partners with some up-and-coming companies.
Can these kinds of companies ever produce venture-level returns?
Everyone wants to found a company, they want the 10x-plus multiples and return — and that's great. Baltimore, and the East Coast, is so tied to services and the federal government. We've got the largest purchaser on the planet down the street in D.C., with the federal government. So there's plenty of opportunity there for people to be able to come in and provide extremely meaningful impact across federal services.
What we saw was, there aren't a lot of people that are willing or want to support the creation of services-based companies, but it's such a service economy, I think, on the East Coast that it's a missed opportunity. So Hutch was created to help to fill that void. There's no shortage of work, and we've got a customer in the federal government that tends to pay its bills. So we thought it was a relatively good place to start, and we've seen some big success so far.
What's it like having the government as a customer? There's a reputation of it being really slow and unwieldy and bureaucratic.
It is all those things! Federal government can be slow, it can be frustrating. It can be extremely challenging if someone new gets elected and priorities change. But it is also some of the most impactful and most important work that I've ever been a part of: to be able to touch and produce services that, in our opinion, should be world class. We're servicing an entire nation, and the tech that supports it should not be second class to just about anything. It shouldn't be the laughingstock.
There's increasingly talk about the importance of this space — is that all talk, or is it grounded in something real?
I think it's not just rhetoric: There is a movement that has really started in this space. There's a small undercurrent that is growing, relatively quickly, in this sub-sector of IT called digital services. That was largely pioneered by two government organizations: One is called 18F, out of the General Services Administration; and the second one is USDS, the United States Digital Service. When healthcare.gov was rolling out and the thing crashes, the White House started canvassing and going to the tech giants and saying, "Hey, this isn't working, we don't get it. You guys build large-scale applications all the time — come help us." So a small contingent came over and they helped to turn it around and to get it working. And it turned out great, and they said, "I'm going home, Mr. President, good job."
And then the White House did something that was really critical, that kicked off a lot of momentum in this movement. They said, "Wait a minute, that was pretty cool. Why don't we keep doing that?" And they started a startup in the White House called the USDS. It was their attempt to say "we want to think about how we do technology a little bit differently, so we don't have an issue like that in the future." And that has birthed a huge movement of tech companies.
There is a difference between traditional IP and digital services, and digital services — the government cannot find enough of it.
One thing I noticed about Hutch was how diverse the cohort was. What do you think tech companies need to do to fix their diversity issues?
Tech companies have long known that they have diversity problems. And this isn't this isn't a new phenomenon — I think it's starting to shed light right now.
I think a lot of what makes this challenging is you see companies that will say, "Oh, we've got to do better," and they hire a Black or minority diversity officer: "OK now go tell us and go fix our problem." I think it's much deeper than that. Folks will have strategic planning around how they do just about anything — how we're gonna get more market share, how we're going to build our business, how do we beat our competitors, and all these things, right? This seems, from my perspective, for many of them more of a charitable thing — like "oh, let's go give back and let's hire some minorities to show that we've done our part" — and not really valuing, as a generalization, the thought leadership that comes from a diverse cast of people that are at the table.
And so my recommendation to them, always: Look at your team. Who do you surround yourself with? Who's on your executive team, who's on your board? It gives some assurances where it doesn't feel like it's just a handout — it makes it feel like this is a genuine attempt for a company to be different, and to look different and think different, and to value a number of different opinions at the table.
How about on the startup side of things — what do you think needs to be done to encourage more Black founders to start companies and succeed?
[There are] a number of things. Number one is exposure. I'll talk about Baltimore City, which is where we reside: As an example, 40% of homes may not have connectivity or a device. Those kids are not thinking about becoming tech founders. They can't even get to the internet to do their homework. And so there's a huge divide there from an opportunity perspective: There's not an even playing field, even to be able to learn.
The second piece is people being able to see folks that look like them, and understand that this is a viable career, and a viable option for them. The third thing is understanding there is a career, and a financial upside of doing this. A lot of folks are hungry — I need to go work to get food today, I'm going to do whatever I need to do to make sure I can eat today. And so there has to be an ability to connect this to some sort of like economic perspective for people to be interested.
If you do all of those baseline things, then and only then can you start to provide structure and resources and support systems. People are creative, that's not the question. They just need resources to be able to come together, and resources can be in the form of funding, investment that's part of it. It's also in information.
Over on the West Coast, as a company grows, you get a unicorn, they get acquired, those people break apart and they go start other companies — that happens over and over and over again. And so to be able to build that, to be able to see it, you've got to have resources. We need more money but we need access, and we need exposure — all those things are vital pieces.