Make Fearless Impact with Me in Baltimore, Beyond

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

— 1 John 3:18, The Bible (New International Version)

Just a month ago, in Baltimore, a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had access to a gun allegedly killed a bat-wielding man during rush hour.

Squeegee Kid shooting in downtown Baltimore City.

That kid’s life is forever changed because we’ve created conditions as a society where a kid has to beg for money to survive.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the man was killed in Baltimore after confronting a group of youth who were part of the City’s long-time tradition of offering to squeegee, or clean, the windshields of motorists in exchange for cash at high-trafficked intersections throughout the City.

Viewed as an entrepreneurial enterprise by some and a quality of life nuisance by others, this everyday occurrence took a turn for the worse. 

The result was a father’s death, a son’s incarceration, and my city’s division.

This tragic moment links to many historical factors and evidence of systemic racism. Scholars can, and likely will, pen dissertations on why the incident played out the way it did.

Still, it won’t change what happened that afternoon.

Nothing can resuscitate the two lives lost or comfort their families. But, something has got to give.

The sobering fact is that it’s up to us to fix it, and I accept the challenge.

We have made great strides to address the systemic ills that gravely impact our most underserved and underrepresented communities.

Large corporate entities continually work to support government and nonprofit organizations. They are assessing and improving their social responsibility programs while prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Still, we must do more.

Delali Dzirasa with Joe Clair making impact in Baltimore
Delali Dzirasa and Joe Clair at CIAA Tech Summit

I am neither dismissing these offerings nor intending to offend, but I do ask: What happens next?

Let’s be honest — Not much.

And, when there is action, is it a temporary band-aid or a sustainable solution to the problem?

But what do we expect? Strategic soundbites, manicured statements, and money throws do not have the power to evoke meaningful change.

For a day or two, sometimes three, we watch the news reports, post comments on social media posts, and participate in day-long debates about them. Then, life resumes, and we are back to our personal and professional responsibilities until the next emergent issue.

It’s not intentional, and it’s definitely not because we do not care. 

Most of us do.

It’s just unhealthy to be consumed by the devastation that constantly overtakes our minds and timelines. We cannot remain in those spaces of despair. So, we move on out of self-preservation because life does not allow us to stop.

Life continues. 

Tasks must be completed, and deadlines must be met. So, we move right along. Still, the problem remains.

But, enough is enough.

We must make a Fearless impact in Baltimore.

Day after day after day, local and national news, as well as our social media platforms, depict unaddressed social issues.

Within the past few months…

  • The United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the nearly 50-year right to abortion. Congress could have codified this half-century decision decades ago but failed.
  • This year, the national inflation rate reached its highest since the 1980s until the United States Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 by the skin of its teeth. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote after a bi-partisan 50-50 vote split.

And we continue to grapple with gun violence throughout the nation.

Whether on the street or in our homes, grocery stores, schools, or churches, we cannot help but consider our safety.

This year, more than 50,000 lives have been lost or injured in this country due to gun violence. Approximately 3,700 of them were under the age of 18 years old.

In Baltimore, there are already 218 reported homicides. Eighty-eight percent of them were fatal shootings.

These horrific local and national tragedies, and the plethora of other despicable events and situations, constantly remind us of the systemic inequities that impact our historically disadvantaged communities.

And each time disaster hits, we witness business and civic leaders rush to make statements, weighing in on the situation.

Fearless COO John Foster's son looking at a self-portrait at Fearless.
Fearless COO John Foster’s son looking at a self-portrait at Fearless

CEOs of major corporations, government officials, and other public figures voluntarily provide commentary. They offer ideas for what should, would, or could be done.

Don’t get me wrong, this is important. 

It connects the leaders with the community.

It shows that they are paying attention to what’s happening in the communities where their patrons and clients reside. 

It indicates that they care and refuse to stand silent. 

However, without action, prepared remarks and canned statements do not move the needle toward progress forward. 

As business leaders, we must Become Fearless.

We must make a Fearless impact in Baltimore to change the trajectory of our beloved city.

We must work collectively to identify and implement solutions to these societal ills because talk is cheap.

We must be a Fearless Baltimore—taking the initiative, identifying solutions, and making an impact.

We must ask: 

  • What can we do?
  • Who needs to be at the table?
  • How can we change the trajectory?

Corporate statements, government press conferences, and peaceful civilian protests are mainstays. But, we all must do our part to realize the world we want to see when there is no crisis and no one is looking for our perspectives.

UCLA Head Basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a [person’s] character is what [they do] when no one is watching.”

Facts.

As the chief executive officer of the largest software developer in Greater Baltimore, I, too, provide the statements. I weigh in on issues that impact me and those I love. 

But, I also do the work.

It’s not about what we say but what we do.

So, in all I do, I aim to make a Fearless impact in Baltimore and on every project I touch.

After all, growing up, it was a mandate in the Dzirasa household.

My mother, a nurse, raised my siblings and me to have empathy and compassion for others. After school, we fellowshipped in church and helped those in need throughout the week.

Delali Dzirasa and his mother at UMBC
Delali Dzirasa and his mother at UMBC.

Regardless of what we became in life, my mother’s expectation that we would do our part to make this world a better place was abundantly clear.

She valued service and was intentional in her efforts to instill those same values in us from an early age.

To this day, her efforts are not lost on me. I have carried them with me throughout my life.

John Foster, my partner and Chief Operating Officer of Fearless, embodies these same core values.

Raised in Philadelphia, a city that grapples with issues like those in Baltimore, he understands the nuances of Baltimore. He sees himself in the young men of our city. Therefore, he works tirelessly to create a space of belonging for Black youth in tech.

Fearless COO John Foster
Fearless COO, John Foster

Our shared passion for making an impact in all we do and being the change we want to see has become the Fearless Experience.

We are making an impact in Baltimore by engaging and serving our community. And we are working to do the same in Montgomery, Alabama, the location of our first satellite office.

As we work to create a world where good software powers the things that matter, we know that change begins at home. 

So we give back to our local communities by creating jobs and opportunities.

Within the Baltimore tech community, we are building a technically skilled, empathetic workforce that can provide solutions to the problems that impact our society and improve our overall quality of life.

Through technology, we can create software that inspires, heals, resolves, and restores.

Community engagement and direct service are necessary ingredients of our ‘purple sauce’ at Fearless.

LaToya Staten is leading the charge and curating the Fearless community projects. She has hit the ground running, identifying opportunities for us to make a Fearless impact in Baltimore and beyond.

In Baltimore, we are building a tech ecosystem, mentoring the next generation, and championing digital services. But, most importantly, we are elevating Black and Women tech startup founders and their businesses while amplifying the future of tech among our communities.

Hutch Studio's first cohort at the CIAA Tech Summit
Hutch Studio’s first cohort at the CIAA Tech Summit

The future of tech is bright! 

To successfully combat societal ills, we must ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

Through tech, everyone can.

According to U.S. News and World Report, more than 90 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools’ student population are children of color, with more than 52 percent being economically disadvantaged.

Fearless is doing our part to change the trajectory of as many affected by these challenges as possible.

Now, more than ever, we must engage, support, and uplift our youth to make a Fearless impact in Baltimore.

So, we are mentoring students and building community partnerships with nonprofit organizations. Our partners nurture the next generation of tech startup founders by introducing them to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines and careers.

By working with leading programs such as Dent Education, B-360, and Code in the Schools, we are working to break the cycle of poverty through STEM education and career development among our youth.

Delali Dzirasa and DENT students making a Fearless impact in Baltimore.
Delali Dzirasa and DENT students

These efforts are vital in a city like Baltimore, where more than 62 percent of the population is Black. They are also mutually beneficial as only 7.4 percent of the tech workforce is Black.

With proper guidance and intentions, this presents an incredible opportunity to build a robust Baltimore tech community that creates future generations of Baltimore-born and raised Black tech leaders.

Named the largest software development firm in the Baltimore area by the Baltimore Business Journal and included in the Inc. 5000 2022 listing as one of the fastest growing companies in the nation, Fearless is a rare gem.

Therefore, we have to influence the next generation of the tech workforce. So we remain committed to ensuring we are accessible to our youth, letting them know that a future in tech is bright.

But we can’t stop there.

We must also establish, cultivate, and grow our tech workforce of Black tech professionals and startup founders by partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Baltimore is home to two — Coppin State University and Morgan State University. 

Another two HBCUs, Bowie State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, are located in rural and suburban areas throughout Maryland.

Our proximity to these institutions presents a prime opportunity to erect a Black Tech Baltimore.

Earlier this year, Fearless partnered with Bowie to host the highly successful and well-attended Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Basketball Tournament in Baltimore.

During the week-long event, people traveled from near and far to participate.

Fearless hosted a day-long Tech Summit House event to highlight innovative technology trends. 

We introduced new tech leadership and provided a space for the tech community to network as they redefine Baltimore’s professional landscape.

Most importantly, we seized the opportunity to meet and recruit HBCU students and alums. 

The tech space is growing, and we know we can address and resolve social issues through digital services and technology.

In collaboration with the Dzirasa Family Foundation and the BLK ASS Flea Market, we made a Fearless impact in Baltimore.

Fearless Sports co-hosted the Trap Music Museum Baltimore Pop-Up during CIAA. Fearless’s passion for sports, technology, art and entertainment converged through this event.

We donated five percent of the art sales to a community center in one of Baltimore’s historically under-resourced communities.

Delali Dzirasa and company at CIAA Tech Summit
Delali Dzirasa and company at CIAA Tech Summit

During next year’s CIAA Basketball Tournament, we plan to host a pitch competition to promote entrepreneurism among tech professionals.

But, we cannot reserve our commitment for major attractions like CIAA. We must create a Fearless Baltimore.

Throughout the year, we plan to…

  • show up at HBCU sports games, 
  • hold pop-ups on campuses, 
  • empower student ambassadors, 
  • provide internships, and 
  • establish an apprenticeship program. 

We will build a Baltimore tech community by creating a pipeline for recent HBCU graduates to begin their professional careers right here at Fearless.  

Our time to create a Black Tech Baltimore is now!

While we will always appreciate external support from allies, it is time for us to invest our time and resources in us.

We can no longer wait.

Our communities need us now.

Gone are the days of Black success requiring a corporate savior, where opportunity is scarce, and disruption is fatal.

We must take care of ourselves.

At Fearless, we will continue to lift as we climb.

  • We will make a Fearless impact in Baltimore.
  • We will empower the next generation of tech leaders.
  • We will strengthen the tech ecosystem.
  • We will engage the community.

And as a result, Charm City will be the next Black Tech Mecca.

Then one day, I will say in my DJ Khaled voice, “They didn’t believe in us, but God did.”

Want to make a Fearless impact?

Join me in accepting the challenge.

Fearless impact in Baltimore at CIAA Tech Summit
Fearless Team at CIAA Tech Summit

Hutch, Empowering Purple Calves to Become Purple Cows

And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go,

struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and

blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ‘ere

long.

– Mary Church Terrell

Starting a digital services business begins with an idea.

I’ve known Koffi Harrison for years. After a chance encounter in 2018, I learned she had an intriguing concept for a management service firm. And, I had an idea for how I could help her and other founders starting a digital services business.

Candid of Delali Dzirasa with Uplight founder Koffi Harrison at Hutchs' first graduation
Hutch Founder Delali Dzirasa and Uplight CEO Koffi Harrison at the first Hutch cohort graduation.

Koffi is a chemical engineer by trade who, at the time, was at a crossroads.

Her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis had caused her to re-evaluate her purpose. While she was “textbook successful,” she had ideas, dreams, and aspirations to make more of an impact.

As her mother’s primary caregiver, she needed more flexibility.

So, we embarked on a journey.

A nameless idea, Koffi’s concept was initially known as “Asterisk.”

However, after only 18 months in business, her company closed in 2021 with three employees and more than $500,000 in revenue. It is now known as UpLight.

This year, she aims to hire seven to 12 employees and earn $1.5 million in revenue. And she’s planted her roots in Baltimore, where she is impacting the community.

I know, right? Let me tell you how we got here.

Starting a digital services business is not for the weary or faint of heart. It requires grit, dedication, passion, and perseverance. But, it also requires access and a network.

I’ll be the first to say that Fearless’ success is a result of early support and mentorship from larger, more established tech firms.

Without the referral of my mentor, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, I wouldn’t have met Robert Baruch. Founder of RABA Technologies, Rob offered me my first tech job out of college.

Delali Dzirasa, retired UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, and John Foster standing together
Fearless CEO Delali Dzirasa, former UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, and Fearless COO John Foster at a UMBC event.

And, it was Rob’s support after learning that I desired to own a tech firm someday that exposed me to the inner workings of government contracting early in my career.

Then, after founding Fearless in my basement, the Cyber Incubator at bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park welcomed me with open arms. There, I had the space to grow alongside other creators and innovators.

These early investments were pivotal in Fearless’ future success.

I stand on the shoulders of leaders who believed in my vision. Those who subscribed to my mission to build software with a soul and create a world where good software powers the things that matter.

So as Fearless grows, we lift emerging founders starting a digital services business.

We could not wait to meet some arbitrary benchmark of success. It was important that we reach back and bring other Black, Women, and People of Color tech startup founders with us now.

And, we needed to create an ecosystem of other digital services companies with whom we could partner as Fearless matured in portfolio, revenue, and workforce. According to CNBC, Black tech professionals make up 7.4 percent of the tech workforce. Women hold 26.7 percent of positions within the industry, but Black Women comprise a mere 1.7 percent.

This disparity offers an endless opportunity to grow the number of tech firms owned and operated by Black people, Women, and People of Color.

In turn, we hope they will be intentional in their efforts to expose youth to tech careers, as well as recruit and create opportunities for other tech professionals of color as they grow and scale.

Over the years, I have met with several founders of tech startups who would schedule meetings to pick my brain or ask for opportunities to partner. While hosting these frequent ad hoc meetings became unsustainable, I understood their tremendous value.

I saw an opportunity to help up-and-coming founders starting a digital services business. I felt obligated to share everything I wish someone had told me, but that I had to learn through trial and error.

Xcell founder Felix Gilbert speaking at a Hutch graduation in Baltimore, Maryland
Xcell founder Felix Gilbert speaking at a Hutch graduation.
Delali Dzirasa and Xcell founder Felix Gilbert at Hutchs' first graduation
Delali Dzirasa and Felix Gilbert at Hutch graduation.

For instance, Felix Gilbert started XCell in 2007 while working for the federal government. But, without adequate support and proper guidance, he could not grow his business to the point that he could walk away from his nine-to-five.

Intelligent and talented, Felix knew the work but not the business. So, he eventually closed XCell and joined the Fearless team.

Fulfilled by his impact and upward mobility at Fearless, Felix was living the American dream. And, while I valued his leadership and skill, I never forgot about XCell. I knew he was not living his dream.

So, I recruited him to join Hutch’s first cohort.

In April 2021, Felix resigned from Fearless.

Today, XCell delivers services to various government entities—including the Air Force—employs three employees, and is experiencing exponential growth.

While it would be much easier to have tunnel vision and focus solely on growing and scaling Fearless, it’s not the Fearless way.

I knew there were many other tech professionals of color with experience in the industry but who needed help starting digital services businesses and entering the market.

I knew we could be their “bumper pads,” helping them make connections and navigate the world of government contracting.

After all, there is a lot to go around. In fiscal year 2020, the federal government spent more than $665 billion on contracts.

With no business name, proposal, or model, just an idea and good intentions, I reached out to some of the founders who had “picked my brain” over the years. I knew we would convene this group of like-minded entrepreneurs, but I didn’t quite know what it would look like.

Nonetheless, the urgency, necessity, and potential impact of its existence were crystal clear.

By January 2019, the Fearless team and I had recruited six businesses to trust us on this uncharted path. My executive team and I began hosting meetings with these eager founders, building content, and crafting the curriculum as we went.

While we didn’t always have the answers, we figured them out together. Not only were we helping other businesses grow, but we were testing and stretching our knowledge.

Emerging tech CEOs sitting together working on starting a digital services business at Hutch Studios
The first Hutch cohort working together at Hutch Studios.

We embarked on this journey believing it would be a one-year commitment. A year in, we knew there was more we had to offer these emerging founders who are starting a digital services business. Committing to another year, all but one business continued with us.

Witnessing the companies’ growth, we understood the value of this resource. But, we couldn’t continue another year without a budget and revenue stream. To pay for the underlying associated costs, each company agreed to give Fearless a five percent stake in their businesses.

This transition was not easy. Our proposal was initially met with resistance.

Remember, they had received one year of free mentorship. Now, we were asking them to relinquish five percent of their budding businesses to us.

Five percent of a dream was a lot to ask.

However, not only was it necessary to sustain the program, it was a great business lesson for the cohort. In business, all involved parties must benefit. This requires give and take, often in the form of monetary gain and investment.

Trusting in us and valuing what they had already received, the five remaining companies continued on this adventure for another year. Only this time, we had content, a curriculum, and a plan.

But, wait! What would we call it?

At Fearless, we were producing Purple Cows, standing out in a crowd of brown cows.

Exceptional.

Unique.

Distinct.

And with this venture, we were providing specialized, individual insight and support to each of these up-and-coming businesses.

We were nurturing Purple calves.

That’s it! We’ll call it Hutch.

A hutch is used by dairy farmers to house newborn calves and tend to their individual needs.

This is precisely what we were doing—providing mentorship, support, and guidance to unique young tech companies.

That is how Hutch came to be.

An intensive 24-month program, Hutch provides underrepresented entrepreneurs with a blueprint for building successful and impactful government digital services firms.

Hutch helps startup founders push through their fears while building confidence in a safe community among other startup founders who are starting a digital services business.

Hutch Studio Project Manager Stephanie Chin speaking at a Hutch Studio event in Baltimore
Hutch Project Manager, Stephanie Chin, speaking at a Hutch graduation.
Hutch Project Manager Stephanie Chin speaking about founders starting digital services business
Stephanie Chin at a Hutch graduation.

Over that next year, we continued to guide
these companies through the inner workings of government contracting, helping them navigate the process and attempting to prevent them from experiencing some of our early pitfalls.

In November 2020, we brought on Stephanie Chin as our first program manager for Hutch. The addition of her business acumen was game-changing.

Stephanie had more than a decade of experience working with entrepreneurs and managing incubators. And she is passionate about empowering people to use their entrepreneurship for good.

Before her arrival, the Fearless team was pitching in and holding up the content, curriculum, and support for Hutch while also tending to the responsibilities associated with our respective roles within Fearless.

It was a daunting task, but seeing the growth of the startup businesses made it all worth it.

However, with Stephanie’s support, leadership, and guidance, we could do more. We became better able to meet each company where they were and help them get to each milestone more quickly than they could on their own.

And, in Summer 2021, we welcomed an advisory board comprised of a combination of digital services and government experts to help grow and scale Hutch into a national incubator.

While we have done much to grow and support Hutch, make no mistake—it is a mutually beneficial experience.

Hutch is made up of passionate business owners whose services will change the world for the better. Each day, we learn just as much from them as they do from us.

Proverbs 27:17 in the Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Stephanie Chin and Delali Dzirasa standing together in Hutch Studio's HQ
Stephanie Chin and Delali Dzirasa at Hutch Studio headquarters.

Hutch companies are continuously pushing boundaries and forcing us to think about how to improve our curriculum.

Each business owner has unique motivations, expectations, experiences, and passions.
Therefore, we know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be successful or sustainable. We are constantly working to ensure that everything we teach is personalized and meets each of their needs.

For instance, we eventually learned that Fearless’ five percent equity in each company was prohibitive as the founders sought out capital from banking institutions. Because of our stake in the companies, the underwriters were inquiring about Fearless’ finances.

It was not only restrictive and problematic for the companies but also for us.

We immediately acknowledged that this would not be a sustainable model as we continued to grow Hutch. So, we substituted the five percent stake for zero percent equity, a $4,000 refundable program fee, and a 10-year revenue payback rubric.

With the new model, Fearless receives five percent of the annual revenue until we receive $25,000. Next, we receive three percent of the yearly income until Fearless reaches $50,000 in total revenue from the company.

Then, Fearless receives a one percent stake for every remaining year until the company’s 10th-year anniversary of completing Hutch.

This self-motivating model allows the companies to determine how long it takes to reach the $50,000 threshold, then lock in at the one percent equity stake.

Since January 2019, nine companies have completed the two-year incubator program. Four companies are scheduled to graduate in December 2022 and another seven businesses are on target to finish in December 2023.

In January, we will welcome our fifth cohort.

As we continue to grow, we also continue to hone in on our goals for Hutch and the personas of the companies.

Currently, we seek to include no more than ten companies
in each cohort, reserving 50 percent of those slots for Baltimore-based businesses.

We welcome founders of digital service firms who are early on in their business and looking for a return on their time commitment.

Having assessed and improved this program over the past three years, our research has determined that the two-year curriculum is most rewarding when all Hutch cohort members are already in business and at or about the same phase in their companies.

Therefore, while Koffi’s journey to start UpLight remains one of our most transformative, we no longer accept visionaries like her who have not yet started their companies.

Most importantly, each founder must commit to using their tech powers for good.

We invite companies that aim to be of service to others and impact the communities where they operate. Summer and Terry Bazemore of Eye3 Technologies, a cybersecurity and systems engineering based in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are doing just that.

Also graduates of the first Hutch cohort, the Bazemores believe in tech with purpose.

With more than 25 years of supporting the Department of Defense and other federal agencies, they provide workforce development to disengaged citizens in Baltimore, Prince George’s County, and Washington, DC.

Making an impact in the lives of others is what Hutch is all about.

But the culture of Hutch is critical, requiring us to create a synergistic climate within each cohort by recruiting and retaining members who gel with one another.

Hutch is intense. Therefore, cohort members must feel comfortable leaning on those going through the process with them to be successful in the program.

Koffi, Felix, and the Bazemores were all part of our inaugural cohort, along with Aaron Brooks of MASTERMND and Shanda Wilson of INSHIFT. They all remain close.

MASTERMND CEO Aaron Brooks at a speaking event talking about starting a digital services business.
MASTERMND CEO, Aaron Brooks, speaking at the CIAA Baltimore Tech Summit House.

Each Monday evening, they still meet to collaborate, share business highlights and obstacles, and discuss upcoming projects.

But, they have also become a close-knit family. They have witnessed one another’s marriages, childbirths, home purchases, and other life-changing milestones. So, their meetings often extend past the allotted hour as they catch up on personal events.

This is what makes Hutch so rewarding!

Over the past three years, the most gratifying aspect of Hutch has been the investment in people and their visions.

When I initially asked Koffi to join the cohort, she didn’t even have a name for her business concept. Now, she is an inaugural member of the Hutch advisory board.

Felix is still expanding XCell based on his vast network acquired through his time with Fearless and Hutch.

And, the Bazemores received their 8(a) certification as of a few weeks ago and on track to hire 11 employees.

These stories make it all worthwhile.

Hutch is one of a kind.

Now attracting digital services firms from all over the nation, Hutch will continue to grow, scale, and expand to various locations throughout the country.

As each Hutch company grows, I hope they continue to lift as they climb. I hope they too create accelerator and incubator programs like Hutch for other new tech startups trying to navigate the tech space.

This can and will be a reality.