We Created An $80K/Year Incubation Program To Help Minorities And Women Entrepreneurs

Delali Dzirasa and Stephanie Chin
Founder, Hutch
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Hutch
from Baltimore, MD, USA
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We Created An $80K/Year Incubation Program To Help Minorities And Women Entrepreneurs

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hutch, founded by Fearless in 2019, is an intensive 24‑month program located in Baltimore, MD that provides minority and women entrepreneurs with a blueprint for building successful and impactful government digital services firms. The program equips businesses with the tools, mentorship, and peer-to-peer support they need to thrive in the world of government contracting.

We operate at the intersection of digital services, government, and community impact. Our program acts as a home base for our entrepreneurs, giving them a foundation of support that they can grow from without getting lost amongst bigger companies in the industry. Our companies have a focus on the following disciplines: Design, Product Development, Agile Development, Data and Transparency, DevSecOps and Compliance, and Iaas, Paas, and Saas Implementation.

To date, Hutch has 9 graduates, 11 company founders in our current 2 cohorts, and 20 companies total within our portfolio. Hutch is the only company of its kind led by industry experts with years of experience in digital transformation and government services.

we-created-an-80k-year-incubation-program-to-help-minorities-and-women-entrepreneurs

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2009, Delali Dzirasa founded Fearless with the goal of building a different kind of digital services company.

After seeing many governments' IT projects fail, the need for strong firms that could help bring agile and modern tech principles into the market was apparent. Fearless was created to help close this gap. The company’s mission is to build software with a soul to create a world where good software powers the things that matter.

Using modern tools and principles like the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, Fearless has been able to deliver value to government customers and grow at a steady pace over the past 10 years. Fearless knew that it couldn’t create a world where good software powers the things that matter alone. To really move the needle when it comes to government digital services, many companies will be needed.

Fearless co-founded the Digital Services Coalition to grow the market of capable digital services and civic tech firms, but the reality is that there still aren’t enough to make this kind of impact. So, in 2019, Fearless decided to step it up a notch and help other digital services companies avoid the pitfalls that it ran into over the years. And Hutch was born.

Fearless was lucky enough to be accepted into the Department of Defense (DoD) Mentor Protégé program early in its growth, and this kind of coaching and mentorship helped shape who we are.

Hutch is Fearless’ way of paying this forward to foster a diverse ecosystem of digital services firms that transform the way our government serves its people.

We have a focus to nurture, empower, and connect underrepresented entrepreneurs working toward the public good. Hutches are used by dairy farmers to house newborn calves so that they can be given hands-on care during the first stage of their life. At Hutch, we give that same level of support to our cohort companies. And because we cap each year’s cohort to no more than 10 attendees, we’re able to really get to know each business and their needs and to provide individualized guidance.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Hutch was started of the need for more diversity and inclusion in government.

“We realize the access to opportunities, capital, that access to knowledge and information and a support system is not readily available to founders of color. It’s not readily available for many women entrepreneurs, especially in the tech ecosystem. Hutch is here to fill that void,” said Delali Dzirasa, Hutch Founder and Lead Coach during the opening of Hutch’s incubator office space.

Drawing on Fearless’ experience and expertise in digital services, Hutch was created to help BIPOC and women entrepreneurs avoid the pitfalls that cause government projects to fail.

Our team of expert instructors, board members, and partners works to ensure our companies have all they need to build successful and impactful digital services firms in government.

In Year 1 of the program, we teach our cohort founders how to set the foundation for their company, and how to secure at least one paying customer. The first year is all about building the strong foundation that will set our cohort companies up for future success. Through this first half of the program, we coach and mentor each of our companies so they are well-positioned to secure more government contracts in their targeted domain by the end of the first year.

In Year 2 of the program, we teach our companies how to scale the business and bring in more customers. We provide coaching support and help our cohort companies put the team, systems, and processes in place that they’ll need to scale. This part of the program focuses on ensuring that our cohort companies can scale sustainably.

When we originally started Hutch in 2019, it was piloted as a one-year program. Testing and feedback led to it becoming a two-year program so that we would have ample time to dive deep with each of our companies and foster a community and connectedness amongst them that would extend beyond the incubator program. We used Lean Startup Methodology to launch Hutch and have continued to iterate and improve based on cohort feedback.

For the first year after launching, Hutch was run by internal Fearless’ team members, leveraging time and talent from CEO Delali Dzirasa, scrum masters, and passionate coaches. External surge support was brought on as needed for project management and curriculum development, and in late 2020 Hutch hired its first full-time dedicated employee, Program Manager Stephanie Chin, bringing expertise in leading incubators and accelerator programs.

Launching Hutch has been a large investment of time, talent, and capital from Fearless to expand its impact and vision of a world where good software powers the things that matter.

Unlike most incubators or accelerators, Hutch has pivoted away from taking equity in companies but instead created a royalty revenue model to ensure the program is sustainable and can have a long-term impact on the industry. We’ve found this model to be the right blend of accountability, alignment of incentives and expectations, and more entrepreneur-friendly (since the payment model scales as graduates grow).

we-created-an-80k-year-incubation-program-to-help-minorities-and-women-entrepreneurs

Describe the process of launching the business.

To launch Hutch, we started with our existing network and what we knew best- delivering digital services in the federal government. We opened applications and selected 7 local companies to participate in the first cohort. The need and demand for this kind of structured mentorship and incubation program were clear, and we’ve been able to grow the program and create more curricula with Fearless subject matter experts ever since.

Entrepreneurs come to Hutch because they see and know that we’re passionate about making an impact. We’re authentic in wanting to bring more companies along on this journey with us. We’re engaged in different ways to uplift the community. They’re not only drawn by the business successes Fearless has had but more so the impact of our work and that we’re catalyzing more companies to scale our collective impact.

People matter. Your customers are your people, and you need to be authentic in how you communicate to them, how you support them, how you deliver to them. Culture and brand go hand in hand, so your brand is not what you say it is, it is what others say.

Hutch didn’t initially have our own website or social media platforms. We posted some information about the program to the website, blog, and social media of our parent company, Fearless, to leverage the brand’s existing reach. After the initial one year pilot we invested intentionally in building a separate website for Hutch and accompanying social media (@hutchstudiohqs). In 2021, we leaned into consistently creating more blog posts to share our news and cohort companies’ wins, and this year we’ll be publishing playbooks and other ‘how to’ resources to share our expertise with more entrepreneurs.

Launching the first pilot of Hutch taught us many lessons, some of which are:

  • We manifested our company belief that “starting with what you have will get you what you need.” We launched our MVP so we could test and get feedback on the program instead of waiting to have a perfect program (or product) built.
  • That culture of continuously iterating and improving taught us to stay agile in the way we build.
  • And it humbled us because even though we had a decade worth of business success at Fearless, we learned we would need an expert team to grow Hutch. We hired our first Program Manager, Stephanie Chin, and Incubator Coordinator, Matthew Smith dedicated to Hutch.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Every entrepreneur, every organization wants to do more. Whether that’s to grow the business, have more impact, hire more people, etc. Don’t forget though, people come first. People matter. Your customers are your people, and you need to be authentic in how you communicate to them, how you support them, how you deliver to them. Culture and brand go hand in hand, so your brand is not what you say it is, it is what others say. Be intentional about the brand and culture you build. And be consistent.

We created a communications strategy to include consistent social media content, email campaigns, blog posts, PR, and ads during strategic times of the year (i.e. summer leading up to application season and end of year cohort graduation and incoming cohort announcements) and for specific content that resonates with our target audience. The main objective for our communications strategy has been to:

  1. Reach entrepreneurs looking to grow their business (in digital services to government customers), who may benefit most from joining Hutch
  2. Highlight cohort companies’ transformational work that is more representative and delivers better tech solutions

Authentic LinkedIn content and PR have been most effective for our goals. Hutch has been featured in media and publications such as Government Technology, Government Executive, ITProTV, Business Wire, the Baltimore Business Journal, Technical.ly Baltimore, Baltimore Fishbowl, WJZ, Maryland Daily Record, and i95Business. We’ve learned to be cognizant of creating content that provides value to our audience; people are inundated with news, ads, and media. We need to give them what they care about, what they want to know, and not produce content just for the sake of it.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

In the last 3 years, we’ve grown to a portfolio of 20 companies total with 9 graduates to date, and 11 company founders within our current 2 cohorts. By the end of 2025, we have a goal to incubate 25 minority-owned companies.

we-created-an-80k-year-incubation-program-to-help-minorities-and-women-entrepreneurs

Hutch has always been committed to diversifying talent in tech and government. To create a diverse ecosystem of digital services firms that transform the way our government serves its people, we have a strategic plan to achieve our goal:

  1. Build talent: Representation matters. We believe that business leaders should be as diverse as the communities they come from. That's why we focus on lifting people who have historically been left out of the tech space.
  2. Maximize impact: We can build a better world. Things like profit and revenue are critical, but to us, success means leaving the government and the world better than you found it.
  3. Provide exposure: We’re stronger together. Community over the competition, always. We share knowledge to help each other grow and overcome obstacles, understanding that when our community thrives, we thrive.

As an entrepreneur, you want to make sure that your business is working to address your audience’s needs and that you understand where your audience or user is in the buyer's journey.

In 2021, Hutch officially launched 6,900 sq. ft of private offices and open collaborative space on the 1st floor of Spark Baltimore. The new Hutch space serves as a community hub for digital services and civic tech entrepreneurs within the program to build their businesses in Baltimore, supported by the coaching and mentorship of Fearless and a network of partners.

Hutch was founded in 2019 with a goal to build a more inclusive ecosystem in Baltimore and to help entrepreneurs of color grow and scale their businesses to compete in the $100 billion government contracting marketplace. Earlier this year, we welcomed 7 new digital services firms to the program who are all dedicated to our mission and are ready to deliver digital transformation to the government.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Through the Hutch journey, we’ve learned how important it is to understand your audience, and what their pain points are. As an entrepreneur, you want to make sure that your business is working to address your audience’s needs and that you understand where your audience or user is in the buyer's journey.

Working to simply meet a need in the market without your audience in mind will leave you working to meet unattainable goals. For us, we understand the importance of diversifying the talent in tech and government, but to do that, we must be attentive to what skills our audience needs to grow capacity and reach the government market.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We are big proponents of Slack and always have been. As a member of the Fearless family, we have channels devoted to training and events, specific areas of subject matter expertise for folks to ask questions, new technologies or interests, and even a space to shout out to one another when projects are won or a major announcement is made.

Our teams also use tools like Wrike, Mural, Trello, and Loom.

Google Workspace makes collaboration seamless, and it has been especially useful during remote times when folks may be working asynchronously.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Using modern tools and principles like the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, we’ve been able to deliver value to our cohort founders and help them to grow at a steady pace over the years. The U.S. Digital Services Playbook draws from 13 successful practices from the private sector and government that, if followed together, will help the government build effective digital services.

Hutch also relies on our ecosystem partners such as the Digital Services Coalition to help share agile technology and define what digital transformation looks like for our cohort founders as they work toward the goal of transforming the way government serves the public.

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin is the inspiration for Fearless’ ethos, mascot, and brand.

For entrepreneurs, we’d also recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, and the Business Model Canvas as a visual tool to map out an idea.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

“Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.” - Seth Godin, Author of The Purple Cow

Every entrepreneur always believes that they have to be perfect in order to make an impact. At Hutch, we work to cast out that ideology. Our goal is to build not just successful companies, but impactful ones. All of our member companies are committed to giving back to their communities, and we focus on lifting those traditionally left out of the tech space. By doing this, we help to create a seat at the table for the next generation of minority and women innovators looking to transform government for the better.

“Starting with what you have will get you what you need.” - Fearless

We encourage our cohort founders to take the leap and to think beyond the typical. We do not expect our companies to have all of the answers, but we empower each of them to bring resourcefulness, ingenuity, and hustle to every project or task they take on to solve customers' problems. To be the change we wish to see in government and the community, it takes everyone showing up and doing their part.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Hutch will be accepting applications for the next cohort of the program later this fall.

Digital transformation in government is critical to ensuring Americans’ experience with Federal government agencies is simple, fast, and helpful – 93% of large-scale government IT projects fail, costing American taxpayers billions annually. The marketplace needs more digital services firms – those firms for which agile software development is the focus of their business, not an additional service they offer – to scale government digital transformation projects. For more information, visit this link.

Fearless is growing and always looking for great talent. We have a variety of roles in Design, Engineering, Product Delivery, and Programs available here.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Delali Dzirasa and Stephanie Chin, Founder of Hutch
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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