As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Delali Dzirasa.
Delali Dzirasa is the CEO and founder of Fearless, a full-stack digital services firm in Baltimore, Maryland with a mission to create software with a soul — tools that empower communities and make a difference. For 10+ years, Delali has been the de facto leader of Fearless, first as our founder and now as CEO. In addition to shooting for the stars when it comes to ideas and living the Purple Cow principle, Delali sets the vision for Fearless.
Delali graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and has over 15 years of experience leading agile software teams and programs. He strives to make a difference in technology and in his surrounding community. He chaired the inaugural DevOpsDays Baltimore and is a founding member of the governing board of the Digital Services Coalition. Delali is also the Chair of Hack Baltimore, a city-wide innovation movement that teams up technologists, civic leaders, and city residents to design sustainable solutions for Baltimore’s biggest challenges. He is passionate about increasing the rate of city youth heading into STEM fields and works closely with city nonprofits to provide funding and mentorship programs in city schools, as well as other education initiatives. Last year Delali testified to the US Senate Small Business Committee on behalf of the National HUBZone Council for the Small Business Reauthorization Act. He was also awarded the National HUBZone corporate citizen of the year in 2020.
Delali currently lives in Baltimore City with his wife Dr. Letitia Dzirasa (Baltimore City Health Commissioner) and two sons Dominic and Jaden. When he isn’t busy running Fearless, he enjoys working out and hanging out with friends and loved ones.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My passion and entrepreneurial spirit started as a kid when I knocked on doors and offered to cut grass, mow lawns, wash cars, or walk dogs. The thrill of landing those few jobs gave me a taste of the entrepreneurial life and I was hooked. After graduating from UMBC in 2004 with a degree in computer engineering, I had one request when I accepted my first job after college. I would take a software programming job at Raba Technologies, but only if I could learn the business side. When the company won two $100 million defense contracts the next year, and a program manager needed extra help, I got the opportunity. The experience of advancing to a leadership role on a massive contract, with a good mentor led me to build a similar culture at my own firm.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistake turned out to be one of our greatest outcomes- I failed to work with my partner and COO, John Foster, earlier and he was literally right in front of me. John and I attended undergrad together — he started a year after me and we were both computer engineering majors. After graduation, I got a job in Maryland. John was also in Maryland but did not get a job right away. He eventually got a job and moved into my basement, but was working in Atlanta Monday to Thursday. I offered to share his resume so he could get a job in Maryland and not travel so much. But he got another job requiring weekly travel, this time to Arkansas. After all that John finally agreed to try working together. It took 5 to 6 years to make it happen but it turned out that my partner was living in my basement for over a year.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s not just one person who helped me, it was the many mentors and role models who have helped me along the way. From that first boss at Raba who was enthusiastic about me wanting to eventually start my own company to the folks at the DoD Mentor Protégé program who took Fearless under their wing, countless individuals have touched Fearless along the way.
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski was really instrumental in my growth for many reasons. His ability to connect people and open doors is extraordinary. Before my first job out of college, I asked for advice and feedback. I had some offers for jobs and he recommended Raba Tech, which is where I learned business skills — he brokered that introduction. I found out later that I was the only entry-level hire the company made before they got acquired.
I always try to ping him before major life decisions and when I thought about starting Fearless, he recommended people I should talk to and I received great feedback. He opens doors, not just for me, but for many others, and that is what I am trying to do for the next group of emerging entrepreneurs.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Fearless’ mission has always been focused on giving back. It took a few years for us to develop our tagline of software with a soul, but making the world a better place through software has always been at Fearless’ core.
I knew the place Fearless could have the biggest impact was within the government. The services local, state, and federal government agencies provide touch millions of Americans across all economic levels, geographies and backgrounds. Digital services touch every part of our lives but civic tools don’t keep up with technology evolution.
When we were a young company of two employees, we became HUBZone certified. Every founder and company talks about giving back when they get to a certain size or make a certain amount of revenue. HUBZone forces you to give back from day one and look at where you’re hiring and invest in the community and give back and support. Having the HUBZone requirements made us think about structuring the company differently than if we didn’t have the certification and requirements. What could be considered constraints, actually helped us in the long-run.
From the beginning, we’ve focused on creating tools and experiences that empower people and change lives.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This past summer following the deaths of George Floyd and others at the hands of law enforcement, I was struggling emotionally, mentally and physically. I was tired. Tired of worrying about what I was wearing when I went to the office at strange hours. Tired of black entrepreneurs not able to get loans from banks. Tired of worrying about my sons and how they would be treated because they are black. I knew many members of my team were experiencing the same thoughts and feelings and I needed to create a safe space for them. I called a team meeting and everyone had the opportunity to share how they felt. We gave people the chance to openly and freely talk. It is always my intention to provide for my employees a space to be themselves, to have a voice and know they are heard.
It was important to me that we not only talk through the issues — not only of today, but the systemic issues that led us to this point- but to also consider how we make real change. We surveyed our team and came up with a list of ways we collectively as a business and as people can make a difference. We recently announced the creation of a $50k fund to match donations from anyone, not just our employees, to 9 organizations in Baltimore and Montgomery, Al where we have offices. These organizations were selected by our team and are organizations that have programs that directly relate to racial justice initiatives, or serve underserved and underrepresented communities of color.
Leaders need to listen. Check in with employees regularly. Race and injustice is a tough conversation that people don’t usually talk about at work. Then, to have an experience like this on such a magnified level and during a pandemic. Leaders need to let people know you see them, you hear them, you’re here to support them. I am also learning that everyone requires something a little bit differently. Some people are doers, others don’t want to talk — they all need different spaces.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think every entrepreneur thinks about giving up at some point. When you first start, you are one person and you don’t think you know enough and you talk yourself out of things. When we were building Fearless, we had to get comfortable with being ourselves and comfortable in our own voice and skin. It’s so hard early on because you don’t have any business or customers, and the assumption is that everyone in the space works one way and you need to do that to work. It’s hard but be yourself, but if you can be authentic, your tribe and people will find you.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say the most critical role of a leader during challenging times is the ability to set work aside and recognize the human needs of your team. During the pandemic, using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as our guide, we moved our focus away from the higher levels (esteem and self-actualization) and concentrated on how we could meet our people’s more basic needs (physiological and safety). To do this, we started having weekly mental health check-ins, switched to mandatory remote work early on, established continuous support mechanisms, and rapidly created a COVID-19 Leave Policy.
A leader should never assume to know what his/her employees need and want. It is important to ask them and keep a dialogue open to provide opportunities for feedback and iteration. During challenging times, people’s feelings, experiences and needs can evolve, and as leaders, we need to recognize that and support them.
Though it’s important to know your own limits when it comes to being vulnerable at work, being your authentic self, owning up to your mistakes, and sharing who you are with others is part of building rapport and trust with your team.
Before COVID-19 hit the United States, Fearless had invested a lot of time working towards large strategic and operational goals. But in March of 2020, we realized we would need to re-evaluate these goals in light of our new reality. So, we chose to focus on our people and their needs. We moved forward with initiatives that supported our team members, doubled down on our communication strategy, and assumed there would be a 25–35% drop in capacity to complete long-term strategic tasks. Taking a truly agile approach, we communicated constantly with our team and created tight feedback loops so we could quickly identify issues as they arose.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
While it’s important to focus on putting out fires during a crisis, it’s easy for morale and mental health to fall by the wayside. It is important for leaders to be honest and consistently communicate to keep employees inspired and motivated.
The culture of Fearless is one of the main draws for new employees. A recent new hire from Silicon Valley shared, “In Baltimore, Fearless is Google — there is a vision unlike many other tech companies in this area focused on federal work.”
We didn’t want to lose our culture during the COVID pandemic while our employees worked remotely so we figured out a way to keep employees engaged beyond zoom meetings. We’ve implemented a weekly schedule of activities — including those for families — such as daily coffee break and lunch chats, tai chi, crafting circle, family mindfulness, movie night, jackbox games and shred yoga. Our annual spring hooky day was reimagined instead of cancelled, creating a series of crafts in a box for the staff to select such as making kombucha or brewing beer, that they made together via Zoom- even taking a lunch break with a GrubHub gift card from us.
Create extra (and optional) spaces for your people to connect, engage, and destress together even if virtually.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Whatever the goal, communicate clearly to all attendees why you are meeting. This will help attendees enter the conversation with a focused and productive mindset and ensure the dialogue moves the company forward in some way.
If you want to be part of creating a culture of open dialogue, your priority can’t be making your own voice heard. Open dialogue is not just about speaking, but it’s also about listening.
All of us are already intimately familiar with our own thoughts and opinions, but it takes much more effort for us to try to understand someone else’s perspective, especially if it’s one that’s difficult to hear or radically different from our own. In all conversations, you need to make more of an effort to understand and listen than you do to explain and convince. This demonstrates respect and makes it more likely that others will give you the same consideration.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The best way to predict the future is to create it. In this space, there are lots of opportunities. You have to create your future and make bets. You can’t time what may happen and always be on the defensive. Those who are on the offensive and carving off a new market or sub-industry — those folks will do really well.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
In addition to listening, creating an open dialogue, and recognizing that everyone has a different way of approaching a challenge, the number one principle is to be Purple. We are inspired by Seth Godin’s book, The Purple Cow. Our business and culture was built on the principle to be remarkable. Companies can make it through difficult times if they are able to be authentic. be unique, be remarkable. Safe is risky and risky is safe — the temptation is to play it safe. When you try to be safe, you are a brown cow. The only way to stand out is to build and create great innovations.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Too often businesses slow down and take a safe route when times get difficult. You have to be willing to take risks. Be innovative. You can’t predict the future. Another mistake businesses make is to go quiet. Consistent and frequent communication is important to engaging employees. Especially in a remote environment, employees get discouraged. Frequent communication is reassuring, and listening helps you as a business owner to pivot and adapt whether it’s business operations or employee policies. Open dialogue is critical — businesses can’t offer one way communication. There must be a feedback loop — it’s the only effective way a leader can make decisions that are good for the business and his/’her people.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Don’t slow down or back off. Keep investing your way through turbulent times. These next couple of years are critical for us. We are moving out of our small business status. We are celebrated as a small software development company, but overnight we will be competing with huge companies, there is no in between and we need to be remarkable and stand out in our space. When you think you’re purple, once you’ve arrived, think about what comes next and keeps you purple. You’ll stop being novel and you will need to sprint.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have a good sense of the needs inside the organization. Do a pulse check. We can often assume that people feel or think a certain way, or looking at the same data you are. We do this in a series of ways at Fearless. We send out weekly surveys. Keep morale up- what are the things your employees need whether at home or in the work they are doing. These are tough times. It’s easy for people to feel discouraged or depressed so anything you can do to lighten people’s spirits- even a virtual happy hour.
- Assign a key spokesperson. Our team has worried about COVID- what does leave look like- what if a family member or child gets sick. Having one person accountable is important so people know where to go to get information, how to provide or receive feedback, or get updates on new policies or changes.
- Refocus on your operational plan. Businesses should have a strategic plan- whether it’s 3 years or 5 years. But when you have a once in a lifetime event like a pandemic, it is okay to revisit those strategic plans and evaluate if you are still headed in the right direction, or does the existing operational plan still make sense for your business. Assess if you need to pivot- are there areas that are really important to your customers that you need to double down on.
- Build up communication. Communicate consistently and repetitively. Ensure there are good feedback loops. Create physical space and time for crisis communications. Creating a formal space is important to ensure employees feel heard and understand there are actions coming. We offer multiple all hands meetings as well as provide anonymous ways for people to provide feedback.
- Be brave. Be fearless. Take a stand even if it’s not a popular decision but one that is important for the business. Adapt when needed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be lazy! Bill Gates was quoted as saying, “I always hire lazy people at Microsoft and give them hard problems. Lazy people always find an easy way to get something done.”
When I was in college, I was lazy. I was bored. I created a program that did my homework for me with a click of a button. As you think about innovation, some of the most lazy people have come up with the most interesting innovations in technology.
How can our readers further follow your work?