(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
A U.S. government program that helps small businesses in economically challenged areas get access to contracts gets used by those in the know, but Delali Dzirasa sees a way for tech to help spread it further.
The HUBZone Program, or Historically Underutilized Business Zone, is designed to target about 3 percent of federal contracts toward small businesses within designated urban and rural areas. But Dzirasa said the nearly 20-year-old program is averaging around just shy of 2 percent of contracts in HUBZones.
In that single percentage point sits “about $8 billion that’s not spent on HUBZones,” Dzirasa said.
Places like Baltimore, where many areas fall in a HUBZone, could benefit.
His company, Fearless Solutions, created a tool to help make it easier for small businesses to navigate the HUBZone process. Now, HUBFinder is being used nationwide. The Spark Baltimore-based company was awarded a tech contract from the U.S. Small Business Administration that will integrate the platform’s features so it can be used by HUBZone firms around the country.
As Spark is based in a HUBZone and Fearless has worked on other federal contracts, the tools grew out of the company’s own work within the program.
Since they already create software for a variety of other kinds of data, Fearless employees started scraping the government data and created visualizations. Like many government programs, it also has rules that require compliance, such as the fact that 35 percent of a firm’s employees must reside within the HUBZone area. They found that the record-keeping aspect could also benefit from tech.
“It started off as a pet project our employees picked up,” Dzirasa said in an interview at Spark Baltimore, where the company is based after relocating from bwtech@UMBC last year. But the employees saw an opportunity to integrate tools to assist in record-keeping and connect with other businesses. “We ended up building an entire compliance system around how do you maintain your HUBZone certification,” he said.
Dzirasa began to show it to small businesses around the region, and they began using it. In the summer of 2015, the platform got national attention when Fearless launched a nationwide beta at the HUBZone conference.
With the contract, Fearless Solutions is likely to add five or six employees to the 17 that currently work there.
It’s the latest community-facing project from the firm. Fearless Solutions also worked with the Billion Oyster Project in New York City. Through the program, a host of partners conduct oyster research and educate New York City public school students about the process. Fearless created a platform for monitoring, data collection and online learning.
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