Stephanie Chin, program manager at the Hutch business incubator, cuts the ribbon at the opening of Hutch’s new meeting and co-working spaces at Power Plant Live!. She is joined by Hutch co-founders Delali Dzirasa and John Foster, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, and other members of the Hutch community. Photo courtesy of Hutch.
Stephanie Chin, program manager at the Hutch business incubator, cuts the ribbon at the opening of Hutch’s new meeting and co-working spaces at Power Plant Live!. She is joined by Hutch co-founders Delali Dzirasa and John Foster, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, and other members of the Hutch community. Photo courtesy of Hutch.

Hutch, an incubator for women and minority entrepreneurs in the digital services and related industries, is seeking to support more business owners with the skills and resources they need.

The leaders of digital services firm Fearless founded Hutch in 2019, offering a two-year incubator program for women- and minority-run businesses. And at the beginning of September, Hutch opened meeting and co-working spaces in the Spark Baltimore building at Power Plant Live!, which also houses Fearless.

Now, they are recruiting their next cohort of entrepreneurs for the incubator program.

Hutch was founded by Fearless founder Delali Dzirasa and chief operating officer John Foster. Dzirasa is also the husband of Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, who served as Fearless’s health innovation officer before taking her current post.

Speaking at the unveiling of Hutch’s new space earlier this month, Dzirasa said that when he started his company, he struggled to feel like he belonged. But his mentors pushed him to continue and build Fearless into what it is today.

Now, Hutch is providing that same encouragement for other entrepreneurs, Dzirasa said.

“It’s something about being in the space with one another, you’re seeing someone else in the grind and in the trenches with you,” he said. “It keeps you excited and you realize that excellence is what’s expected of everyone in this space.”

The Hutch name is a nod to the pens that house newborn calves, where farmers give the animals hands-on care during their first stage of life, according to the incubator’s website.

Similarly, the incubator is a place where entrepreneurs can receive one-on-one mentorship and coaching, in addition to learning alongside fellow new business owners as they develop their ideas, said Stephanie Chin, program manager at Hutch.

Chin said Hutch intentionally keeps its cohorts at no more than 10 entrepreneurs per group, to give each the attention they need.

Cohorts meet monthly for sessions about topics such as writing proposals and obtaining government certifications. Entrepreneurs also receive one-on-one coaching and mentorship, and use a Slack channel to ask questions and share resources.

“It’s not a ‘one size fits all,’” Chin said. “We take a really personal lens approach to that mentorship and coaching.”

Hutch is striving to help build 25 Black-owned businesses by 2025. With 14 women- and minority-run businesses either currently participating in the two-year program or having already graduated, 13 of which are specifically Black-owned businesses, the incubator is on track to reach that goal, Chin said.

Through Sept. 30, Hutch is accepting applications to be part of their next cohort of the incubator program, which will begin in January 2022 and graduate at the end of 2023.

“It’s such a good opportunity for folks to be able to think about how can they invest in their business today to be able to see the growth and the changes that they want to be able to see tomorrow,” she said. “One of the things that we encourage entrepreneurs to think about is ‘How much time are you spending working on the business versus working in the business?’”

Felix Gilbert officially registered his digital services business under the name XCell in 2007, but put his dreams on hold when he became a Fearless employee. But Dzirasa encouraged him to pursue it. What started as a one-on-one mentorship between Dzirasa and Gilbert evolved into the foundation for the Hutch program.

When UpLight founder Koffi Harrison learned about Hutch’s incubator program, she had recently left a toxic work environment and her mother had been diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer.

Delali Dzirasa, a co-founder of Hutch and the founder of Fearless, guides U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen around the incubator’s new meeting and co-working spaces at Power Plant Live! Photo courtesy of Hutch.
Delali Dzirasa, a co-founder of Hutch and the founder of Fearless, guides U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen around the incubator’s new meeting and co-working spaces at Power Plant Live! Photo courtesy of Hutch.

Around that time, Harrison was in Baltimore for a day and ran into her friend Dzirasa, who asked her what she was passionate about and encouraged her to apply to Hutch.

Harrison founded her management services company, UpLight, on Feb. 8, 2019, providing project management, Agile IT management and other services. But when she joined Hutch’s first cohort in January 2019, her company was just a glimmer in her mind.

“I started Hutch with just an idea — no name, company wasn’t registered, truly an idea — and it has been an amazing journey and amazing roller coaster ride,” she said.

Harrison and Gilbert said they value Hutch’s emphasis on both personal and professional introspection as entrepreneurs.

“There’s a lot of focus on who you are, what you’re passionate about, what your values are, and what is your why: why are you doing this?” Harrison said. “They help you create a foundation that ensures you stay in alignment with what you value and what your why is and letting you know it’s okay to turn away work if it does not align with that.”

Chin said Hutch wanted to provide a space where women and minority-run business owners have access to a community of people who have gone through and are going through similar experiences.

“Having a cohort of peers who are on similar journeys as you, that you feel like you can be open, honest and vulnerable with, and to be able to share the challenges, share the wins, be able to really connect with each other on that level,” she said.

As of 2017, there were more than 11.6 million firms owned by women in the United States, accounting for 39% of all privately held firms. Of those, 5.4 million were majority-owned by women of color, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners.

In 2019, Forbes reported that businesses founded by women delivered higher revenue than those founded by men, despite funding gaps for women-run companies.

With Hutch founded by two Black men and led by a woman of color — Chin is Asian — Harrison and Gilbert, who are both Black, said the program ensures its participants feel understood in a way that predominantly white programs do not.

That proved especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities, as well as the racial injustices that gained wider attention in 2020, Harrison said.

“It allowed for a safe space to try and figure out and maneuver how you as not only an individual, but as a corporation is going to respond. As well as create a culture that promotes diversity, equity inclusion, and it’s not just promoting it, but it’s about the action and actually doing,” she said.

Before participating in Hutch, Gilbert said he felt like he was putting on a different face when he went to work, unable to tell people how he truly felt.

“The only people that really saw me were close friends and family,” he said. “They’re the only ones that ever got to really see that real me.”

But as people donned face masks to protect against coronavirus, Gilbert found himself removing that other mask and being able to be his “100% authentic self.”

“Going through Hutch and all the racial tension, all this stuff with COVID, everything that was going on, taught me that it’s okay to not wear that [figurative] mask and to be yourself,” he said.

As he learned about himself through Hutch, Gilbert also found himself gaining a new perspective on Baltimore.

During one exercise at Hutch, his cohort visited Baltimore’s World Trade Center building, where they looked out different windows of the tower.

“The exercise that we walked through was life-changing for me because I never saw Baltimore that way,” Gilbert said. “When I looked at each pane of glass, I walked away with a different view of Baltimore altogether … Your heart would get heavy because it’s like ‘Man, I see the challenges that Baltimore faces,’ but then you will see another side and it’ll be like ‘Oh, well, this looks like hope.’”

Eventually, Hutch would like to scale their program nationally, Chin said.

“We have a deep love for Baltimore and our community here, and we’re bringing companies to Baltimore for people to participate in this type of really specialized training and incubation,” she said. “But we want to think through ‘How can we scale this? And how can we partner with other organizations to be able to supply our training elsewhere?’”

Harrison said the 24-month program “goes by very fast,” and she advises members of current and future cohorts to know what they want to get out of the program and pursue those goals.

“It’s a lot of information, it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of dedication,” she said. “But if you’re intentional about what you want out of it, intentional about getting the things you need … and if you’re intentional about creating relationships with other Hutch members individually, it’s a priceless opportunity.”

But even once those 24 months are over, Gilbert said Hutch leaders and cohort members continue to communicate, share resources, answer questions and help one another achieve their goals.

“It’s a long term game,” he said. “It’s not ‘you’re in, you’re out, goodbye.’ It’s ‘Hey, we’re in here for the long haul.”

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...