Episode #34: Meet our New CEO Aarish Gokaldas

  • we@designindc.com
  • August 21, 2023


Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to the highlight cast.

Ashley Nichols: Hello, and welcome back to the highlight cast. Uh, my name is Ashley Nichols. I’m the VP for corporate strategy and development here at highlight. And today I’m excited to sit down with our newest CEO, Arish Gokaldas, he’s succeeding. Highlight founder, Rebecca and Dino, to begin another exciting chapter at Highlight, or as I like to call it, Highlight 2. 0. So welcome Arish. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Thank you, Ashley. I’m excited to be here and I’m excited to be speaking with you on this podcast.

Ashley Nichols: Great. So we’ll start with some basics. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to this point in your career as CEO of Highlight. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. I’m happy to. So, uh, just, I started off within the intelligence community as an intel officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency. My background from an education perspective was international affairs. So obviously they threw me in the most technical intelligence possible, measurement and signature intelligence. And it was essentially a firehose of getting up to speed on very technical capabilities. Uh, which I was then required to go out and teach, uh, to the title nine and title 10 schoolhouses. Did that for a few years, then switched over to SAIC doing that as a contractor, and then moving over to the DNI, director of national intelligence, uh, to be a policy analyst, evaluating new capabilities and upgrades and doing cost benefit analyses for them. It was at that point in 2008 that I went over to a small business, OG systems as employee number eight. And immediately took over their business development team, building out and leading their business development team. And over the course of 10 years, uh, grew that team, uh, grew that company from eight individuals to 400, uh, first as their chief growth officer, and then as their chief executive officer. In 2019, we were acquired by Parsons Corporation, and I remained there and agreed to stand up Parsons Space and Geospatial Solutions Business Unit. And that was a great experience that pulled together a lot of strong capabilities in Parsons around our space work with organizations like U. S. Space Force, SMDC, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Uh, as well as our geospatial work with NGA, NRO, Special Operations Command, SOCOM, uh, as well as Army Geospatial Center and Army PEO. Uh, so, did that until 2020, at which point I moved on to a, a mid sized company, Applied Information Sciences, as their Chief Growth Officer. Uh, working on both federal and commercial vehicles around cloud professional services, specifically focused around the Microsoft ecosystem. So. Uh, and it was there that I decided to go on and sort of start my own boutique firm, consulting with small and midsize companies on their growth roadmap. And it was incredibly rewarding work, but part of the desire was to go back to doing it full time in a CEO capacity for a company that I really, uh, believed in and had a strong connection to. And that’s where Highlight entered the picture. And, and it’s been great. 

Ashley Nichols: Good. Well, we are certainly happy to have you. So what attracted you to join the highlight team? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Great question. Great question, Ashley. So I’ll say it was three things really. One was the diversified portfolio highlight is a strong company, both on the federal civilian market, as well as the department of defense and Intel community. So the organization is providing support to, for example, the U S agency for international development around. Uh, gender equality and inclusive development, right? Having significant impact on, on, on really, uh, getting that internationally recognized and, and, and helping to ensure that, that everyone is making an impact in their, in their country. Uh, but then you look over on the, the DOD side where we’re supporting, uh, Army and providing them with an application on ServiceNow to help consolidate and, And shorten the timelines for software asset management, uh, which is having real mission critical impact. So that, that’s the first area is the diversified portfolio. The second one is the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Uh, I was born in apartheid, South Africa, so that absolutely colors. A lot of my background, uh, in, in a society where individuals were by law excluded. So coming to Highlight, uh, part of that decision factor was the organization’s commitment and respect for, for diversity. Uh, that was a, a non starter for any company if they did not have that for me. So I generally embrace that and that’s something that I choose to commit to and expand with my time here. And then the last one is the company culture. I mentioned my employment with OG Systems, right? Started as a small company. Growing into a large, one of the big areas of focus was despite how fast and how much we grew, uh, we were going to commit equally from a time perspective, but also from a funding perspective to maintain our culture. Uh, and I believe that is very much the same. that highlight has, uh, and Rebecca, who you mentioned as the founder, made a commitment to that. Uh, the leadership team, yourself included, actually have made a commitment to that, uh, to ensure that our growth is not going to be at the expense of employee welfare, but rather our growth will advance employee welfare and employee morale. And it really, at the end of the day, it was an easy decision looking at those three factors.

Ashley Nichols: So all that being said, you’re here now, what are the first few weeks been like or, you know, what are some of your biggest takeaways here at the beginning? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I would say that it’s certainly been a fire hose. So getting up to speed and meeting the leadership team. And now I’m going through and meeting with each of the individual teams. And really the biggest impression that I’ve felt, and it’s a simple thing, but I think it’s an important thing, is that the employees. Respect each other and and they genuinely like each other. Uh, the company is not treated as, the relationships are not treated as transactional. They’re pure and I believe that that serves the employees well from a happiness perspective and a satisfaction perspective. But more importantly, it serves the customer well. Employees that like each other. And respect each other, work well together, and they work well together to advance the client’s mission. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do here at Highlight as a 100 percent federally focused contractor. So that’s really the, you know, I’m on my, in my fourth week now, and that’s, that’s what I’ve seen. It’s really proved out both, uh, at headquarters with our back office staff who are incredibly mature in what they do. But also with our teams on the ground and speaking with them in person, virtually, uh, it’s clear that there’s a genuine appreciation and respect for each other when everybody brings not just from their professional backgrounds, but also from their personal.

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. We definitely try and try and foster that with our internal programs for sure. Want to pivot a little bit. You know, you talked about how OG systems went through. Kind of similar trajectory going from small to large. We are a recently, uh, graduated into the midsize, the business pool, the large business pool. Um, so as a growth focused professional, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing federal contractors and more specifically, um, So the challenges facing contractors in this size range that we now find ourselves. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Sure. So one of the partners that we used to work with was similar size as highlight and they used to refer to themselves as a micro large. And I appreciate that because we are genuinely in a category where we’re no longer small. But we’re, we’re, we’re essentially existing in a plane where there are organizations that are 10, 15, 20 percent, 20 times larger than us, right? Uh, so, so certainly from the contractual standpoint, there’s, there’s always going to be challenges in terms of how we’re measured by the government in terms of what they’re looking for from a past performance perspective, if they’re putting certain, Size thresholds in place if they’re putting certain contract thresholds in place for points or for Uh color scoring we’re going to be at a disadvantage But those are things that that we can overcome both from the perspective of messaging to the government and really showing the value of a What I’ll call a micro large, who is a large business, but still is able to demonstrate agility in the contract space. I think that that’s, that’s a way to overcome that. The bigger challenge that I, that I like to focus on is, is really the cultural one. Especially for those who have been with an organization like Highlight for five to 10 years. These are, you know, individuals who have grown up as a small business. So used to going up against small businesses. I Eight A’s, women owned small business and used to competing against them. And now that we’re in a full and open space, it’s very much, you know, a different, a different animal altogether. So there’s, there’s still, I will say, muscle memory around competing against companies of a certain size. And what’s more is competing for opportunities of a certain size. So part of the cultural challenge is starting to. understand that the past performance that highlight possesses truly is impressive and, and truly rivals that of the largest SIs out there. Just take, for example, our work with SBA and, uh, the PPP work that we led, Uh, during the pandemic, the ability to staff the, the, the, the team that we did, we’re talking about hundreds of employees brought onto a contract in a week, over a thousand in two months, uh, that, that type of surge staffing is unparalleled. And having the realization that our past performance, our quals, our technical prowess can rival that of the largest multi billion dollar companies. Uh, take some time to sort of get into that mindset. But really, it’s a mindset of understanding and appreciating that and developing that confidence and dare I say, you know, that swagger around our ability to sort of go toe to toe with the largest of companies.

Ashley Nichols: Right. Yeah, the notion that we, we deserve to be in that room as much as anybody else does. And absolutely. That’s right. I’m here for it. For sure. Yeah, so it’s kind of a two part question. You can answer one or the other. You know, one is, you know, what are some of the biggest surprises that you saw in the industry over the last year? Or what are you most excited for, you know, in terms of trends that you see in the future? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah, so, so the 1st 1, um, the, the biggest surprise, I’ll say is kind of. Candidly, it’s been the evolution of the government’s focus on, on, on GWACs and BICs, best in class contracts. I think I certainly understand the drive to, to move toward a consolidated set of best in class contracts. I think the theory being that it will limit the workload that we placed on agency and service contracting shops. What I’m seeing, and I’d say the surprise, is in practice, I think it’s placing a lot more stress on them 

Ashley Nichols: because 

Aarish Gokaldas: whereas previously when agencies would release their own blanket purchase agreement or indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity vehicle, you’d see, you know, a dozen to 15 to 20 bidders for four to five awardees. And typically we’d see that awarded and moving forward. What you’re seeing now is that contractors. Contractors understand that in a lot of cases, our futures are tied to successfully getting a spot on the best in class contracts. So you’re now starting to see a scenario where hundreds, if not thousands of contractors are bidding on these vehicles and post award, you’re seeing hundreds. Dozens if not hundreds of protests that are slowing it down. So the surprise is that i’m starting to see a lot more stress being placed on these contracting shops to uh, Either work through those protests and identify alternatives 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely that I think that’s definitely something they’ll have to look at hard going forward. Not just from a standpoint of The viability of the vehicles through all the protests, but then often their sort of role in sort of making or breaking of some companies, especially the very small, or even the smaller, large is where we are. That is a topic for another podcast. Um, yeah, 

Aarish Gokaldas: I do want to answer your 2nd question as well, but to the exciting opportunities and the trends. And again, I think this is this is going to be specific to highlight, but it’s certainly something that we’re seeing across the federal government that I think is an opportunity for all industry partners. And that’s obviously the continuing drive and push. Opportunity for automation, right? Uh, one of the things that brought me or attracted me to highlight was, was our highway methodology, our ability to take underserved markets, like asset management, grant management, identify ways Uh, using commercial best practices, using, uh, commercially available ISV tools like UiPath, and lower paperwork burdens, lower, uh, multiple approval channels and reduced timeline, uh, from weeks to days, if not hours. And when you think of that in real terms, We’re talking about, let’s say a soldier down range who needs to spin up a Databricks license to process mission critical data. Getting timely access to that license and that finished product has real world implications. So the ability to, to shorten that timeline from request to approval to use of that license, uh, is, is an incredible opportunity for. For companies like highlight to come in and improve the process. Provide efficiencies, but also have real world mission impact, which at the end of the day is what we’re all trying to do. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. I would be remiss in not mentioning here that we are a hundred percent employee owned, uh, we are an ESOP company. And so with that, I think there’s some exciting trends around ESOP owned companies and GovCon. Uh, can you talk a little bit about that? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yeah, I absolutely. I I’ll say one of the biggest trends. Uh, that really excites me is a growing appreciation for employee owned companies, both within the federal government as well as in Congress. Uh, there’s been plenty of, plenty of attention paid to small business designations, and rightly so. Um, but when you look at an ESOP, it’s a case where the rising tide is lifting all the proverbial boats in the company, right? When, when a, when an ESOP company grows, when its stock price. grows, that’s not to the benefit of a small fraction of shareholders or a small fraction of the equity firm stakeholders. That is to the benefit of every employee who is ESOP eligible, right? And we are a hundred percent ESOP company. Uh, so that is every employee. Um, and I think Congress is starting to realize this and they’re starting to recognize this and we’re starting to see it. Encoded in the NDA language, which is incredibly exciting and regardless of your political persuasion. One of the things that I think you’ll find is that support for ESOPs. crosses both sides of the aisle. It’s something that both Republicans and Democrats have found a common cause to support, right? Which in this day and age is few and far between, unfortunately, but that’s one of the areas. Uh, and as a result, I think we’re going to see more legislation in support of not only encouraging. A conversion of additional federal companies into ESOP, but also an increase in opportunities for ESOP to grow within the federal government. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, absolutely. I want to turn a little bit towards what we’ll call the question of sort of mentorship or growth within the within this organization and generally within our industry. So with that, we’ll start with what do you consider the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your career so far? If you had to pick just one, 

Aarish Gokaldas: so it’ll be a cop out because it’s one, but I think it’s multi multi multiple elements to it and that is there are different types of leadership and each of them can be successful in their own way. But for me, and for what I preach and what I evangelize, servant leadership is critical to the success of a company. Leaders are hired to grow a for profit organization, right? There’s no arguing that. We’re hired to increase both the top and the bottom line. But how we do that is important. And when I say servant leadership, what I mean is a servant leader does it by listening to their employees, not by speaking at them, uh, by displaying empathy, empathy, not by dismissing concerns or dismissing feedback by being self aware of not only his or her own weaknesses, but also that of. His or her teams, right? And working to a, address that, but ensure that the team as a whole can cover each other’s weaknesses with their respective strengths, um, a commitment, not just to a growth of the company, but also growth of the employees. And then the last one, which I’m a big believer in, and I believe highlight is as well, which is why I came here is a belief in building a community, not building a bureaucracy. Or a, a group of employees based on transactions. So I think that is. The most important lesson that I’ve learned over my time as an industry executive is the value of servant leadership. 

Ashley Nichols: What would you, what is something that you would suggest everyone in GovCon start doing? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Engage really. It’s, it’s, it’s really a small community. And once you start getting out there, you’re going to start seeing some familiar faces, but get out of your, if you’re, if you’re on a specific contract, get out of that contract, get engaged with your company. The people in your company get engaged with the community. If you’re focused on, uh, let’s say AWS sales, get out to the AWS reinvent, right? Get out to the cloud specific conferences. Start to engage with those other thought leaders. If you’re on the management side, start heading out to those industry specific conferences, like, you know, the geo conference, uh, like, you know, space and missile conference, uh, get out there and meet the individuals. You’ll start seeing them again at other events, other dentists, other forum, but really start to. Engage outside of your specific bubble. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. So what is one big piece of advice that you have for early career professionals in our space? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I would say, don’t be shy and engage with your leadership early and often. And more importantly, don’t assume that you’re going to be noticed or recognized just based on your good work. And oftentimes, you know, the, the good leaders will do that. The good leaders will recognize and identify those who are providing the greatest benefit, the greatest ROI, but you cannot be afraid to advocate for yourself because at the end of the day, you are responsible for your career. So you have to be vocal. You have to be a strong self advocate for yourself and at times for your team.

Ashley Nichols: That’s certainly something I wish someone had told me. Uh, 15, 20 years ago, for sure. Um, and what would you say is the biggest myth about government contracting? 

Aarish Gokaldas: That’s a great question. And what I’ll say is that it didn’t used to be a myth, but I think we’re starting to see this become one, which I, I, um, love. Uh, and, and that is the myth that government contracting is a good old boys network. Right. The fact that contracts are awarded based on who, you know, uh, based on back room drinks and cigars with the federal government and company executives. I think we’re starting to see that go by the wayside what you are starting to see. Is a shift in demographics across the federal government, both in terms of the leadership profiles, but also the employee makeup. And so you’re starting to see a lot more focus on, uh, hiring for diversity, diversity of, of individuals and also diversity of thought. And I think as a result, you’re starting to see companies evolve as well into introducing diversity as a key. requirement for success. And frankly, Highlight is leading the way in that regard. Look, we are over 60 percent female. We are minority, minority, majority, uh, meaning that over 51 percent of our company identifies as minorities. And I believe that that diversity Uh, is a tremendous benefit, uh, to the federal government when it, when it comes to the type of work that we support, the, the diversity of the ideas, the diversity of the engagement that we put forward, both on the civilian market, as well as on the, the Department of Defense and the Intel community. And so, uh, I think that’s only going to, uh, become a stronger, uh, asset to the government as we, as we move forward. And I think you’re, you’re definitely seeing the, the, the death knell of that, that good old boy network that used to be there in the, you know, 34 years ago. Yeah, 

Ashley Nichols: absolutely. All right. Now it’s time for rapid fire questions. Are you ready? Yes. All right. Phone calls or email? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Text messages. 

Ashley Nichols: All right. Favorite video meeting platform? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, I’m gonna go with Teams. Teams is still my favorite. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, okay. Uh, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I wanted to be a lawyer. Yeah, that was, that was my goal. 

Ashley Nichols: Okay, this is gonna be hard for you. Favorite movie? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Oh, that’s not hard at all. That’s, that’s, okay. It’s, uh, Princess Bride. 

Ashley Nichols: Princess Bride, okay, I know you are a movie buff, movie fan. Yes. Favorite music genre? 

Aarish Gokaldas: You know, it evolves over time, but right now I would say American folk bluegrass. 

Ashley Nichols: Ah, yes, I’m right there with you. I’m right there with you right now. Lots of trade notes. Favorite meal? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, I’m a simple man, so when I moved to the U. S., I learned about pizza and it never stopped. a good, uh, cheese pizza, which in some ways heartbreaking because both of my kids do not like pizza. Uh, so I don’t know where I went wrong.

Ashley Nichols: All right. Final question. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. 

Ashley Nichols: Best piece of advice, best piece of professional advice that you have gotten.

Joy and highlight. No, just kidding.

Aarish Gokaldas: Best piece of professional advice I got is don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is not what defines you. It’s the not trying that could define you. And I’ll just say, Ashley, and you recognize this, as a performer, as a former proposals guy, the fear of failure is strong, right? So overcoming that. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, um, I’ll say that, but the times you go most down the edge are generally bringing the most success. You just have to remember that when the fear creeps up. Right. Alright, well that wraps up all of our questions for today. Thanks everybody for listening to HighlightCast. To keep up to date with our news and activities, follow us on LinkedIn or visit our website at highlighttech. com and tune in for our next episode. Thanks for listening. Uh, thank you so much, Arish, and we’ll see you, uh, on the next episode. Thanks, 

Aarish Gokaldas: Ackley. This was a blast. 

The views and opinions expressed in this episode are those of the hosts and do not necessarily reflect Highlight Technologies and or any agency of the U. S. government.