Episode #38: 2023 for Highlight: This Year in Review

  • we@designindc.com
  • December 21, 2023


 Announcement: Broadcasting from Fairfax, Virginia. You are now listening to the Highlight Cast.

Aarish Gokaldas: Hello, everyone. I am Aarish Gokaldas. I am the Chief Executive Officer here at Highlight Technologies. And I am excited to be joined by our Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Growth, Ashley Nichols. So we have had a very exciting Today we’re going to take the time to dive into the past year, uh, some of the work that Highlight has done, uh, the work that we’ve won, the strides that we’ve made for our federal customers, uh, as well as some of the internal developments and frankly, internal wins, uh, that we’ve had as well. And Ashley is here to join me to talk through those, cause who better to talk through some of those wins and accomplishments than our head of business development. Uh, so actually, let’s jump right into it. What are walk me through some of the biggest achievements that you’ve witnessed across the organization, both within respect of contract wins, but also, more importantly, highlighting how we’ve been supporting our customers missions.

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, uh, you know, I’ll get, I’ll start with the, you know, some of our contract wins, that is sort of the bread and butter and how we get to keep providing that stellar support. Um, you know, we had some critical re competes come up this year, our SBA contract, both the BPA and the task, uh, prominent of our primary task orders to continue, uh, supporting, uh, The critical work of, uh, the maintenance of all the loans that the, the SBA gave out during COVID, uh, that kept so many small businesses afloat. So we’re really psyched to keep, uh, continuing to support that contract for another five years. Um, as well as, uh, a recompete of our Coast Guard program, um, uh, which was a, one of our Great sort of cloud and data stories. So we’re really pleased to continue supporting that customer. Um, also for another five years in new wins, uh, we’ve, you know, expanded our footprint at SBA into the CIO office with our support of their ITSC contracts. They’re in either it support center contracts, um, which is an expansion of both the type of work and the customers in SBA for us, uh, as well as in USAID, uh, PMSS, which. Supports the office of administration, which is another new USAID customer for us, but some more of the institutional support contract types of work that we do already at DDI and PPO. So, um, you know, a good story about really kind of pivoting into some new areas with some existing customers. Uh, and also a new footprint, uh, in the Air Force on the Platform 1 contract. Uh, we’ve got now a few developers there in their Agile shop, which was a, a good target for us this year, and so we’re really excited to, to look and expand that work. We’ve also expanded some of our existing programs. We’ve got a bridge for our USAID PPL contract, which is a testament to the continued, uh, critical and high quality support that that team, uh, has provided. Provides, uh, to USAID. So we’ve just, I think we’ve had a good year of, of mix of maintaining old and adding some new. So it’s been, it’s been pretty exciting. 

Aarish Gokaldas: That’s all absolutely exciting and worthy of applause. And I’ll, I’ll add some color to some of what you talked about. So let’s start with. Uh, SBA, the Small Business Administration, uh, so Highlight grew as a woman owned small business, a, uh, small disadvantaged business, and, uh, SBA has been one of our, I’ll say, anchor clients as Highlight has grown and matured. And for those who, who know or don’t know, Highlight is no longer qualifies as a small business. So for all intents and purposes, our, our time at SBA as a prime contractor with highlight is more or less over, but just a testament to what I’ll say is what makes highlight unique is that SBA going forward continues to be a critical customer for us. Uh, it continues to be a customer that we have significant focus that we have significant investment and resources in to ensure their success because, uh, as our, uh, Vice President of Health and Citizen Solutions says, Leah Malakou, Uh, we were making a difference. We are making an actual difference with the work that we’re doing within SBA. Uh, we are helping small business owners stay on their feet. We’re helping individuals stay in business after either an economic or a climate disaster. And these are things that are having real world, uh, implications. Uh, and so there’s a great deal of pride within Highlight. Highlight. And it has nothing to do with whether we are the prior contractor or the subcontractor. So these wins are significant beyond just the revenue that they bring in. And Ashley, you referenced the ITSC contract, which is another program where we get to expand our services to SBA. So we just continue to, you know, be really proud with, with the work that we deliver there. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. Those in the USAID contracts, I think really just speak to, The mission alignment we have with our customers, right. With, you know, we obviously have our, our areas of capability and expertise that we’re trying to grow, but I think, you know, the focus on enabling the citizen, right. Is true across so many of our contracts and really. You know, court, our mission values here. So it’s great to see us continue to expand those footprints.

Aarish Gokaldas: Exactly. And jumping over to the platform, one work that you spoke of within the air force. We talk about the work that we’re doing with SBA around financial management, the work we’re doing with USAID around procurement support, as well as policy support. There’s obviously a core capability within highlight that’s focused around software development, application services. And DevSecOps. And while we didn’t get into it, one of the key contracts there is within our National Security Solutions Group. And that’s with the U. S. Center for Immigration Services and their SPEED contract and the work that we’re doing there around DevSecOps with these Agile teams. Just huge credit to DHS and USCIS for the model that they operate. It truly is an agile development model where teams spin up to address an application, a portal, a website, and then spin down. And it is a model that I believe other customers could benefit from implementing. And frankly, it’s one that Platform. One, I believe, also utilizes. To great benefit. Uh, so it’s an analogous capability that I think we’re able to come in and hit the ground running without too much, uh, too much of a learning curve. So it’s an exciting, exciting one to, to grow into looking ahead. 

Ashley Nichols: It’s definitely a model that we’re seeing in a lot of other customers and being in that space now, right. As you know, one of the great examples of how that works effectively in the federal government, um, definitely gives us an understanding in helping it. Other customers stand up those kinds of programs. And, you know, there’s a, some directives, if not official, unofficial in other large, especially national security agencies to get away from these behemoth enterprise programs with the vendor lock in to, especially around systems development to absorb more of this model where they have multiple contractors, um, providing these critical services, um, But gives them the flexibility to flex up and down based on the needs of what’s in their portfolio at that time. So it’s definitely a sort of a, the lessons learned that we’re taking into help other customers for sure. 

Aarish Gokaldas: For sure. And, and to that point, you know, even as we grow into a large business and start competing against some of those larger organizations who tend to benefit from some of the vendor lock in, we continue to, uh, I’ll say, uh, evangelize and proselytize the benefits of. You know, some of these agile development teams, paired programming, uh, and software factories where we’re bringing in, uh, developers, not just from other industry partners, but also from the government and getting them trained up to, to not only develop a stronger sales cut, but also to eventually manage their own applications. So as we, as we look further in 2023, there’s obviously the contract awards. What about some of the industry recognitions and the industry accolades, uh, that, that you’ve seen come through for highlight? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, we’ve, you know, we did, uh, well with the best places to work, uh, coming in, you know, they, they close them out the every year. So these are for 22, but, um, we were made the list for best places for millennials to work, uh, best places for technology for small and medium sized companies. Uh, one of the best places for women and then just overall one of the best medium sized workplaces. You know, that is something that we really consciously focused on, right? As we talk about changes that we have made to make Highlight the kind of place that people want to work, that your work is valued both from the standpoint on the contract, but just as a contributor to, you know, the overall organization. Um, And in addition to sort of corporate recognition, we also have, uh, had a number of individuals that were recognized this year. Um, Fiona, who is our head of HR, was recognized by her professional association for a rising star award. And we had For folks nominated for pinnacle awards this year, which was more than I think almost anybody else at that pinnacle awards that I saw and really sort of highlights first foray there. So we were all really pleased to be nominated there and, you know, look forward to. Making an entry again in the next year or so. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and, uh, regarding the pinnacle award. So that was sponsored by one of our industry partners, Washington executive, uh, and we were obviously honored to be nominated and, uh, appreciative of that recognition that four of our leaders were, uh, were nominated as finalists and going back to your, uh, Your point about the the industry recognitions that were for best places to work for Millennials for women, best medium sized workplace for for technology. I think a lot of this gets into what matters, right? The core values within highlight technologies earlier this year. I had the pleasure of attending an employee ownership conference. Along with a couple of other individuals. And one of the keynote speakers was an individual by the name of Smiley Pazlowski. Uh, inspire smiley is a recognized leader around, uh, multi generational workforce engagement, uh, specifically around Gen Z. And one of the things that he talked about is companies need to start looking past diversity, equity inclusion. That’s that’s no longer enough. Obviously, D. E. And D. E. I. Has been a huge point of emphasis over the past five years. Uh, for, for companies, especially companies within the federal defense industrial base, uh, and I’m proud to say that that highlight has always been, I will say, a pioneer in that, in that sense, with respect to our diverse workforce and our statistics absolutely back that up. But what Smiley said, and rightly so, I believe, is that. You also have to go be along inclusion to add belonging your employees need to belong and and he stated a quote that I’ll paraphrase here. Diversity is having a seat at the table inclusion. Is being able to offer your voice and belonging is ensuring that your voice is being heard and everything that he talked about with respect to how to transform a company to get from inclusion to belonging. I’m thrilled to say, and with a little bit of, you know, maybe bragging is that Highlight takes the time to do a lot of the things there, right. To ensure that our employees are being listened to. get into some of the changes that have happened internally, I hope everyone will recognize that. That those are a direct result of our employees being comfortable enough to tell us these areas can be better. And we took that to heart. Um, and to ensure that, that as an employee on company, right. Belonging is everyone’s job. It’s not just HR’s job. It’s not just the CEO’s job. Uh, and that there’s no such thing as culture fit. Uh, the culture is constantly evolving. We’re not hiring for somebody to come in to the culture that is static within highlight, we’re looking at them to come in and inform and evolve it. And this is a long winded way to say that. I think that the time and effort that we put in to caring for our employees, ensuring and ensuring that they feel comfortable voicing their opinion and knowing that they’re going to be heard. I believe translates into some of the recognition that we’ve seen within, for example, best places to work. That is entirely an employee driven survey. There’s nothing that I can say to make that happen. It is all of our employees that are responding to a survey that determines whether we make it on that list or not. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. And. I’m going to use that as a gentle segue into another thing that, you know, we spent a lot of time on in 23 was the ESOP itself and rolling it out. You know, we became a hundred percent employee owned just at the beginning of 23, right? So this is our, our first year in figuring out what that means for us, not just as a business entity, but as like a corporate citizen entity and create, creating that sense of belonging and. Making sure that our employees and prospective employees understand the value of that program. Um, for them, you know, while they’re here, the benefits in terms of, you know, additional retirement benefits and what it means to be an employee owner, and then really living by that, right. With the engagement and the levels of which we are drawing folks in across the board. I mean, I think this year has also seen us expand engagement with our Employee focus groups with, um, our social committees, you know, it, you know, in all the ways that we. Gather people together, um, drawing more people into even the business development process, right? And, you know, just really reaching across the entire spectrum of our employee group and not just depending on, you know, the same small groups that we go to, I think really, I hope adds to that, you know, sense of belonging and employee ownership.

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. And on the topic of employee ownership, I’ve been with companies that have been partially employee owned. And highlight is the first one that I’ve joined. That’s 100 percent employee owned. And as you stated, that was a change that was made last year, much to the credit of the founder, Rebecca Andino, to go that route. And certainly, 100 percent employee owned company is a rare breed within the federal contracting space. There aren’t Many of us there we’re, we’re, we’re growing in number because I think both industry executives are starting to see the benefit of converting to employee owned versus going through a standard acquisition by a PE or a strategic. Um, but also there’s a greater tangible benefit to the employees, as you mentioned, with an additional retirement benefit and to our clients, there’s a higher rate of retention. Um, so there’s a better level of productivity. Uh, and so in the end, uh, it’s, it’s really a win, win, win. But one of the things that I think has truly been eye opening for me is really how it is this additional layer of benefit on top of, you know, compensation, bonus. Benefits and 401k. This is an additional leg on that stool. Um, and so it’s really exciting when you look at 2023, I can say that we have 61 highlight employees who have now become employee owners and in 2024, hopefully that number will grow and double in size. Uh, and, and Ashley, while we’re on this topic, I think it’s a great opportunity to talk about some of the. Internal changes that have been made, uh, that I’m really proud of. Scoop my question. And, and so, uh, certainly the ESOP was an introduction, uh, introduced last year. Um, but we’re starting to see it go up with respect, not just to the number of employees growing within the employee ownership stable, but also with respect to the stock price going up this year. Um, was obviously a benefit to all of the, of the shareholders. Um, but in addition, you know, we talked about that, uh, that element of belonging and knowing that employees are listened to. So we’ve got what I believe is an above industry average 401k plan. With employee match our employees provided that feedback that while the 401k is good the Vesting schedule frankly sucks And so we took that under consideration. We looked at options And we updated the plan effective next year where our 401k will now vest 100 on day one So there is no longer a three year period vesting period. It is in fact immediate So that’s one concern that we’ve been able to address Um, a second one was, was around parental leave and we, we’ve had a parental leave policy for several years and a handful of employees or several employees, I don’t know the total number, uh, came forward and said the parental leave policy is good, um, but we think it could be better. And we think it could be above industry average. And so what we did was we increased our parental leave policy, uh, up to four weeks. And that is on top of whatever the state that the employee resides in also offers. And we have employees in 32 states, 32 states around the country. So each, each, each state has a different set of regulations. But for an employee, it’s a minimum of four weeks if their state offers nothing else. Uh, and then that goes to that element of, uh, are we listening to our employees? Yes. Uh, and, and frankly, are our employees comfortable enough to come out and voice their concerns? And I believe the answer is yes. Yep. And I’ll say on top of that, there’s a lot of exciting changes coming in 2024, uh, that I can’t speak to yet. Uh, but certainly you can, you can definitely expect that our, our ESOP program will improve. Yep. Our benefits program will improve and our professional development guidance and roadmap for our employees will also be improving in the next year. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Uh, so we are a company who’s always of the belief that we can do better. And we’re constantly evolving and, and hopefully our, our current employees and our clients on the outside see that. 

Ashley Nichols: All right, folks, just to hear that everyone stay tuned in 2024 for new and exciting announcements, right? It’s on the record. 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. Absolutely. 

Ashley Nichols: And I want to add one more thing because I’m about to ask you some questions about 24. Um, uh, but before we do that, I also, you know, can’t, uh, understate the how well we, we continue. We got a recent barrage of new CPARs all at exceptional. I think our average CPAR rate is now well above four across all of our programs. And, um, I just, I don’t want 23 to pass without, you know, acknowledging that. Just the high, high level of performance we’re getting across our programs. And that is really down to a T to every person on that program, right? That’s not a management only situation. That’s that only comes from everybody just bringing, you know. Everything they’ve got to the programs. And, you know, we’re just so, so, so grateful for that. Um, and also before we switch to 24, we’ve had some organizational changes this year, one obvious one with, you know, the, you know, the addition of yourself at, uh, CEO, uh, we added our new, uh, Director of Technology and Innovation, Jim Eselgroth . Two new capture managers. Um, and we have realigned, uh, from being completely, like, capabilities focused. We were previously mission, uh, services and digital government services. And now we have pivoted to be a bit more customer aligned for our national security solutions. Um, and, uh, our health and citizen, uh, Solutions as well. Do you want to talk a little bit about that realignment and why you thought it was important to go that way? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Absolutely. And actually, in order to talk about that, I’m going to back it up and talk, talk first about my joining highlight as you reference. So I’m actually highlight in July of this year. So I’m six months in now, actually. So it’s, it’s been, it’s been half a year. Uh, and it’s been, uh, it’s been awesome, right? Um, but coming in, one of the things that I looked at was the organization. And in talking with the board and talking with Rebecca, one of the things that I was struck by was the level of maturity with the infrastructure that Highlight had. Uh, a full back office, right? Complete with the finance, recruiting, accounting, marketing, HR, HR. And business development, it had a, a, a back office infrastructure that was already built to scale. And for someone looking to come in and see, you know, like I could not be handed a better gift. Um, but in talking with Rebecca and the board, I said, well, the one thing that I’m not seeing here is a, a tech and innovation office, a commitment to IRAD. And again, to the credit of the team in place. Uh, she said, we actually already have a plan to go out and identify and hire a director and this was something that was actually put forward by, you know, Ashley, our head of, our head of BD, as well as Kevin Long, our head of, uh, Digital government at the time. So this was something that that you guys were already on top of. And it was again, it was comforting for me to know that I was coming into a leadership team that was already thinking about the same things that I was thinking about. And so Rebecca to acquit allowed me to come in and have a voice in terms of who we brought in to serve as that director of technology innovation. And as you mentioned, we brought in Jim Eselgroth , who’s been in for about four months now and has moved at lightning speed to stand up this office, this office, as well as Edgeworks, which is our innovation lab. But now that we have this lab in place and this tech and innovation office, this is ideally where our technical capabilities should align. And what it does is it frees up our previously mission solutions and digital government folks. To focus exclusively on their clients, knowing that they have the support from tech innovation and Edward Edgeworks to bring all the highlight capabilities to bear. So for health and citizen solutions, it allows them to focus on those health and civilian agencies. And then on the national security solutions, it frees Kevin long up the head of, uh, NSS to explore and focus around the department of defense, our key customers like army, uh, as well as. Air Force, Homeland Security and finally the Intel community. And so it allows them greater capacity and frankly, a greater cross collaboration capability.

Ashley Nichols: Absolutely. Um, so before we move to 24, any personal, uh, highlights stand out for you for 23? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Oh man. So there, there’s, there’s, there’s definitely a few, right? You’ve BDUNs and, and those are near and dear to my heart, given my growth background. But frankly, you know, it’s been just the opportunity to, um, get involved in all of the various community give back programs, right? Uh, and that’s one of the things that highlight, you know, not only Walks to Walk, but Talks to Talk. Um, and I’ll just give a recent example, because there are numerous to talk through, but, uh, there’s an organization called Echo. Uh, which employs individuals with disabilities to, uh, uh, uh, essentially, uh, they, they have several lines, right? One is a bakery, which they call the Echo Barkery, where they produce handcrafted dog treats, dog biscuits. Uh, but we actually engage them to build out our holiday gift boxes for all of our remote, remote employees. And these were beautiful, uh, boxes with, you know, uh, custom made, echo made candles, as well as other, you know, really nice touches. Uh, they were all beautifully boxed up and, and sent out. Um, and so that was, that was a great experience to work with them on that. But the other element to this is that, uh, highlight was we had the privilege to actually go and volunteer at their holiday party. And going out and I wouldn’t even say volunteer because we ended up partying with them Uh to the point that my sister was in town. I was able to rick her She was on the dance floor the entire time dancing Um with with the attendees doing the cuban shuffle with them Uh, I was at the ping pong table, uh playing table tennis with with them With a bunch of the individuals and then we had a chance to, you know, serve lunch to them and, and, and, and staff, the cookie decoration, but, uh, everyone was in such high spirits. It was, it was absolutely one of the, the, the key, key highlights for me. Um, I’ll, I’ll ask you the same question, actually, for, for 2023. 

Ashley Nichols: Um, yeah, so being the old timer, uh, highlight old timer in this, uh, conversation, uh, you know, this. Uh, was basically my sixth year at Highlight and obviously marked, uh, a big year of change. And you know, having, you know, been here going from like, uh, 25 million company, you know, to a large business, um, I think the most exciting thing for me is probably been this pivot. I always call it highlight 2. 0, right? Which is, you know, just the, the next in our evolution, um, in our space and everything that that brought, you know, from our new leadership, from our new team members, you know, the renewed. Kind of energy, you know, around, you know, not just where we’ve been, but where we want to go, uh, I think has been the most exciting part for me, you know, the increase in our philanthropic, you know, engagement. That now extends beyond just sort of, you know, philanthropic activities, but to partnering with the Tommy Nobis Center in actually both business and social, you know, uh, social causes, right, to sort of, you know, You know, like live what we espouse, right? Which is that, you know, you know, yes, we’re a business and we’re here to make money and to succeed as a business, but, but also to be a good corporate citizen. And the 2 do not at all, you know, they’re not mutually exclusive. And in fact, can be fundamentally enhanced. By those engagements. So, uh, you know Highlight 2. 0 kind of across the board is what i’m going to take away as my my personal highlight for the year Um, yeah, and for for what what it brings for 24 

Aarish Gokaldas: and and that’s a perfect segue And I think what I like to say is right do do good as you do. Well, um, and they’re not actually exclusive We can we can make money while also people, right? And having positive impacts. Um, so with that, actually, when you talked about things like the Tommy Novus Center and our, our, our engages with them going into next year, what are, what are the things that you’re looking forward to most in 2020? 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah. 2024, a lot going on, a lot happening. Uh, you know, obviously we’ve got some new partnerships. Um, one Novus Center and that one is, you know, signed and sealed. So I can talk about that. We have some new, um, burgeoning partnership relationships with that. I will talk more about in 24 as well. That’s my teaser. Uh, as soon as we get, uh, the, the, the, the ink dried on some of those agreements, um, But I think there’s going to be a lot of continued, uh, GWAC activity in 2024, right? NASA Soup, um, Army I TES 4 should come out at the end of that year that, um, are not only, you know, critical to a company, but they also offer, I think, access into some new customer spaces, um, and, uh, just, you know, being able to bring the highlights. Branding capabilities into some new spaces through these new GWACs, and so I’m excited about that. Um, and diving into, uh, the alternative procurement world, and when I say that, I mean like CBRS and OTAs. Um, You know, BAA is Broad Agency Announcements, things where we’re really going to be able to leverage what Jim and the team do with Edgeworks, right? Um, and bring some innovative thinking, some R& D type engagements, uh, into our existing and new customer spaces. And just to see what the lab does, what they decide to focus on, we obviously have some, some initial projects that we’ve been focusing on, uh, that, you know, are sort of legacy that brought into, uh, you know, that we were already working on before Jim came on board. But, uh, you know, his engagement across the organization to bubble up important innovation from across the workforce. Uh, I’m really excited to see what kind of ideas, uh, our teams are bringing for both their customers or just, you know, speculative, uh, for new customers. Um, and one of those projects that was already underway was a, you know, something we developed for an army customer that we, you know, evolved out into a broader offering called Atlas, which is really around software, uh, and asset management, which Is a continued challenge, especially across the D. O. D. You hear about it, you know, from the D. O. D. C. I. O. Down to army C. I. O. S. to our individual customers and, you know, we have. Solved it to a degree for 1 customer. We really want to roll it out and meet those needs across the customer. So really getting Atlas some traction and and helping D. O. D. solve, you know, really big known challenges is some of the things that I’m looking forward to in 24. So now I’m going to flip it to you. 

Aarish Gokaldas: I’m gonna, I’m gonna run with the offerings and I’ll add one more, but I’ll talk through the offerings. You talked about Atlas. I’m going to talk about a second one called mission at scale. And that’s one that, that when I came on day one, uh, that was one that I was immediately in love with. And, uh, folks who either follow me on LinkedIn or see me in my LinkedIn posts know that I put this, Mysterious hashtag at the end of most of my posts, uh, which is five 50 and seven. And, and for anybody that’s listening, you now get to listen to. The, the story behind that hashtag, uh, in 2020, uh, I mentioned our commitment to small business administration, um, today, but in 2020, uh, highlight was selected to manage the oversight of the paycheck protection program, PPP. Uh, we received a call from the contracting officer on a Friday. And they asked us how long we could get them, how long it would take us to get 500 resumes. To them for this program, and we said 30 days, which was an aggressive timeline. We thought they responded back saying, okay, you have seven days. And so over the course of the next seven days, we worked, we toiled. And I say we in a very loose sense because I was not on the timeline at this time. So I take zero credit for this, Ashley was, um, but in seven days, we handed over 550 viable resumes. To the customer, uh, for the PPP program. And how can I say that it was viable? Because in 30 days, we had 500 employees on contract seated, supporting the government. So this type of staffing excellence does not happen. By chance that happens through a very, um, very mature and very established process that encompasses not just recruiting, um, not just program management, but it encompasses all aspects of, I’ll say, the PMBOK. It covers all aspects of human centered design in terms of how we operate and how we do it, and it gets into the broader methodology that highlight has coined highway and so taking this, this capability that we did for. SBA, which resulted in us bringing in 3, 000 loan officers in three months to support the PPP program and applying that to other large scale staff augmentation projects is how Mission Net Scale, uh, originated. And we have that in place, uh, and, and it’s one that I believe is, is absolutely not just a game changer for, for us, but absolutely is a potential game changer for our clients. Who are looking to not just scale large programs, but to scale quickly and effectively. Uh, so just an extension along the offerings there. 

Ashley Nichols: Uh, and did you want to talk a little bit about ESOP happening? 

Aarish Gokaldas: I do. I do. That’s the, thank you. Absolutely. That’s the next thing that I’m excited about is we talked about ESOP, uh, and the, the lack of the dearth of a hundred percent. ESOP companies that are federally focused, entirely federally focused. Um, I think if you’re to look at across the entire contractor landscape, probably less than 10 percent of those companies are ESOP in some form or fashion. Fewer are 100%. Um, but that said, the government is starting to recognize the value of ESOPs supporting them. And I already talked about some of the benefits, the intangible benefits that come with ESOPs that have been statistically demonstrated. Through higher retention, um, uh, greater level of productivity because of the years of experience in a role, uh, and, uh, a reduced need to have a reduced turnaround time of vacancies, uh, as well as, um, a reduced. Uh, tied to scale, uh, um, uh, to speed because of the fact that we’ve got custom, uh, employees on, on site in place already, um, the government has started to recognize the value, uh, in 2021, they initiated a pilot within the NDAA, uh, language that allows DOD clients to award any sole source capacity. Follow on contracts to a hundred percent employee owned companies. Again, a hundred percent employee owned, not partial employee owned. Uh, and this year, uh, the NDA language was just released. They have continued that pilot. They’ve expanded the pilot in 2021. It was nine. Proofs of concept, it’s now been expanded to 18 projects and it’s been extended from a five year test phase, pilot phase, to eight years. So I think it’s clear to say that the first pilot was a success such that it’s now being expanded. Still focused around the DOD, although now it’s been modified that they can use GSA vehicles. And, and I think it’s, it’s a huge win for, uh, ESOP companies. It’s a great signal to the value that, um, the government is starting to see in what ESOPs can bring and the benefit that it brings to their employees, right? Uh, both the, the financial as well as the non financial and going forward in 2024, we’re going to see that program grow and. Over time, it’s my hope that that will expand beyond DoD into not just other elements of the Intel community, uh, homeland security, but also out into FedSiv, uh, as well as, uh, health.

Ashley Nichols: Absolutely. All right. Well, we’re coming up on the end here. So I think we talked a good amount about what we’re looking forward to in 24. Um, so since this is the highlight cast, I have to ask you, what was your favorite highlight cast episode from the past year? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Good question. Uh, so you talked about Atlas and I, I am a huge fan of, of the, the tool that the army enterprise cloud team built the highlight enterprise cloud team built as well as what, what, what has now become Atlas. And I believe that, um, uh, it is an, it is a challenge. Asset management is a challenge. That is starting to come into the forefront, uh, for all agencies in the federal government because of the expansion of, uh, uh, technology, right? Across the board, cloud AI, DevSecOps, to be able to provide a hundred percent visibility and to also start to automate the acquisition of software is, is I think a challenge, uh, that, that has not been addressed up till now. And I believe Atlas. Has the potential to do that, uh, both within the D O D as well as across the board to D H, uh, Homeland Security, uh, Intel community, as well as the Fed Civ markets. Uh, so a long winded way to say that the asset management podcast, uh, hosted by one Ashley Nichols, uh, and with guests. Speaker Sarah Dreyer was my favorite. 

Ashley Nichols: Yeah, I actually, actually really liked that one too. Not just cause I was in it, but just because the perspective, you know, we, you know, got to really talk to the people in the programs doing the work there. So I, I enjoyed hosting that one and having that team, um, on there. I also, uh, enjoyed the ESOP podcast, you know, where, you know, you were talking to, I can’t remember your guest name, but you know, just, you know, You’re talking more about what it means to be in ESOP and, you know, the, the community of ESOPs that are out there, the benefits. Um, uh, so I thought that was just a good one because there’s, you know, a lot of folks don’t really know what it means to be one or be part of one. And so I’m going to go with, you know, since I can’t choose my own, uh, I’m going to go with the ESOP, uh, the ESOP one. 

Aarish Gokaldas: I love it. I think it was a great one too. And then look for me personally, it’s been, it’s been wonderful to actually meet other Uh, federal, federally focused ESOPs and see how they’re seeing the same benefits of ESOP, but also understanding the, some of the challenges that they’re facing, um, that, that are in line with ours. Um, but, but Ashley, this has been a wonderful 2023. It’s been a pleasure to, to, to go through it, uh, go through the mud with you for the last six months. Uh, I am very excited for, uh, Uh, the, the next year and what it will bring for highlight for our clients. Uh, and for our employee owners, if, if I, I wish I thought to bring champagne, we could have raised a glass to the 2023, but this is a podcast. I could have also lied and said that I have one, but, uh, thank you for joining me. 

Ashley Nichols: Yep. Thanks for having me. And, uh, happy 2024. I’m not sure when this is posted, but how about happy new year? 

Aarish Gokaldas: Yes. Yeah. Happy, happy new year. I hope everybody has a wonderful December. Happy new year. And. Uh, happy new year and we look forward to speaking with you in 2024. Thank you for listening to highlight cast to keep up to date with highlights, news and activities. Uh, please follow us on LinkedIn and visit us at www. highlighttech. com. And be sure to tune in to our next episode, 

 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.