INTERVIEW

In Conversation: Sky Kelley, Avisare

By Smart City Expo Atlanta
August 24, 2020

Sky Kelley is the founder & CEO of Avisare, which provides sourcing software for government agencies, contractors, and vendors. The technology simplifies and improves the process of finding, bidding, and reporting on government contracts.

In an interview with Smart City Expo Atlanta, Kelley discussed how Avisare empowers small businesses and helps to close the wealth gap. And, she shared ideas for how local governments can improve their processes to give minority-owned small businesses a fair chance to compete for contracting opportunities. Here’s our conversation edited for context and clarity.

Smart City Expo Atlanta: We’re committed to redefining the term “smart” so that equity, humanity, and prosperity are at the heart of building 21st-century cities. Tell us about Avisare’s mission and how you’re making cities smarter?

Sky Kelley: “I designed Avisare to help foster more innovation in the procurement process. I want to make it easier for all sides to connect, to have better data, and to help more small businesses — especially minority and women-owned businesses — grow their revenue through contracting while alleviating inequalities along racial and gender lines. We’re using the concept of smart technology to help people and local economies.”

SCATL: What motivated you to start Avisare?

Kelley: “I’ve always been interested in alleviating wealth and inequality along racial and gender lines. And I found that procurement and entrepreneurship were the best means of addressing the wealth gap. Procurement is a multi-trillion dollar space, so if we can get 2% more of these dollars directed to minority and women-owned businesses, it can make a real impact on the economy and have a reverberating effect in minority communities throughout the country.”

SCATL: You began your career on Wall Street and held executive-level positions at Disney, ESPN, and AT&T. How has your previous work informed the work you’re doing now at Avisare?  

Kelley: “The private sector helped to inform how I work in the public sector. When I worked in these large companies, there were so many opportunities to work with small and start-up businesses. But the real issue for businesses was access, to know about these opportunities to even get into the procurement process. 

So I learned how innovation and procurement work on the private sector side; they’re not as regulated on the government side. I took a lot of these processes and procedures and technical innovations over to the government space — understanding the rules and regulations of what we can and can’t do. But there’s still a lot more that we can do to make that process better.”

SCATL: As an entrepreneur yourself, what’s it like to empower the next generation of small businesses?

Kelley: “I feel a big responsibility and a passion for helping not only the next generation but also the current generation of small businesses. Small businesses are important to the economy; they comprise half of all jobs in the U.S. Now, with the coronavirus, businesses are being decimated on a tragically large level. To have so many eliminated overnight — especially minority-owned businesses — is wiping out future generations of wealth in our community. So it’s important to create new processes and policies, which will help small businesses recover and help so many people who are in need right now.”

SCATL: As you mentioned, the economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Black-owned businesses. One study shows that the number of Black business owners in the U.S. fell by 41% from February to April, compared to 22% overall. As a Black entrepreneur and someone who helps to empower minority-owned small businesses, what are your thoughts on how these businesses can survive?

Kelley: “Many of the policies and processes in place to help small businesses are not effective. Procurement is fraught with lots of issues; there’s fraud in this space. It’s designed to work with large businesses, not small ones. 

With certification, for example, the intent is to help minority and women-owned businesses compete and win more projects. But there are yearlong backlogs in a lot of cities for these businesses to get certified. It’s such a long, comprehensive process, and a lot of it is still done manually. The biggest software provider for diversity certifications in government is a white male-owned business; the hypocrisy of that is astounding!  The RFP process itself is also not designed for small businesses to compete. 

In the innovation space, we come up with new ideas for how to solve big problems. The process should be easier for everyone, especially small businesses that don’t have large teams to handle all of the confusing requirements, the different systems, and deadlines. Cities and states also need to enforce their certification process goals — very few do. And some of these goals are low, 5-10% for minority-owned businesses. We need to do away with good faith efforts.”

SCATL: One of the biggest barriers to innovation in cities is inclusive procurement. How can governments work to ensure more equity in contracting opportunities for minority-owned businesses, including those run by women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and veterans?

Kelley: “I get very frustrated that when people talk about Black-owned businesses in the procurement space, they immediately think of janitorial services. We’re more than janitorial services; we have law firms, financial institutions, and technology companies. And not just IT consulting companies, there’s also the whole tech startup space. So we need to make sure that we include minority-owned businesses in the process for the most lucrative contracts in the most lucrative areas.”

SCATL: Startups and small businesses are finding it difficult to scale their pilots. How can we continue to innovate the procurement process so that it allows for fluid, outcome-based innovation?

Kelley: “With technology, an RFP isn’t always necessary. It’s very subjective in terms of when cities, counties, and states want an RFP for their technology and when they don’t. If it’s truly an innovative solution, you don’t need one. We need people within government who understand technology. For a successful pilot, you must have knowledgeable project managers on the government side. 

You have to be clear on the anticipated outcomes, and what success looks like. And there should be a plan in place beforehand that if the pilot is successful, there’s a specific course of action for what will happen next. How do you transition into a contract? What’s under a master IT services agreement? More people on the procurement side need to understand the rules and regulations for their counties and states, especially for technology.

In addition, what would be helpful is a mechanism to spread the success of a pilot so that other local municipalities know about technologies and can help these start-up companies grow. Companies die because they don’t charge full-price for a pilot, and then how long will it take to get to the next city or county?“

SCATL: Final thoughts?

Kelley: “I’m glad that we’re having a nationwide conversation about racism right now. It needs to be expanded because it’s not just a policing issue. Racism affects every aspect of life. And Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can’t change everything overnight, but we need to fundamentally address the wealth gap in this country and all of the reasons for it and make a change.”

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