A ‘friend from the city’ making her mark on government contracting

Homepage of the Friends from the City website.

Steve Kelman reports on a new addition to the cohort of non-traditional government contractors.

Lapedra Tolson is an Air Force veteran who recently transitioned into running a tiny 2-person non-traditional digital IT contracting firm called Friend from the City.

Tolson’s grandfather, who raised her, served as a career Army equipment manager after World War II and then lived near Ft. Bragg, where Tolson grew up. Tolson decided to join the Air Force right out of college because around Ft. Bragg, she saw many strong black women who were “strong and in-charge. It was appealing.” She served for five years doing work related to photography and graphic design (her college major), including as a combat photographer in Iraq. She then worked for a number years in government agencies ranging from DHS to the Office of the Thrift Savings Plan. While she was there, that agency hired 18F to help them with website design, and though 18F Tolson got exposed to digital government. “I didn’t know anything about human-centered design or civic tech or anything like that,” she said.  “But I was intrigued.”

Through a series of introductions, Tolson moved to Agile Six, one of the small non-traditional contractors I have blogged about, to do digital government.  When she joined the firm, Tolson moved to Manhattan because she felt there was more “creative vibrancy” there than in Washington – she had been hoping to work from New York even before the pandemic, and the company was an early adopter of remote work, always having been fully distributed with no offices of its own.

At Agile Six, she worked first on a project for the Department of Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh healthcare center’s website – as a veteran, it was easier to work at the VA -- doing back-end user research for website content. Her second project was for the National Museum of African-American History at the Smithsonian, where the prime contractor was Fearless, another non-traditional firm I have blogged about. Another sub was a non-traditional with another funny name, Kind Systems. Tolson was the team’s only user researcher. (This job description suggests how this once-offbeat job title coming out of commercial IT is making its way into the government mainstream, at least among non-traditional contractors focused on digital services.)

After three years with Agile Six, Tolson has taken a big step. She has ventured out on her own to start a new company -- initially working on weekends on top of her Agile Six day job. She named her company Friends from the City to show a connection with New York – which New Yorkers such as myself always call “the City” (could there be any other?) – and also to signal that in what is often a tough D.C. world, she wanted to be friendly.

“I'm in the City and I want to be able to bring that modern technology from New York, and that whole energy of the city, but I'm still connected to D.C. in my heart and my approach,” Tolson said.  Agile Six has mentored her on ins and outs of government contracting, and gone further than that, awarding her the company’s first two projects as a sub, doing design research for the VA and organizing workshops for the American Board of Family Medicine. Agile Six’s mentorship of Friends in the City is more intimate and friendly than is often seen in the “mentor-protégé” government contracting world. Her company is tiny – she and her spouse are the only employees, and they have two people working as subs to Agile Six.

She said her experiences have taught her about the need for a user-centered approach to government websites: “Government websites have been packed with department-centric, administratively organized, and elected official-centric messaging and visuals. Today, we need to realize that human experiences are at the core of their services.”

Agile Six sees itself as mentoring her in this new world, but they have decided not to make an equity investment in the company. They feel that too many large businesses take an equity stake in small firms and then swallow them up, depriving them of a chance to develop their own personality and approach.

Tolson has not yet bid on work herself, but she is preparing to do so. She serves on the board of the Digital Services Coalition, the association of non-traditional contractors I have written about previously. “Right now I’m dong relationship building, just pretty much just going to other DSC companies, letting them know about our capabilities and how we want, you know, we would like to work together.” Her ability to get started on her own illustrates how the non-traditional contractor community ecosystem is now in a position to help new non-traditional players out.

Tolson believes the government “should ensure human-centered design teams are speaking to all parts of the communities they serve and take a step further by establishing diverse teams of researchers to get all perspectives and to reduce bias -- and that data the government uses reflects an accurate picture of diversity.”

The signature block on Tolson’s email page gives the message, “Let’s  make an impact together.” To me, it is exciting that another person with that mindset is becoming part of our community. Let’s all welcome her.