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Alex Gallo: Coming to Public Service

My VMM story begins on the 2nd of June 2001. I was standing outside of the Michie Stadium at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The lore at West Point is if it rains on your graduation day, your class is going to war. It not only rained; it absolutely poured down. 3 ½ months later, 9/11 occurred. And not only was my West Point class at war – but also the nation.

I served as an Infantry officer in combat in Iraq in the years that followed 9/11. As I returned back to the United States from that experience, I recognized we needed to engage our broader society in service to the nation.

In the years that followed my military service, it became my mission to engage our broader country and society in solving the great challenges of our time.

Following serving as a professor at West Point and a staffer on the Hill, I co-founded a non-profit called the Common Mission Project, which is focused on solving critical public problems through an innovation and entrepreneurship program called Hacking for Defense (H4D).

H4D brings together the government, universities, and the private sector around these critical public problems – introducing student talent and entrepreneurs to national service and creating dual-use start-ups focused on solving public problems.

Today, at NobleReach, my objective is to help further scale tech and talent programs to continue to solve the great challenges of our time.

My career in public service spans over 40 years. It started out of necessity as opposed to a sense of patriotism. I was born and raised in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Attending college for children in my neighborhood was a rarity.  My “destiny” was to join one of New York’s construction trade unions as was the norm for my father, uncles, and grandfather.

I wanted to go to college. My parents were emotionally supportive but did not have the resources. Their hope was that I could find a way to go through scholarships, etc. After a long search, I came across a program sponsored by the United States Navy – the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate Program. Through enrollment in a four-year science or engineering degree and agreeing to ~ 7 years of service as an officer onboard a nuclear submarine, the Navy would cover tuition and books. An answer to my problem had been found.

During my service, I came to appreciate how much members of the Armed Forces, and their families, sacrifice to protect and serve our Nation. I was hooked. This was truly mission oriented work.

After my obligation ended, I transitioned to working for the Department of the Navy, and later the Department of Defense, as a civil servant. I worked on engineering problems that were complex and key to national defense. It was extremely satisfying.

After promotion to the Senior Executive Service, my perspective on public service broadened and deepened.  I had the privilege to testify in front of Congress multiple times, personally brief POTUS many times and work on seminal policy decisions such as veteran’s homelessness, women serving onboard Navy ships and effective treatments for PTSD. I even got to spend time in Afghanistan to create plans to restructure their banking system.

Those are 40 years I would not trade for anything. I had the privilege to work with people that were dedicated to our Nation and worked, for the most part, without fanfare and recognition. They are true patriots.

By the way, I did not escape working in the building trades. Every college break, you would find me on a NYC building site working by the side of my grandfather, a master mason, carrying bricks and mixing cement.

Toni Townes-Whitley’s journey from Princeton to Peace Corps to corporate consultant shows that a mission-driven career can yield skills that employers cherish.

The people best suited to thrive in the face of uncertainty and tackle large systemic problems are those whose experience draws from diverse perspectives. While the national, cultural, ethnic, and social forces that have shaped you are determined by chance at birth, professional diversity is largely an individual choice shaped by one’s passions and the knowledge attained across different industries and sectors.

Case and point: Toni Townes-Whitley, CEO of SAIC, which provides engineering, digital, artificial intelligence and mission solutions across the defense, space, civilian and intelligence markets.

My career was built along the premise that public and private-sector work would allow me to see where I could make a difference—and to apply technology to do so.
Toni Townes-Whitley


Seeing Government from the Inside
“I’m a military brat, so I’ve been moving around my whole life,” she says. “I think that really shaped how my professional life unfolded.” Townes-Whitley, who now sits on the boards of organizations such as NASDAQ, PNC, United Way Worldwide, and Johns Hopkins Medicine, recalls her professional beginnings. “When I graduated from Princeton with an economics degree, at a time when everyone who graduated was going to graduate school, I decided to join the Peace Corps, in hopes that I could apply my economics and business principles right there on the ground. I went to several countries along the equator and started building schools, learning different cultures, and exposing myself to new situations and experiences. And when I came back from the Peace Corps I decided that I wanted to join the government. I went right into the GAO—the Government Accounting Office, which has since been renamed—and I started working with three- and four-star officers in the military and State Department trying to find fraud, waste, and abuse across the government. It was a great way to see the government from the inside.”

She goes on to say, “My next move was over to the private sector into Arthur Andersen as a tech consultant and then later to Microsoft with the goal of running their public-sector technology interface on a global scale. And I was able to see how the private sector really interacts with the state and federal governments in regards to how new and emerging technologies shape and can address societal and national challenges. For example, we had many discussions on issues of responsible AI, Microsoft’s role in the healthcare industry as a HIPAA-certified platform, and the role of technology in educational equity. The company really began to focus on the UN sustainable development goals and ESG targets while working with the government and trying to understand the intersection of civics and technology. And in some cases, I actually felt like I was working for the DoD, as we were shaping policy as technologists that the government was not equipped to easily understand.”

The Value of Professional “Cross-Training”
Townes-Whitley’s greatest piece of advice: “Find the diagonal. The broader and more diverse your scatter plot, the better your regression line is in terms of your own career. For me, I created a pretty broad scatter plot. I did public- and private-sector work, and I found that the learnings are important to apply across the two. Look for the vertical opportunities to learn something new. And then look to the horizontal opportunities to apply what you’ve learned. I think we’ve got to break down the construct that ‘Oh, I’m doing A or B.’ To find the diagonal—to really walk this critical path of developing skills and experiences, you have to extend your curiosity into different areas.”

​​A lifelong hooper, Townes-Whitley is quick to make a basketball analogy about her career. “Be a triple-threat athlete. In basketball, the most valuable player on the court for any team is the player that can shoot, dribble, and pass. The triple threat. And I realized the importance of this coming out of Princeton. When I joined tech, it was the economics background and the regressions and the econometrics models that led me to see how to define the need in business innovations. And when you consider that, growing up as a kid in a public-sector family, I had this idea of volunteerism and making a difference ingrained in me. And my career was built along the premise that public and private-sector work would allow me to see where I could make a difference—and to apply technology to do so.”

One final piece of advice from Townes-Whitley—there’s no dichotomy between purpose and profit. She says, “I never felt like I ever had to make a choice between doing good or making money. While my parents were exceptional public servants, I made an amazing amount of money working at Microsoft, and yet it was my most impactful work on the globe in terms of social change. The idea that you can’t make money while making a significant and meaningful change is wrong. And even more so when you have the technology to really scale this change.” Townes-Whitley is a remarkable and shining example of how to develop a skill set to thrive in the Venture Meets Mission ecosystem.

New opportunities are emerging as some traditional nonprofit founders are realizing that to have scalable impact, they must redefine themselves as for-profit ventures to attract the requisite capital and talent, and go from “doing good work” to “transforming industries.”

One such example is Iora Health, a health care company that redesigned primary care to allow patients to better manage their health and navigate the healthcare system. With an idea to tackle the existing barriers and excuses that linger in the healthcare system, Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle cofounded Iora Health in the Boston Area in 2010.

“When I set out to build an organization to transform primary care, I initially thought that as a mission-driven organization, we needed to be a nonprofit,” says Fernandopulle. “So I went to all the usual nonprofit funders and I learned quickly that they were willing to fund studying the problem, but not actually building solutions. I realized that it would take a lot of work to raise tens of thousands of dollars, and I needed a lot more (it turned out we raised over $350 million), and that I needed sustained funding over a decade (really took over eighteen years), and nonprofit funders unfortunately would move on to the next priority too soon even if Iora was successful. So, eventually, I decided it was best to harness capitalism to fund social change by being a for-profit…and it worked.”

Iora focused on patients over the age of sixty-five years who do not have easy access to the healthcare system, and linked each patient with a personal physician and/or health coach. The company used technology to keep the patient and provider in close contact, whether by email, text, or video, in addition to the traditional in-office visits. To keep patients on track with their health goals, it also provided educational offerings and group sessions. Iora was able to use their private-sector capabilities to solve a key public-sector problem. The company’s market success led One Medical to acquire it for $2.1 billion in 2021.

Attractive markets and societal needs are increasingly leading to the creation of mission-driven ventures, where a tighter coupling between purpose and profit is a winning proposition.

 Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, co-founders of Coursera

The education sector is ripe for data-driven innovation. Online learning, or blended learning environments of traditional and digital instruction, has been identified as an area in which disruptive innovation can not only break the cycle of traditional learning models but also open up education to be more accessible, inclusive, and customizable.

Coursera, a massive open online course provider founded in 2012 by Stanford University professors, works with organizations to offer online classes, certifications, and degrees. Coursera has partnered with businesses through corporate e-learning, and governments, and earns revenue through selling certificates that verify successful completion of courses. However, the company subsidizes paid programs if the learner has a financial need, and its courses can also be accessed online for free without the paid certificate.

Coursera, offering over five thousand courses and working with over two hundred universities and companies, went public in 2021 with a valuation of over $4 billion. Coursera is not alone. The education and skills learning sector now has several worthy competitors, including EdX, PluralSight, Linkedin Learning, Udacity, Cloud Academy, Udemy, and SmartUp, that offer compelling alternatives to traditional classroom learning models.

Biotechnology is an area budding with innovation and breakthroughs. One biotech company, founded in 2009 by scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is Ginkgo Bioworks.

Using grants from the National Science Foundation, DARPA, and the Department of Health and Human Services, Ginkgo Bioworks invested in a long-term vision for synthetic biology by developing a specialized capacity of using genetic engineering to produce bacteria with industrial applications. It did so by innovating the traditional method of engaging in organism engineering.

Traditionally, companies searched for genetic DNA sequences from nature to perform particular functions and worked to scale manufacturing when they had the right sequencing of strains. In contrast, Ginkgo Bioworks developed organisms specific to the agriculture, food, health care, and energy sectors, and built specialized foundries to optimize these strains. Their codebase of engineered strains was able to create network effects, as they did not need to code new applications from scratch and could start from their knowledge and relationships among the different strains.

The interesting thing to program in the
21st century isn’t going to be computers—it’s biology.
Tom Knight

Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks

In 2021, Ginkgo Bioworks’ innovative model led the company to go public at a $17.5 billion valuation.

The government is an engine of innovation, having funded much of the R&D for our modern technological marvels. In the book, Venture Meets Mission, we detailed actions that ventures could take to help rebuild trust and create public value by resolving some of the design challenges of government- venture arrangements. With the government increasingly relying on the private sector for technological innovations, trust indeed is a critical first step toward constructing a “Venture Meets Mission” ecosystem. And perhaps even more important is rebuilding trust in our governing institutions and bringing back an optimism in the government as a force for positive change. To begin that journey, the government can take bridging actions that further build upon its shared values with ventures.

Trust is the bedrock of all collaboration. We have a generational opportunity to create the future we want by rebuilding that trust between government, venture, and civil society. Civil society has bounced back from the pandemic with an appetite for mission-driven work but is confronting barriers to action. Ventures have emerged as a willing, yet unguided and uncoordinated force for societal impact. Governments remain politically polarized and limited in their ability to solve society’s most pressing challenges.

For these groups to work together to solve societal problems, trust becomes the bedrock of their collaboration and the enabler of impact. Trust in the government can rally these groups behind a guiding mission; trust in business can facilitate more effective trisectoral collaborations; and trust in civil society can bring talented changemakers into mission-driven work. We need trust to bring us together to meet society’s most pressing problems head-on.

Flock Safety took an interesting path toward constructing an easy button for the government. Founded in 2017, this Atlanta-based technology surveillance company began by selling automated license plate recognition technology to neighborhood associations. These associations, who were trying to maintain the safety of their neighborhoods, found utility in the ability of Flock’s cameras to track vehicles coming in and out of neighborhoods.

Whether for vandalism or theft, Flock’s technology can quickly and objectively identify a suspect’s vehicle—and if a crime does occur, Flock can alert law enforcement. Eventually, the Flock product had utility in other residential and commercial settings, including both schools and businesses. However, they identified the ability of their product to solve a major issue for law enforcement: crime deterrence and response time.

Andreessen Horowitz notes that “the majority of crimes in the U.S. go unresolved” and “only 46% of violent crimes are fully resolved and that number is staggeringly low (17%) for property crime.”

Using the objectivity of their system, Flock could detect and deliver valuable crime leads to local law enforcement officials. For example, after only two months with the Flock system, the police department in Wichita, Kansas, recovered fifty-six stolen license plates and returned $1.1 million in stolen property. Flock’s latest product serves to aid in local law enforcement’s mission even more: a gunshot audio detector.

One of the earliest customers in Flock technologies in Atlanta put it best: “Flock is the single most effective tool we have ever used.” Quite simply, Flock Safety was able to build the government’s easy button by reimagining their product’s usage in the public sector.

Joshua Wilson, a former U.S. Army officer who served two overseas tours in Iraq and is currently senior executive officer of LMI, observes the importance of ventures that are able to build an easy button while working with the government.

The common theme I see with every venture that is able to break through and work with the government is that they are building an easy button—they make government challenges disappear.
Joshua Wilson

President of markets, growth, and technology at LMI; formerly U.S. Army officer

He adds, “As opposed to some private-sector companies, which can get away with delivering value around some niche aspect of a larger problem where the government is still left to figure out how to solve that larger problem, or they offer some incremental cost savings…that
typically just isn’t enough to get them to jump through the hoops of bringing you into the federal ecosystem. Focus on problems that matter. And the easy button here is really unique to this market. The bottom line is not typically the biggest priority. It’s time to impact. You have to look at what the government needs, see what capabilities you are bringing to the table and how you can best meet those needs. And when everyone has the same mission in mind, the easy button approach really becomes a unifying concept to rally behind. Solving the government’s problems is really the biggest driver of who makes it and who doesn’t.”

Trae Stephens recalls the importance of the easy button while working for the government. “We were approached by a company that was offering a product that would save me a whole day of work every week. It would make me 20 percent more productive, and all I had to do was access the software. I pushed and pushed and, finally, there was an email that went out from the tech director that said, ‘Someone please tell Trae to get back in the box.”

Frustrated, Trae eventually left the government to work for Palantir Technologies, a public American software company that specializes in big data analytics. But as Trae moved into Palantir, he remembered the importance of this moment.

“Being able to bring something like that to the government, something that would make the government’s job easier, stuck with me. It became my guiding principle of how to sell products to the government—by having a deep understanding of how the product is being used. It helped clarify the outcomes we were trying to achieve.”

Now, Trae is a partner at Founders Fund, a venture capital firm founded in San Francisco in 2005. Founders Fund was organized by PayPal cofounders Peter Thiel, Ken Howery, and Luke Nosek. With over $11 billion in aggregate capital under management in 2022, Founders Fund has a proven record of investing in companies that have made the government’s job easier.

For example, Founders Fund was the first institutional investor in both SpaceX and Palantir Technologies, which have both grown on their ability to solve key government needs in space and software technologies, respectively. And “building the easy button” for the government remains a key focus of Trae’s approach to government-interfacing ventures.