Don Shin has grown a thriving web and mobile development agency since his late ‘90s dorm room days at Duke University, with clients like Forbes, Martha Stewart and the local startup MedFusion.
October 27, 2015
This Durham Dev Shop is U.S. Minority Technology Firm of the Year
CrossComm takes home U.S. Department of Commerce award after earning certification as an minority business enterprise
And until a year ago, he’s done it without touting his minority race.
More recently, the Austin-based Korean American president and chairman of Durham-headquartered CrossComm has experienced a mind-shift. And a new marketing effort around his company’s minority ownership has already won CrossComm the national title of 2015 Minority Technology Firm of the Year. He accepted the award in San Diego last week, returning a couple days later to celebrate the win with his eight-person agency in American Underground.
Prior to 2015, Shin had the mindset of many minority entrepreneurs—he wanted to prove his company’s wherewithal without focusing on his ethnicity. But the recent influx of reporting about the disparities in income and executive positions held by minorities compelled him to take a leadership role in a solution.
“The older I get, the more I realize that it takes a movement and society as a whole to be concerned about why these institutional inequities exist and how do we solve them,” Shin says. “I needed to be more involved and engaged.”
CrossComm started by publishing on its website a diversity pledge and voluntary report on the makeup of its workforce, typically only a federal requirement for firms larger than 100 workers. According to CrossComm CEO Justin Thomas, the report proves the commitment to having a diverse workforce “is not just lip service.”
Then, Thomas and Shin began working with the local chapter of U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency in hopes of earning certification as a minority-owned business. That gets companies part of a network to learn from, contribute to and win new work.
The MBDA in Raleigh is one of 44 programs set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1967. Since 2004, it has been housed within a 30-year-old nonprofit called the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development, which also operates a women’s entrepreneurship program. Its director Dan Stafford has been with the program through various iterations over the past 30 years.
The agency doesn’t certify businesses itself, but it provides coaching and assistance to help companies learn about the various certifications and how to apply. It also assists with marketing opportunities, matchmaking with potential customers and networking.
According to Stafford, there are several certifications for minority businesses, and they range in their requirements. There are federal certifications that can help win U.S. government contracts and others tied to state or local municipal work. There’s a certification specific to woman-owned business from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. There are several private sector certifications.
Typical requirements beyond providing proof of citizenship and ethnicity, gender and racial background and the legal structure of the business are financial statements, a record of the company’s past performance, and referrals from banks, suppliers, vendors and customers.
CrossComm applied to the Carolinas-Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council, a private sector certification for minority business enterprises (MBEs), in 2014. Shin and Thomas hoped to forge relationships with Fortune 500 and 1000 firms with supplier diversity programs, continuing a growth path that accelerated when Thomas was appointed CEO in 2013.
What they didn’t anticipate was the award nomination.
Each year, Stafford gets to nominate North Carolina MBEs in each of the council’s 10 business categories for the annual U.S. Department of Commerce awards that happen during Minority Enterprise Development Week. He’s had a few big wins in recent years—a southeastern North Carolina construction firm called Metcon Inc. won in 2011 and 2013 and has since expanded to Raleigh, South Carolina and Virginia through joint partnerships with larger general contractors (which likely need to meet supplier diversity requirements).
He nominated CrossComm due to its “perseverance throughout economic downturns and an ever-changing technology landscape.” Shin started the business in 1998 after building a website for the Duke Eye Center (where he was supposed to be an opthalmology intern). CrossComm survived the dotcom era in the early 2000s, the recession in 2009 and Shin’s moves to New York and then Austin, despite the company’s strong presence in Durham. It also evolved from building basic websites to iPhone apps to MedFusion’s first Apple Watch app earlier this year.
Shin’s experience with the development council so far has been fruitful. He was invited to a networking event in San Diego with the supplier diversity officers of major technology firms—from Apple to Oracle to SAS. And Thomas expects the award to open the floodgates, so to speak.
But there’s still work to be done. CrossComm employs just one woman today, and 57 percent of its workforce is white. Both men hope to build an even more diverse team as the company takes advantage of its new title and accolade. They also hope to engage with other minority-owned and diverse businesses through the network provided by the Council.
“We’re still learning—we want to get better,” Thomas says. “It makes us a better business if we can bring in fresh perspectives. That’s why people hire us.”