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Making design inclusive

Firm focuses on solving challenges for social impact organizations

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Making design inclusive
Kristen Ransom, founder and CEO of IncluDe software development and digital design agency. (Photo: Courtesy of Kristen Ransom)

Kristen Ransom, founder and CEO of IncluDe software design and development agency, was in college studying human factors engineering at Tufts University when she landed an internship at Harley-Davidson motorcycle company. There, she tackled the problem of designing motorcycles to fit women’s bodies.

Author: Sandra LarsonAt a Mass Innovation Nights event in June, Ransom had some extra support from 2-year-old son Pierce and husband Brandon.

“How do you design the footpads and seats for someone five feet tall?” she says, in a recent interview. “Harley-Davidson was very big on sticking with their traditional style — so I became passionate about designing for people left in the margins.”

And in her courses, she kept an eye on problem-solving with a larger social purpose.

“If my assignment was developing a robotic arm, I would think, ‘I want to develop this for someone with muscular dystrophy. What would their needs be?’”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, she spent three years at MITRE Corporation in Bedford, where she worked to improve software used in military and crisis situations. But the urge to start her own business rose to front and center in her mind when she was on maternity leave after the birth of her son Pierce in 2015.

“I had this baby, and I felt I needed to be working,” she recalls. “I love design and I love development, so I took on some freelance projects with people in Roxbury. After a while, people were telling each other about my services. And so I wondered, how can I keep this going after I go back to my job?”

For a year, she continued working the 9-to-5 job while also nurturing IncluDe. In August, 2016, she took a leap, leaving the security of the workplace to focus fully on her own business.

Growing the business

IncluDe, which stands for “inclusive design and development,” aims to serve social impact organizations, solving problems of branding and website presence for nonprofit and philanthropy organizations, churches and small and local businesses.

IncluDe’s team is a diverse group of women and people of color, and clients now range from small startups — many of them minority- and women-owned businesses based in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan — to larger clients such as OneUnited, MassBudget, Tufts and Morehouse College Alumni Association. “It’s run the gamut,” Ransom says.

Ransom has taken a cautious approach to staff growth, with just one part-time employee, who is head of technical support, and a roster of 10 contractors doing sales, project management, design and development.

“Often startups wear themselves down by hiring too quickly, before the business is up to scale,” she says. “I’m trying to test out things with clients … I use a short list of designers and developers. It works really well. We’re tight knit, we’re all part of a team.”

Ransom’s entrepreneurial path was paved in part by participation in local business support programs, including Epicenter Community’s Accelerator program and a MassChallenge boot camp sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation. Early on, IncluDe won a year of free office space in the Fields Corner Business Lab in a competition co-sponsored by Boston Impact Initiative.

With the free office space in the past, Ransom and her team all work remotely now, which keeps costs down.

“The beautiful thing about that is there’s no overhead. It’s about having a lean operation,” she explains. “An office space would be cool, but we find other ways to bond. We go out for lunch or for drinks — but most of my contractors are working mothers as well. I don’t want to try so hard to become like other businesses that I end up tying people to a 9-to-5 schedule.”

Conquering imposter syndrome

Ransom now has a new baby, three-month-old Harrison. In addition to caring for him, she is squeezing in graduate studies in engineering management at Tufts University to add a layer of business expertise on top of her technology and design skills.

This time around, school is more comfortable, she says. As an undergrad, she faced some insecurity coming into a technology program as a woman and as a person of color.

“I definitely struggled at the beginning of school, dealing with imposter syndrome, feeling that I didn’t belong,” she recalls. “I felt I had to prove myself, prove that I made it into Tufts’ engineering program on my own merits, that even though I looked different, I still belonged.”

She found community in the Society of Black Engineers, serving as president of her college chapter, and found her academic footing in design work. “I felt much better when we were doing projects. I could delve in and really get involved,” she says. “I found I wanted something where I could create, all day. In my first 9-to-5 job, I kind of lost sight of that.”

Recently, the entrepreneur has discovered she enjoys motivational speaking. She has told her story at events such as the Next Generation Women of Color Summit and the Blueprint Conference for Girls in Boston, and the Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM Conference in Pennsylvania, helping to put down a ladder for other women and girls.

What’s next?

Having brought some salespeople into IncluDe’s mix and promoted one team member to an executive manager role with project sign-off power, Ransom has created some breathing room to focus on what she as CEO needs to do.

“The smartest decision I’ve made is backing away a little. It’s so easy, when you’re passionate about it, to just go full force and do everything, wear every hat,” she said. “Now I can focus on getting more sales … and looking over our operations and supply chain. My goal is for this business to run without me, like a well-oiled machine.”

One of her visions for IncluDe’s future is to start a nonprofit research and development arm. The R & D would focus on serving underrepresented people, she says, on products that make it easier to develop websites usable by people with special needs, for instance, or that make workplaces better for nursing mothers.

“Every day I come up with five different projects,” she says, “and I want to be able to pursue them.”