Urban Cowboy

Nick Gleason isn't your garden-variety CEO. Sure, he's got an MBA from Harvard, and yeah, he's running an Internet startup. But Gleason's background also includes stints like building houses with Habitat for Humanity and working for the San Francisco Janitor's Union. So the company he cofounded in 1997 bears the imprint of a veteran community activist as well as that of an entrepreneur.

Gleason's company, CitySoft Inc. in Watertown, Mass., does the sort of work you'd expect of a Web design and development outfit. But what makes CitySoft unique is that it actively recruits employees from urban areas like Boston's Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods as well as Harlem and the Bronx. Roughly two-thirds of the company's 40 employees are from urban neighborhoods.

"We go to urban training organizations and say to them, 'Hey, our goal is to hire employees from this neighborhood. Your goal is to place trainees into high-tech jobs,'" says Gleason. "We're perfect partners. We bring resources in terms of software, sponsorship, methodology and knowledge about the skill sets needed for Web development companies." And in return, CitySoft gets access to an untapped source of talent in a tight labor market.

Although CitySoft won't hire anyone who lacks basic Web development skills, the company doesn't require a college degree. "We don't screen for education; we screen for attitude," Gleason says.

CitySoft employee Kelby Mendes admits that he "didn't know a lick of Web technology" before he heard about the company in 1997. "I knew how to use a computer, but that was about it," he recalls. The Roxbury native first learned of CitySoft when he sat in on an introductory Web class at Boston's South End Technology Center. After playing around with HTML and making a webpage that said, "Hi, my name is Kelby," he was hooked on the Web and hankering to be a part of a startup. So, within two months, he quit his part-time job at a bank and put his environmental engineering studies at a local college on hold to concentrate on developing his Web skills. After an internship at Boston.com and more Web courses at the South End center and Roxbury Community College, Mendes landed a full-time job at CitySoft. Today he's a project manager and design lead, handling projects for clients like Reebok, Siemens and Stonyfield Farms.

All that experience makes Mendes eminently marketable. "I don't think there's any Web company out there that wouldn't offer me probably more than what I'm making now," he says. But Mendes isn't interested. In five years, he sees himself managing huge projects for big clients at CitySoft.

And that's good news for Gleason, whose plans for expansion depend on hanging on to the employees his company has worked so hard to scout. "We're attempting to demonstrate that we can get competitive talent from urban areas and be just as big and bad as other companies," he says.

And with three profitable years behind him, revenues growing at 350 percent annually and a third office opening in Baltimore this fall, Gleason is convinced CitySoft's business model is sound. "It's not only sustainable," he says. "It's going to kick butt."

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