Blog Series Featuring and Interview with Rafael Boras President and CEO of Homeland Security And Defense Business Council

Video Interview with Rafael Borras, President & CEO of HSDBC

September 21, 2020

Rafael Borras

Rafael Borras, President & CEO, Homeland Security & Defense Business Council

Rafael Borras was recently appointed as the President and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council (HSDBC). Aveshka has been an active member of the HSDBC, with CEO Girish Jindia serving on its Board of Directors.

Click the video above to watch the interview. The interview transcript is also available below.

Carissa Nee, Aveshka’s Director of Communications and Marketing sat down with Rafael Borras to learn about his priorities and initiatives as the new leader of the HSDBC, as he embarks on this new role within the non-profit sector.

Nee:  Hello everyone, my name is Carissa Nee and I am the Director of Communications and Marketing for Aveshka.  I am here today with Mr. Rafael Borras, the newly named President and CEO of the Homeland Security Defense Business Council. Hello Raphael, how are you doing today?

Borras: Very good. Glad to be here with you.

Nee: Before we begin, can you just give us a quick background on the council for those of us that are unfamiliar with it?

Borras: The Homeland Security Defense Business Council was created in the aftermath of 9/11. So after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security which was created in 2003 there was a strong belief that there needed to be a marketplace to serve the interest of now what we are calling Homeland Security so much like the established Defense Industrial Base that supports the Department of Defense. There was this need to bring together industry that was either currently or in the future could be meeting the needs of the Homeland Security Enterprise. So about 15 years ago the council was created and it’s a cross-section of large, medium, and small businesses, that have at their core the mission to support the Department of Homeland Security and the greater Homeland Security Enterprise. Certainly, the bigger firms do a lot of other things but that’s what brings this group together.

Nee: Great! So, we thought basically it would be really great to just meet with you today. Aveshka has been an active member of the HSDBC for roughly eight years now, with our CEO Girish Jindia serving on the Board of Directors for the past five or six years. We just wanted to talk to you now that you’re in this new role and get an idea of your future initiatives and wanted to hear what you had in store for us. So, it’s my understanding that you’ve served about 20 years in the federal government, most notably as the Under Secretary for Management and the Acting Deputy Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. Then you’ve served 16 or so years in the private sector most recently at A.T. Kearney, a prestigious global management consulting firm. And now, you’re here in the nonprofit sector as the President and CEO of HSDBC. What was it about the non-profit world that made you want to make this move?

Borras: Well let me tell you that because I’ve been working for a long time,after my first stint in government back in the early 1980s, I actually went with a non-profit organization, the International City Management Association and you know, I stayed there for six years so I had a taste of the non-profit world. I will tell you what I enjoyed about the nonprofit world and what attracted me to the council, and quite frankly has it has been at the core of everything that I’ve done is to be aligned with an organization that is primarily focused on ambition. Whether it’s the previous non-profit or this organization, you know absolutely there is a strong business component to the council, but we must remember what brings these members together to this organization is a strong affinity for the mission of the Department of Homeland Security and the greater Homeland Security Enterprise so it’s almost like a return to part of my roots coming to a non-profit organization but staying very present in the Homeland Security Enterprise in that intersection between the public and the private.

Nee: So, you’re very focused on the mission, what would you say that your first order of business as the President and CEO, what would that be?

Borras: You know, coming into an organization like this, I had the benefit of A) knowing the organization because I was very close to the council during my time at DHS, and got to know a number of the firms, many of the firms that are members of the council both then and now. So, I came in with a good understanding of who the member firms are, what their interests were, why they were committed to this mission. I’ve got to tell you that makes it, for me, very special to come in and assume this role because it’s an organization I know and trust and most importantly it’s a membership organization of people that I know as well. Why is that important? At the end of the day, the purpose of a group like the council is to support the needs of the members. This is a membership organization and of course we have a duality to our mission because we’re here to support the needs of our members as well as be partners to those in government who are attempting to execute these missions. So, my number one priority is to reestablish the value proposition as strongly as possible so that the message is absolutely clear to our members, this is why we’re members of this organization.

You know, these are the things that we want to get from the council, and these are the things we want to give back to the overall community through the work of this council. So, there’s that push and pull there’s things that of course that we want to know more about what the decision makers are thinking about and how industry can play a role in supporting the evolution of homeland security assets that greater provide greater protection to the homeland. But also, what we can give back as a community based on the knowledge that we’ve learned about working with government and what we’ve seen in industry that has worked in other areas that could be applied to government specifically in the homeland security space and how do we become better partners to those government industry leaders. So that’s number one — it’s all focused on the members and it’s reestablishing that value proposition.

Nee: You mentioned that you were also very involved when you were at DHS as a senior government official you were very involved with HSDBC. Now knowing what you know now that you’re here on the council side, what are some of the changes to the council that you would like to make that might have helped you back then as a government official? What would you do now that would maybe benefit them now?

Borras: Well you know the council has been doing really good work for quite a few years. You know, pretty much from the beginning. I mean it’s been a value-add. My interest is in expanding what I call the mandate or the scope of activities we get involved in. Many ofthese organizations focus more as a priority on things that are either beginning to enter the procurement phase or things that have justcome out of the procurement phase. So if you think about the entire life cycle from the germination of an idea that leads to over time, the development of set of requirements that in turn, turn into a procurement that industry bids on, my interest is to move the council–and not the exclusion of being involved in discussions about upcoming procurements–but move the council very strongly into that very early part of the life cycle where industry is pondering along with government how do we provide–my term—”better solution pathways” for the government.

There’s a basic hypothesis that I have about this industry, which I mean is more so government. We make it so difficult for people in government to actually learn about the marketplace. We put we put all kinds of road barriers in place in terms of, “How often we canmeet with government?” “How often we can meet with industry?” Under what conditions when do we have conversations, “how do you know what the marketplace has to offer if you’re a government contracting official or a program manager, how much do you really know about the marketplace?” Oftentimes, what individuals do is they look at who they already have under contract, look at that population and say okay, well that is the marketplace — let me throw something out and see what they come back with. Much better from my view, to get involved in conversations much, much earlier when industry is saying you know, “I’ve got this vexing problem and everything that I throw at it doesn’t seem to move the needle. It just doesn’t advance sufficiently the ability to execute on this mission how can we make that better?”  Well having conversations with industry much, much early on allows you to explore what I call the “art of the possible”.  Certainly not a unique cliche on my part but that’s where you sit with industry when you’re in government and say for example, we’ve been trying to solve a particular problem, everything that we’ve thrown at it – money, technology, different kinds of people, and we’ve only made a marginal improvement. It’s important for the protection of the whole land to really accelerate this.

Industry. What are we missing? What are you doing perhaps in the commercial world that we’re not exposed to that if we brought it in and either modify it or adjusted it such that it could fit in the government setting and would really advance our ability to execute on this particular mission?  That’s a conversation that helps Government years before you may see a procurement, but also it allows industry to be a better partner in terms of helping to facilitate the awareness of actually what the marketplace has to offer. And what it also does it provides industry sort of that incubation if you will, as they begin to understand what are the real gaps and weaknesses of government agencies and trying to execute against a mission? Well, I trust that, you know, many of the firms and particularly those members of this council have the wherewithal, have the smarts, have the ingenuity, have the ability to team, to be able to find better solution pathways for the government. That’s a really powerful thing. So, I’m a big believer in that changing both the kind of conversation and having the conversation much earlier in the life cycle of trying to meet a mission need.

Nee: Absolutely. Obviously, the council serves as this venue to collaborate industry and government folks together–what would you do differently now, I guess to increase that dialogue? What would you be doing differently than what the council has been doing before?

Borras: Well, one of the things we are doing and it’ll come to fruition a little later in the calendar year is we’re changing the kind of conversations we’re having so typically, we bring in somebody to give a brief to industry about again what is current, this is what’s on my procurement plan or this is what I am doing today as a leader of x organization or y organization and we’re going to change theconversations. We’re not going to abandon those type of briefings those are very,very, important for our members as witnessed by the number of people who sign up to participate in those sessions. It is very important and that it needs to be maintained. But we’re going to change the conversation. We’re going to bring together officials from a cross-section of government agencies. We’re going to broaden beyond the Department of Homeland Security in our discussions. You know, the ecosystem of the homeland security as we’ve seen with COVID is much broader than just the Department of Homeland Security and it requires involvement from so many partners in the government space. We’re going to change who we bring to these conversations. We’re going to bring multi-agencies together to talk about and we’re going to zero in on problem sets but we’re going to say you know the first one, I won’t get in too much, we’re still formulating it, but we already have the mission area identified but we’re going to bring people from DHS, from the Department of Treasury, from Justice and from industry togetherall again to identify where there have been in the past significant investments on the government side. And yet from a law enforcement standpoint or domestic security standpoint, we’ve had very limited success if youthink of something like illicitfinancing. All of our efforts combined to try toaddress money laundering as an example has resulted in very little actual nibbling away at the amount of money that gets laundered in this country let alone the rest of the world. Why is that? That’s a conversation that’s a substantive programmatic conversation we’re going to be having with the intent then for industry to react to that after this discussion to come back to government propose potentially new solution pathways–again that term that I like to use–because it’s not one thing it really is a continuum of activities and oftentimes they change. But I refer to it as a pathway. How do we come back to government and say you know here are five, here ten things, or twenty things that can begin to close those gaps. Where you’re making insignificant progress in addressing some of these systematic problems around illicit financing that’s a tricky one because government could only do so much you need the financial institutions to be a strong partner in that because the money gets longer through financial institutions. So more on that to come, that will certainly be a topic we’ll be covering but you see that’s a very different way of engaging the members so the challenge to the members after that discussion will be what are the ideas we can bring back tothe governmentthat perhaps enhance their ability to address these significant problems that exist in the Homeland Security Space.

Nee: That’s great, I think, yes, it’s kind of hard to have a definition for “Homeland Security”. I think there’s so many factors that are involved. At Aveshka, you know we deal with matters of national security but as you can tell that it’s not just limited to terrorism, or those types of activities but, financial industries are impacted, public health is impacted, emergency management is impacted so yeah I know that’s definitely a thing. What is Homeland Security for you? How do you define Homeland Security?

Borras: Well you know that’s an evolving definition. You know how we thought about it post 9/11 in those early years before we created the Department of Homeland Security was such that well you see what what was brought into Homeland Security Enterprise at that time. Those 22 agencies from different departments that were brought in but if you really think about it there were a lot of components ofthe extended homeland security enterprise that were left out of that equation now I’m not arguing for a larger department by no means, the Department of Homeland Security is quite large but those institutional linkages that could have been developed with other parts of Justice, with parts of Treasury with parts of HHS and some of the medical community because you know this pandemic is severe and as horrible as it is it’s not the first time we’ve confronted the possibility of a pandemic affecting this population. It’s happened before or just not at this magnitude of course. So, you know I tend to use the term domestic security as opposed to just Homeland Security because it’s a broader ecosystem that also includes the local police. For example, local emergency responders as well as those activities at the federal government and quite frankly the private sector because there are many institutions that are protected in the homeland by private entities that have you know private security guards, etc.  So, I think more broadly more expansively of Homeland Security because it it’s not just borders, it’s just not counterterrorism, it really is like we’re seeing right now it’s whether it’s a biological or other type of event that can affect our population. Whether it’s a man-made or a natural disaster, all of these things require a response but there’s no single department certainly not the department of Homeland Security that has the capabilities of where with all to do it alone and there’s no government agency that can do it without the assistance and the cooperation in the partnership of the private sector. So, it’s a very broad ecosystem and I will tell you if we have this conversation five years from now, we may even have a different definition when we begin to think about the potential impacts to our climate. This is not a discussion obviously about climate change, but there are increasing climate related events that will become more persistent threats to the to our Homeland, let alone the whole world and those will require different responses, different alliances, different partnerships to be able to get that under control.

Nee: So, speaking of partnerships and in the council itself, because you’ve defined these the “solution pathways” – plural – many people are going to be involved so does that mean you’re expanding your membership or are there certain types of members that you’re looking for to be part of the base?

Borras: That’s a great question and you know the council, which has done fine work over the years needs to be able to touch additional parts of our ecosystem and so there are firms that are involved in doing work that live outside of the predominant focus of Department of Homeland Security but are very much related to the overall Homeland Security Enterprise.  So, we do want to see firms be a part of the council, we want to strengthen the council, enrich the council with the participation from firms that heretofore, were not necessarily in our scope or our mandate, but under the evolution of the homeland security threats today are very much a part of it. So, when you think of firms, you know whether it’s engineering firms that will contribute to the development of solutions for example on and potentially new ways to protect against man-made or natural disasters that we haven’t even begun to address today. You know there’s all kinds of things.

I took a trip about seven years ago to MIT, with some colleagues at Homeland Security and we had the opportunity to see all these really cool things that these brilliant people were just imagining and they’re playing with experiments. If you look at some of these things where they were experimenting with things that they didn’t have a need for yet–true experimentation. Many of us would ask them you know could you scale that to such an extent that, you can build a barrier, let’s say when you have a potential flood situation and right now we use sandbags and that’s very labor intensive and it’s a heavy process and it’s an expensive process. Can you expand this so that you could on-site almost like a 3-D printing if you think about it but not quite and just create these large barriers to protect against flooding. Really on demand, and they all sat there all these brilliant [scientists thinking], “You know, we never thought about that we were thinking about this this sort of activity in a different context but that’s a good idea, Homeland Security, let us play with that.” You know that’s the kind of environment that fosters innovation.

You didn’t ask this question, but I’m going to say something about innovation. I look to the small and the medium firms as the real incubators of innovation in this country. That’s why it’s so important to have the whole cross-section of the sort of the industry involved in the council. But I am a firm believer, and an active champion of small and mid-tier companies because those are the companies that oftentimes are at the forefront of innovation. I’m not saying the large companies don’t innovate, but when they reach a certain scale they’re getting their sort of widgets out the door and the investment in new technologies or new initiatives tend to fall back to just keeping the machinery going when they’re so big. But the mid-tier, are constantly looking for ways to grow, expand, to challenge the industry. Those are the people that quite frankly–just not the exclusion of the large firms–but really excite me and I want those firms also to find a place at the council, like Aveshka has done for so many years. This is a place where you have to be because this community of firms, this community of people, provides a great opportunity to grow and learn and to go back and innovate.  That is not lost I think on me, nor on our current members but I think we could excite some more people get them in the family. I don’t think we’ll ever be hundreds of members, as you know, there’s a certain nimbleness that we want in the council as well, but can we be bigger? Should we be bigger? I think the answer is “yes” because the addition of different firm types of the memberships will only grow stronger as a council.

Nee: That’s great to know because yes Aveshka, we are in that smaller realm in terms of size and I know we have an innovation component now that’s very active and so these are the types of things that we want to hold on to and it’s great that it is a priority for you. Speaking of companies — private companies and smaller companies, since you’ve had this experience in the private sector, what advice do you have for companies like Aveshka who are active in the Homeland Security Enterprise?

Borras: Well, you know I have had the opportunity to be in some very large companies. Before I came to DHS when I was with a large global engineering firm that when I left was about 10 billion dollars in revenue, I made it in my role of running multiple PNL units within the firm to seek out small firm partners. But I was very insistent that anybody that I brought in to work with us, because we were so large, we could internally do most of everything ourselves but it was sort of that same thing. I didn’t want us to not be challenged so bringing in the smaller and the mid-tier firms and giving them extremely meaningful work to do, you know not bringing in a firm and saying okay we’ll hire you, [because] I’ll beat my government quota but your job is to answer the telephones. No. I was constantly looking for you know, “Will you be my partner? How are you going to add value to this team?” I set up a relationship with many of those firms and said let’s set as a goal that within x number of years depends on the size of the firm and their capabilities at the start, that we will reverse the relationship in certain marketplaces where you will be the prime and we, the big firm, will be your sub because, that way we can help you grow. So, establishing those relationships, giving opportunities for the smaller firms to have really meaningful opportunities sometimes that comes with teaming in the beginning but there have to be effective teaming relationships where those that you team with are not there. Sorry to use this analogy but, it’s sort of like you invite somebody to lunch but then you eat their dinner — you’re really there to take advantage of them and exploit them, and I think you know, and I’m not saying that there are a lot of firms that do that, but it does happen, so to be able to support firms to be able to get good matchmaking under good terms, that allow from that.

I saw this when I was in government back in the 90s—in local government. I won’t say the names of the firms where a significant firm teamed with a local firm in the state that I was working in. In the bid, it was a three-year engagement. They said in year three, they will flip the roles and the smaller firm becomes the prime and this major firm became the sub and that if they committed to this in writing, if there was an opportunity to rebid or extend, they would maintain the role of them as a sub and the smaller firm is the prime.  This is so that they can have an opportunity to grow and learn and then eventually that large firm would pull out and when they felt that that smaller firm developed the capacity to do this work on their own. It was a beautiful relationship; it was a good win-win. So, there’s a lot of things that could be done and the council can lend an important voice to expressing these values about effective teaming, effective partnerships. Let me let me use my own cliché—and find pathways for the smaller firms to grow. You know, not every small firm wants to get really big —they want to be good at something and they want to be as good as possible at that thing, and that’s okay for other firms and for others, they need to grow to be able to get that scale, to be effective. So, not every small firm is created equal you know so you really have to be able to understand the needs and the desires of that firm and match them up with the right kind of opportunities and absolutely you know, we have you know a lot of attention that’s given to small firms in the government setting through various set-aside and other kinds of programs but once they sort of graduate from that, that financial tier, they’re kind of on their own. You know, the big firms have the scale to be able to address some of the challenges in the competitive marketplace, but the mid-tier firms—and mid-tier firms is a big range you know. You know if you just think of SBA’s cut off on small firms you know you get to a certain point in revenue, you’re no longer a small firm even though you are small. So [this is] something I’m equally passionate about and I want to see the council find good ways to leverage the talents and the expertise and the innovative potential of those smaller and mid-tier firms all for the benefit of improving the Homeland Security Enterprise.

Nee: That’s great to hear you say all that as its definitely something that we want to be part of especially with maintaining our membership in the council so this is it’s good to know that it’s on your radar as well. Just the last question, switching gears here— As we know, you mentioned the Department of Homeland Security was formed as a result of the events of 9/11. With the 19th anniversary of 9/11 having just passed last week, what are some of your reflections on that?

Borras: Well you know it’s different today than it would have been at the 15th anniversary and I’ll tell you why. I just spent the last four, really well, four and a half years working overseas, so I’ve been out of the United States working again with what I would call “domestic security” organizations in different parts of the world. So, as I reflect on 9/11, we have to recognize that not only did it have a tremendous impact here for us in the United States, because of the significance of the attack, the loss of life, the loss of property, and really, the damage to our psyche at that time. Yet, we found a way to pick ourselves up and continue to move forward and that was to me one of the most moving experiences I had post 9/11 to watch this country pull together. But we may not always know here in the United States the impact that has had all over the world because indeed domestic security organizations all over the world are looking to evolve and change because of what they’ve seen the United States do, post 9/11.  So, we have become a leader internationally, in paving the way for new ways to think about security, domestic security, and homeland security. Many of the things we have innovated have [been] picked up in other parts of the world. Having just spent so much time around the world, I’ve got to tell you, that it’s important here in the United States that we also look at what other countries have done, and are doing because sometimes we get caught up in the bigness of the United States and we don’t move as fast as we can. So, some governments have been able to do some things that we have tried to do, but they’ve been able to execute it a little bit quicker than we have.

One final thing about that, there is nothing that I’ve seen anywhere like the council in another part of the world. We should be really proud all the members, the founders and the members that continue, the Board of Directors, the staff that have been working on this… I’ve never seen in my work internationally anything like the council where the public and private sector have gotten together around this security or domestic security idea, for the purposes of feeding one another back and forth.  We should be very, very proud of that in this council. The members here are doing something, as I told them, very unique.  Maybe one day we can teach other countries and other places how to do what we’ve done here. We’re going to put our effort into getting better as a council, getting stronger as a council, becoming more diverse in terms of our membership. Meaning different types of companies and different sizes of firms and make sure we know how to talk about the impact. That we can be able to tell the story that the efforts of the council resulted in, and that’s what I want the end of the story to be. So that I can come back here and talk with you one day and commemorate all these wonderful things we’ve been able to document and demonstrate that are benefits of the council and if not but for the council who would be doing this? Well that’s a wonderful place. I’m really honored to be part of the organization and working with a great team.

Nee: Well I can see why you made that jump from the private sector and government to the non-profit world.  I think we’re all very excited with you coming on board onto the council as the new leader, seeing how we operate under your new leadership is going to be pretty exciting for companies like Aveshka as well.  So, we thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate the insight that you’ve given us on the HSDBC. It seems like you have a very unique understanding and perspective that you’re going to bring to the council, so we’re all very excited for it. Thank you very much for your time.

Borras:  Thank you very much, it was my pleasure to be with you, and stay safe everybody.

Nee: Take care.

By: Carissa Nee, Director of Communications and Marketing, Aveshka