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ICF celebrates 50 years: A half-century of making big things possible

This year marks our 50th anniversary, and we couldn’t be more excited to celebrate all that ICF has accomplished in partnership with employees, clients, partners, and friends. ICF started as the Inner City Fund, a small venture capital firm, with about a dozen employees in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Today, we’re more than 5,500 strong with employees and offices across the globe.

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Headshot of ICF CEO, Sudhakar
Sudhakar Kesavan
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ICF

“At ICF we are continuously finding new ways to solve our clients’ toughest challenges. To bring them additional value. It is a quality that has marked our growth and evolution as a company for 50 years. And it is one that will continue to carry us forward, in partnership with our clients, to have positive impact in the lives of people all over the world."

Read more about what sets us apart →

We’ve achieved some remarkable things in partnership with our clients since 1969. Here are just a few of the things we’re proudest of:

And we keep going. We continue to innovate. We continue to explore new technologies and services. We continue to acquire and grow. We just launched a full marketing services agency. We are excited to celebrate our 50th anniversary and to continue working with employees, clients and partners to see what the next 50 years bring.

Podcast Show Notes

See the full transcript below:

Emily: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the "Spark" podcast where we're discussing the work that ignites real and lasting change with our industry experts here at ICF. I'm Emily Kleiman, I'm your host for today, and I'm really excited to be here with Sudhakar, who is our CEO. So, you may have heard from some of our experts here before. They've talked about energy policy, digital transformation, and digital marketing tactics. You may have also heard from our recruiting team where they've given some tips and tricks for getting hired at ICF. But today, we're really excited to relaunch our podcast and I could think of no better special guest to be here than Sudhakar. So, thank you for being here.

Sudhakar: Happy to be here, looking forward to having the discussion with you, Emily.

Emily: So, this is a big year for ICF.

Sudhakar: Yeah, it's our 50th anniversary. We've been around for 50 years, time flies. We were founded in 1969 as the Inner City Fund and we have certainly evolved since then.

Emily: Yeah, 1969. I was actually looking up some fun facts about it. And ICF was actually founded the same year as the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and the same year that "The Brady Bunch" first aired on TV.

Sudhakar: Yeah, lots of important things happened that year and I just actually saw that movie, "First Man."

Emily: Oh, okay, yeah.

Sudhakar: Which, exactly 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong, you know, stepped on the moon.

Emily: Definitely a lot that happened including, of course, ICF being founded, right?

Sudhakar: Right. And it's certainly evolved enormously since we were founded. Lots of change. Our markets have changed, we have reinvented ourselves many, many times to stay relevant. It's been an interesting journey.

Emily: But definitely thinking about change and just the evolution of the company, of the markets, and really the world that we live in, what do you and other leaders across the company do to make sure that a 50-year-old company is really staying relevant throughout all of that?

Sudhakar: Yeah, I think that we obviously have to constantly look forward, look at trends, read expansively, understand where industries are going, what the new ways of doing things are, and constantly reinvent ourselves so that, you know, we stay relevant. And I think that we cannot rest on our laurels, change is frequent and constant and it's something we do well. Over the years we've managed change well, we think that managing change well is key to success. And I think that it's really been one of those things where you keep changing and stay ahead of the trends and ensure that you stay relevant. Otherwise, you know, hiring people, we're a people business, hiring people is gonna become extremely hard. And people want to work in places where they can work on the most interesting issues and technologies, etc., and I think we've always endeavored to do that and we've been quite successful at it.

Emily: Yeah. And one of the things that I remember you saying in the past, too, is that you've turned, you know, a 30-plus year career at ICF into something that's new and different at all different parts of your career. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Sudhakar: Sure. I joined the firm as an associate working on chemical industry regulation issues. You know, I had a background in chemical engineering and public policy and I enjoyed that for many years, then an opportunity came to work on climate change issues. So, I worked on climate change issues. I just sort of moved from one to the other. Then I could reinvent myself because there was an opportunity to manage the business so, you know, off consulting on interesting issues. So, I took over as President of the consulting division, we were part of a large engineering company, so I think I could reinvent my career. First, I worked on analytical projects, client service, etc., and then I worked on the business aspects of the firm.

So, it's been a very interesting evolution for me, too. So, I think that the lesson I learned is that you can stay in one place and constantly reinvent yourself and do different things, which will allow you to stay in the same place. And I certainly have enjoyed my career here, you know, honestly, over the last 35 years.

Emily: Definitely. And I think to do that, too, there's definitely a sense of being agile with your career and being really nimble. And I think that's something that ICF is really all about, too.

Sudhakar: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we always try and encourage people to do what they're interested in. I'm not suggesting that everyone should do exactly what I did. You might be interested in the substantive issues. So, you want to become an expert in those areas and you want to do that, which is something which we encourage. You know, you could also do what I did, you know, get into management, which is something which is fine, but it's not any better or worse than doing, you know, what you're really interested in, consulting with clients, because that's what we're here for. So, it's one of those things where we need to be not only nimble on the issues but nimble in making sure that we offer careers to all our people who join us. And I think I'm proud of the fact that a number of us have been here for long, long periods of time. It's very hard in this day and age to keep people in one place for as long as we've managed to.

Emily: Across all of the change that's happening, you know, throughout the world, throughout the way we interact with each other, what are some of the things that tend to remain constant? Whether it's from a business and strategic perspective, or, you know, just the way that we interact with each other.

Sudhakar: Each other, right. I think that, you know, if you look at it from a client service perspective, clients are always trying to do the right thing for their organization. It could be a company, it could be a nonprofit, it could be the government. And I think that as long as they trust in you, and you can bring them new ideas and you are constantly giving them ideas to do things, faster, better, cheaper, more innovatively, I think that the trust stays constant, you know, the trust between the client and you and also between employees, you know, within ICF. You know, you have to be pretty frank, open, and trusting and share information with them. So, I think trust stays constant. You know, trust is based on making sure that if you say you will do something, you will follow up and do that thing. I mean, it doesn't have to be written, it doesn't have to be, you know, a contract or anything,

I think trust is built upon the fact that I can believe this person when they say something. So, I would be careful in what you say and assess what you say, because you will be held by it. There may be no immediate consequence to you because you just said it and you didn't do it, but there is a consequence because folks whom you said it to now have one thing they know you did not do because you said it. And these are small little things, could be small things, could be big things but I think that you really have to be consistent on that front. You know, even if it's a small thing, if you follow up on something which the other person has even forgotten you said, you know, they will remember, "Geez, you know, this person did say that they'll do it and I had even forgotten but they did it." So, I think that is the way to build sort of trust...

Emily: The consistency.

Sudhakar: Consistency and follow-up is something which is really quite important. And I think once you get somebody's trust, that engenders a lot more goodwill and a good feeling and I think then you can get a lot more... In fact, if you think about it, if you have a team which trusts each other, you can be much more productive than if you do not.

Emily: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely a lot more productive, a lot more efficient, and ultimately really able to deliver more and more for either your team or for the clients as well. And, so, kind of moving along that track, you know, talking about some of the clients and some of the work that we do, you know, can you talk a little bit more about that work, maybe some of your favorite projects that you've gotten to be part of over the years?

Sudhakar: Sure, you know, one of the projects when I was working on, you know, broadly on climate change issues was the Energy Star project where we worked with EPA and DOE, Department of Energy, to come up with the brand, to sort of then market the brand, and then develop the program which then became the voluntary program where companies use commercially available, off the shelf technologies to make their equipment and appliances energy efficient. And I think that the government promoted the brand and the consumer wanted to buy products which were labeled with the brand primarily because of the fact that they seemed to be the higher quality product, and that was exactly the intent. And obviously when they bought that product, it was more energy efficient, so that led to more energy efficient, you know, products in homes, and in buildings, etc.

So, I think that was an enormously impactful program, it made a huge difference to emissions, you know, carbon dioxide emissions, and I think it's still going quite very successfully over the years. So, that was one project which was really very, very successful. You know, we have worked on smoking cessation with NIH, the National Institutes for Health, where we've used social media to reach preteens who have a predilection to smoke, and I think that is one way by which you could reach that specific target audience because they don't watch TV, so you can't really advertise and do things like that. So, that's been very effective. So, I think that those are the new ways of using digital media to reach folks in a very targeted and segmented way. Which is something which we can do now which has been hugely effective. We've done a lot of work in the European Union where we've worked with the European Union to demonstrate to citizens of different countries across the EU as to what the EU does and how successfully it does it just to make sure that they understand their relationship with the EU and the need for the EU.

You know, we worked on the country of Belize on tourism development. Belize is a small country. We have made sure that we market tourism to Belize as adventure tourism because they're competing with a whole bunch of Caribbean countries and other Central American and Latin American countries. And obviously, there's lots of competition for tourists, for the tourist dollar. So, adventure tourism is something which we identified and tourism is a very significant portion of their GDP. And we can track the effectiveness of our campaigns based on their increase in GDP, which is a remarkable thing because then you can see the efficiency and the success of our program of marketing Belize and adventure tourism to Belize with the increase in their gross domestic product. So, that's a really spectacular demonstration of what we can do successfully.

And one of the things which ICF has done over the years and you asked me earlier about how we stay relevant is we've gotten more and more into understanding how do you transform your government organization, or your nonprofit, or your utility, or your company. How do you use digital means to transform your strategy so that you can be much more efficient and segmented, and use your outreach dollars or your marketing dollars in the most efficient way, because you don't have to do these broad-based messages on television or on print. You can target audiences if you have enough data so that you can be much more effective in reaching them. So, I think that that's been one of the things which ICF has done, has evolved to, and I think we are sort of at the cutting edge of how you can use digital media and digital means to transform your business. And I think that's something which we are proud of.

We want to use those technologies and means to help our clients, our traditional clients, governments, utilities, aviation companies, you know, broadly transportation companies and other, you know, entities in the retail, banking and other areas. And I think that we can...we have a great track record and we can do that. So, I think that's one of the ways in which we have stayed relevant over the last few years where you basically constantly transform yourself to make sure that the client gets what they need to get in order to stay at the cutting edge.

Emily: Absolutely. And, you know, in that same sense, you know, I think ICF has definitely evolved, you know, just launching ICF Next this past January. So, how does that kind of interaction between some of the advisory and then the implementation and evaluation, how does that make ICF different from some of the other players in our space?

Sudhakar: So, I think that for us, our paradigm has been do the advice and implement the advice, and then improve on the implementation of the advice. So, advise, implement, improve has been our paradigm. And in the implementation, you know, traditionally it was traditional IT services, program management services, project management services, and some, you know, messaging. But the world has changed and messaging and engagement has become very important. So, this whole aspect of ICF Next helps our clients engage in the most sophisticated and efficient way. So, and ICF Next, we've named it ICF Next because, really, it is the next phase of implementation where you can be very targeted, very segmented and very efficient in the use of your marketing dollar or your engagement dollar.

So, if the government wants to reach its citizens, the government obviously knows a lot about its citizens, we can use that data to reach the citizens with specific messaging for them. If a client wants to reach their specific target market and encourage customers to come in and take advantage of a specific program, we can do that using data. So, I think that in our advise, implement paradigm, the last stage of implementation is engagement, and ICF Next is the entity which allows us to engage with a variety of stakeholders, including citizens, customers, clients, and others. And I think that doing it in the most sophisticated way possible with the most cutting-edge technology possible is something which is what we can do now with ICF Next.

Emily: Yeah, and I think that's definitely really powerful. I mean, ICF Next and all of ICF is worldwide, around the globe. What have you seen just in terms of how we collaborate across the world as, you know, in the past couple of years or longer?

Sudhakar: Yeah, so I think that, you know, we have...as ICF has traditionally had great expertise in certain domains, and I think that that is something which we have leveraged. We are perhaps not all things to all people but in certain areas where we have worked for many, many years, we have great strength. And I think that when we were working on energy efficiency projects in the UK, we used our experience of energy efficiency in the United States to make sure that they understand that we have enormous experience doing these kind of projects, so we ran a large energy efficiency program in the UK. So, that's one way of collaborating across, by making sure that the experts from the US go to the UK. We've also talked to the European Union folks whom we've worked with, who are experts on immigration, to see if we can learn any lessons on immigration issues in Europe plus immigration issues here in the US.

So, there's a lot of back and forth, a lot of learning, which we have between the different groups. And I think that we've also come up with ways in which we innovate, you know, we work with our clients. We have something called Spark Labs, which does...which innovates and it's something which is a methodology which we have developed, which we can, sort of a design thinking way of doing things where we can go and jointly work with a client to come up with solutions, which we can then help them implement. So, that's something which clients have really received very effusively. And I think that we are very pleased with the response which we've gotten there. So, that methodology can be used everywhere, it can be used in Europe, in Asia and...

Emily: And across public and private sector, too, yeah.

Sudhakar: And across public and private sectors, too, so.

Emily: So, I think that that's something that, you know, everyone could really use, is just that really speedy way of getting from an idea to something that's, you know, tangible, too.

Sudhakar: Absolutely, yeah. And I think that, also with client participation which makes it that much more effective, because, you know, the client is involved in developing the solution that becomes that much more...their ability to accept it becomes that much more.

Emily: Definitely, definitely. It's actually a good segue into the next question that I had, which was we talked a little bit about the past and what we're doing now. So let's fast forward to the next 50 years or even just the next 5 to 10. What are some of the biggest areas where you see, you know, potential change coming or where we need to focus more, and kind of where our clients are going to?

Sudhakar: Right. I think that our clients are, you know, all our clients are going to connect and engage with each other in a very different way. And I think that one of the big strengths ICF has, which we have developed over the last seven or eight years, is this whole ability to engage and come up with ways in which we can help our clients engage with their stakeholders in a very effective and efficient way. And I think that is something which our competitors don't necessarily offer, the ability to engage in an efficient way. I think in addition, of course, we understand we continue to be very deep in certain domains, we understand the future of the utility industry. Now, the future of the utility industry is going to be interesting because there's lots of distributed generation now instead of, you know, centralized generation. So, that's going to have an immediate impact on the structure of the industry.

And utility companies have to now engage with their customers because their customers can get energy from distributed resources or distributed resources which, not necessarily owned by the utility. So, in order to become relevant to the customers, you want to make sure that you offer them additional services, and you interact and engage with them in ways in which they think of you in a much more positive way than they have thought of you in the past. So, I think that that's going to be a very important element. So, I'll just give you that example only because the utility industry has been our traditional client set and I think engagement is gonna become very important for them. The government is trying to make sure that they engage with citizens in the most effective way. We work on public health issues, we work on energy issues, we work on environmental issues, we work on justice issues. We work on education and housing recovery issues, and I think in all these issues, engaging with the citizen stakeholders is really very important.

And again, that is going to be important for us going forward. So, I think that there is a lot of change which is gonna happen, you know, in the ways government reinvents itself going forward. The next generation IT is going to become important. The government is going to use...have to use not legacy customized systems, but perhaps more cloud-based systems. And those cloud-based systems are going to make them much more efficient than the resources required. So, we have an opportunity to help them transition from their current state to the new state. So, I think that's gonna be very exciting for us.

Emily: And at the same time, just considering cyber issues, too.

Sudhakar: Yeah, and cyber issues, too. And we have enormous expertise on cyber issues. As they do this transition, the cyber aspect is going to become really important. The most important thing for us as a firm is how do we make sure that we hire the best people? And how do we make sure that we hire diverse people with diverse backgrounds and diverse interests? So that when they all come together, we come up with solutions which are very innovative and different from what... So, we have never hired sort of from the same specific discipline and exactly the same graduate degree. We traditionally have very multidisciplinary teams of people who work on problems for our clients. And I think that's served us well over the years, so I think that that's the other aspect which is important [crosstalk 00:20:18] going forward.

Emily: Yeah, I think all of those, you know, bringing together people with different experiences. You know, I've noticed this on my own team, just that, you know, you bring in one person and they're thinking a certain way, and then you bring in someone else and the solution might be completely clear to them because they have a different viewpoint, a different perspective, different past experiences that give them that insight.

Sudhakar: Absolutely. And I think that having that diversity in every aspect of diversity, I think, is really quite important. And I think we're fortunate that we have over the years, you know, done well on the diversity front. And I think we want to continue to make sure that we don't...we keep tabs on that and don't fall off as we move forward. So, I think that's important for us and I think that's another key differentiator for us because I think when you look around, and you can look at other firms which compete, I think we, again, are ahead on diversity. I think that's something which we are proud of.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Well, on that note, thank you so much for joining us on our official "Spark" podcast. You know, I think as we move forward, we'll start to dive deeper into some of the topics that you outlined, whether it's the future of energy or resilience, and more through other episodes. So, to our listeners, if you're not already following Sudhakar on social media, be sure to find him on LinkedIn and connect. Sudhakar, any final thoughts?

Sudhakar: Well, thank you, Emily, and I look forward to a very exciting time for us. You know, the future looks bright and we have great people and great clients and it's always...for me, it's...I've been here... Every day I get up, I come in excited. So, I'm looking forward to the future.


About ICF

ICF (NASDAQ:ICFI) is a global consulting services company with over 7,000 full- and part-time employees, but we are not your typical consultants. At ICF, business analysts and policy specialists work together with digital strategists, data scientists and creatives. We combine unmatched industry expertise with cutting-edge engagement capabilities to help organizations solve their most complex challenges. Since 1969, public and private sector clients have worked with ICF to navigate change and shape the future. Learn more at icf.com.

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