Minorities Seek Increased Presence on the Infobahn

Black History Month prompts efforts to get more blacks on-line

P> As February marks Black History Month, a few top black executives are ready to sound the bullhorn to their counterparts to increase grass roots efforts to promote technology among black youths.

"A lot of minority entrepreneurs don't look back," said Horace Jones, president of Advanced Resource Technologies Inc., an infotech firm in Alexandria, Va., which employs 300 people.

According to a 1994 Census Bureau study, 28.6 percent of white households have computers compared with 11.1 percent of blacks. Even worse, only 520,000 black households said they use a modem compared with 11 million white households.

Such numbers alarm black business owners, such as Jones, who find it a daily challenge to hire more qualified minorities. Some 40 percent of ARTI's employees are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. But Jones said regardless of race, if you can't work a mouse or log on, you can't help him in the global marketplace. (See pages 41 to 45 for more information on employment trends in the Washington area.)

Jones, whose company will graduate from the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program in two years, has adopted Francis C. Hammond Middle School in Alexandria to take the latest technology. That school is 44 percent black, 23 percent Hispanic, 23 percent white and 11 percent Asian.

"I think Black History Month has its place, but in today's world it's, 'What have you done for me lately?' Technology is the rule of the day," he said. "We can dwell too much on the past.

"We do our kids a disservice to teach them they can ride in on the coattails of George Washington Carver or Martin Luther King Jr.," Jones said. "We need to be more current."

One way of being current is to mentor children through a school business/partnership program. Jones' firm takes students on occasional field trips through the office and provides employees for mentorship and training programs.

As many black entrepreneurs ask themselves how to promote technology in their communities, the school partnership program seems to be one of the best avenues. But few business people are taking advantage of the opportunity.

"There is a significant lack of minority entrepreneurs in the business/partnership program," said Howard Spiegelman, coordinator of volunteer programs for Alexandria City Public Schools, which oversees 16 schools and 10,000 students. There are 45 companies in the program, with only about 10 percent of those coming from small firms in the community.

He said the city's population is 70 percent white, 22 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic. The school system is 50 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic and 26 percent white.

"We need more minority and African American businesses to help out in this disparity," said Spiegelman. "Because [there are] a lot of white firms in our program, people are asking, 'Where are the black entrepreneurs?'"

Spiegelman said that shouldn't be so in the Washington, D.C., area, where there are many successful minority businesses involved in the SBA's 8(a) program.

Moreover, he said the poverty level in the school system increased from 32 percent in 1984 to 52 percent in 1994. "These kind of statistics beg for this type of involvement from the minority community," he said.

Richard Bennett, president of Advanced Systems Development Inc., a systems integrator that graduated from the 8(a) program in 1992, said he is trying to give back to the black community through a minority internship program. This year, Bennett hired a black student from Howard University.

Bennett is also negotiating with his largest client, the Department of Defense, to create more work for internship-level employees. He's working with Howard University and other black colleges and universities to help feed the program.

But Bennett admits that being a recent 8(a) graduate makes it difficult to concentrate on community programs when his firm is going through one of its most challenging years.

Steven Johnson, a self-employed computer consultant who was moved by recent statistics that show blacks lagging in technical savvy, plans to open a computer training environment for children. The company, Business Development Technologies, will provide a store-front atmosphere but with a focus on providing computers for children to tap into the Internet. Johnson said he envisions parents dropping off their children at his store, just like a karate or gymnastics class. Although there are already computer schools, Johnson sees an unfilled niche in teaching children about computers.

Earlier this month, the Black Entertainment Television cable network in the District launched a joint program with Microsoft Corp. to provide interactive information for and about African Americans. The material will be available on the Microsoft Network, the software maker's on-line service. BET reaches 43 million homes with its cable station.

For 8(a) companies and other black entrepreneurs, this could provide a lucrative avenue to promoting their firms, and it could create a gathering place for African American firms, said Clarence Brown, associate publisher and vice president of operations for BET publishing group.

"There is a lack of diversity on the Internet and in on-line services. Everyone has been waiting for someone to take the lead," said Brown.

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