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Bridging the Digital Divide

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In the United States, it's an unfortunate reality that basic opportunities and values that come from having a good education are not, traditionally, bestowed upon African-Americans or Hispanics, male or female. Specifically, the corporate market, until recently, has seen  African-American and Hispanic communities as underdeveloped and unwilling. But, the African-American market is a $553-billion market, and Hispanics spend $490 billion a year. Continuing to ignore the significance of that buying power just doesn't make sense. When I founded DME Interactive Holdings in 1994, I wanted to create a business that wasn't hamstrung by perceptions of poverty.

When I was growing up, there weren't many role models in our community who were doing anything positive. In the 1980s, the role models were selling drugs or playing ball. In the 1990s, they were playing basketball and rapping. So, as an evolutionary development in the community, I think the entertainment industry has been tremendous. Anything that keeps kids striving to improve themselves and look beyond the streets is positive.

But, at the same time, it's a one in a million shot. And, it's a saturated business. Not everybody makes it. You have to be able to fall back on another career. The beauty of the IT sector, it seems to me, is that it's opening up so many new careers and new opportunities.

Seizing the Opportunities

DME Interactive has always been focused on accomplishing a mission: to expand the hardware and software infrastructure in minority communities by offering affordable hardware and Internet access to communities that have been disenfranchised from technology. Our Web site, www.PlacesofColor.com, is focused on hardware solutions, because we recognize that even in 2001, the lack of access to computers in the community continues to be a major issue. We're going for 300,000 users this year, and I think we're on track to accomplish those goals.

When I was hardly more than a kid, I was already an entrepreneur. As a  freshman at the University of Southern California, I managed some recording artists and started a production company with my cousin.  He and one of our artists continued the business and were wildly successful. But, I wanted to stay in school and in the Emerging Leaders program. I was greatly influenced by Megatrends, the book that predicted the transfers of wealth and paradigm shifts that we have been going through in this country and globally. When I graduated, I worked in cable technology for a year, because I was so fascinated with the future. Being there shaped my vision as an entrepreneur. In the cable industry I saw where convergence was coming: infrastructure, content, and what would ultimately be called the Internet.

Leveraging Partnerships

One of the reasons you don't see many African-American, Hispanic and Native American entrepreneurs in the infrastructure side of technology is that building a robust network can be cost-prohibitive. We've managed to do it by building our business through partnership. Places of Color, as an online service, is a partnership with CompuServe and AOL, built on top of their network and offering specific content to our subscribers. We also partnered with Hewlett-Packard and Applied Digital Solutions, to offer hardware solutions ranging from $249 for a PC to $2,000 for next-generation wireless appliances.

Our partnership with AOL helps us in many respects, but the biggest and most significant asset it brings to our relationship is the dial-up network. It also has lent us a lot of the brand value that comes from dealing with a big company. For our partners, there's value in growing their market segments. Partnering with young black businesses makes sense from an entrepreneurial perspective. In fact, the whole Internet industry is built on a model of partnership.

But for us, connection to the Internet is only the first step. It's about access - access to information, education, certification, job opportunities - in short, to the digital economy. Access to the digital economy will increase the income levels in our communities. More important, it's going to help strengthen the confidence and participation rate of young African-American men - women too, but especially men - and Hispanic men in our society. It's going to increase the quality of life. I think it will also increase innovation in the technology industry, by bringing in a whole new perspective.

Encouraging Creative Solutions

As a minority entrepreneur you have to stay flexible, you have to stay creative and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes, not only to exceed, to excel in the game, but sometimes just to stay in the game. DME was self-financed for the first four and a half years. When I did look for funding in 1998, nobody understood the urban market or the "digital divide." Finally, we went public by merging with a car-leasing company, to gain access to its status on the OTC exchange. That company was shut down, and as a byproduct of the reverse merger, we became the first publicly traded Black Internet company. Today, we try not to get caught up in the illusions the stock market can create - the long-term value of the company is in our ability to execute our mission.

That's another reason why it's so important that young people take their entertainment mindset, that creativity, that taste for innovation, and refocus it - repurpose it - towards technology. Entrepreneurs, especially minority entrepreneurs, realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still great opportunities to be part of the technology that's coming: wireless, broadband, I-2, convergence, smart databases, quantum computing. It's an exciting time to be alive and to be an entrepreneur.

"Coopetition," Networking and Community

What we've got to do today is stay open-minded and understand the theory of "coopetition" - that is, cooperate and compete at the same time. As African-Americans and Hispanics or other minority entrepreneurs, we've got to learn to love one another, and that comes from loving ourselves. Whether they be black, white, blue, green or brown, people are people, and everybody, innately, is trying to do something that will not only better themselves but also better the community.

Many community-based organizations are doing community development, economic empowerment, business alliances and minority Chamber of Commerce events. It's important for minority businesses to start there, to find resources and build relationships with those executive directors, because those are the people who can help open doors for you. Yvette Moyo, the president and co-founder of MOBE (Market Opportunities for Blacks in Entertainment), which is a minority IT business conference held every year, is a tremendous entrepreneur and has had a great effect on what my company is doing. 100 Black Men is an essential organization for us. Even our old-line organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP are still very important and significant. Entrepreneurs should also know about Comdex, the computer electronics trade show. The CES (Corporate Electronics trade show), venture conferences, Silicon Alley events - those are important places to be, to meet people and network.

Whether it be for philanthropic or corporate reasons, dialogue has certainly opened between the cultures - it's a smaller world, and people are now more willing to work, talk and come together to make a difference. I'm on the board of a New York group called "Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education" (MOUSE), and DME has helped wire Harlem schools with computers and broadband connections. As an African-American, I have a responsibility to my community to make sure my business makes a difference. And, younger entrepreneurs do have an edge when they're addressing their peers. When kids look at me, they see there's an  opportunity for themselves.

© 2001 Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadershipat the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 4801 Rockhill Road, Kansas City, MO 64110. All rights reserved.

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