An entrepreneur retells her story of becoming computer literate and what it has meant to her business practices.
A tale of love and reform
I remember when I couldn't turn on a computer. Who needed to? I had a secretary. And then, after I sold my first company, I learned in one horrifying month just how much I couldn't do if I didn't make friends with the Mac sitting in my office -- which, incidentally, by that time was in my home, far from the accoutrements of the typical "we can support overhead" company.
I was on my own. I wrote the letters, sealed the envelopes, posted the mail. Secretaries were a fast-fading memory.
Taking the plunge into computer literacy was a big deal. I was smug, self-satisfied. I was now a Mac user, part of a hip crowd of New Age entrepreneurs. No matter that I hadn't a clue about how to install software and thought the Internet was a rule in badminton.
I tried slinking away from high-tech intrusions. I rationalized that I could find a niche that didn't rely on technology. I explained patiently to anyone who asked that I was taking a more measured and judicious approach to technology -- I was waiting till the dust settled to figure out where to enter. Oh, I sounded wise. But in truth I was indulging in a well-honed aptitude for denial. I was techno-immune.
So how do I explain the fact that I've created an on-line service for kids? Why is our virtual company paying for a full technology assessment? Why do we insist that the teenagers in our programs get techno-literate? It's easy. My company has no choice. Either I can go on kidding myself as I stand on the banks and watch the river flow by, or I can jump in and start swimming. I am not a wuss; I refuse to be undone by fear.
My new company, An Income of Her Own (AIOHO), offers entrepreneurial education for girls. It started pretty traditionally, with awareness-building conferences held around the country. As they developed, I was tuning in to MTV and Nickelodeon. If I wanted to keep up with kids, I would have to get comfortable with their medium.
Someone mentioned the use of satellite broadcast as a way to extend the conferences. It sounded painless (I'd grown up with television, so how hard could it be?), and before I knew it I was delivering AIOHO to schools across the country -- interactively! I was cool now.
But something more subtle was going on. Unconsciously, I was assimilating the culture of cable and computers. By just hanging out with a new crowd I was learning a new language, and picking up info on what was coming and what had already gone by.
That arcane, previously overwhelming new world was still pretty confusing, but now I was in the middle of it. I could count myself as a player -- a minor one, but still an active participant, not just a timid observer. And I was getting hooked.
One Sunday morning I was at my lawyer's office, surfing the Internet, when in popped a message from James Gleick, the developer of Pipeline, a new Internet interface (and the author of Chaos, one of my favorite books). It seems we share the same lawyer, and he had "dropped in" to discuss a deal the two were working on. Suddenly this on-line stuff was a lot more intriguing: I could meet very cool people! Gleick and I exchanged a few notes after that, and then I started to explore other on-line services. You can now find me on America Online (JolineG), Women's Wire (same), and eWorld (Dalloway).
I'd been exploring the on-line world for a while when I took Amtrak from Washington, D.C., to New York City for a meeting. On the way I devoured two issues of Wired. By the time I reached Penn Station I had an idea for an on-line version of AIOHO. I skipped the meeting, went straight to my best friend's home, and wrote a proposal for eWorld. Five days later, eWorld made AIOHO an offer.
Now I'm talking to software companies about AIOHO's program materials on economic literacy. I'm pursuing joint ventures because I now know enough to know how much I don't know. And I'm having fun. I'm swimming.
Technology is to the 1990s what mechanical invention was to the Industrial Revolution. The question is not whether you'll use it but how. And all the ploys to avoid it are just so much wasted energy. You can't experience technology vicariously. You learn about it by immersion.
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Joline Godfrey is a partner in An Income of Her Own and the author of Our Wildest Dreams (HarperCollins, 1992).