Minority-Owned Small Businesses Gain Technology Savvy from Nationwide “Build Your Business Tour”

REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 31, 2002 — In 1993, when Denise Pines started her publishing and marketing company, Pines One Publishing, she and her assistant would share information by calling out to one another from their offices. They had e-mail addresses that bore no relationship to the company and no Web presence.

That was before Pines attended one of the seminars Microsoft offers in its Build Your Business Tour. Now she has a small server that shares information within the company, her assistant, and the many contractors that work for her. They have uniform company e-mail addresses, and she’s using Microsoft bCentral to create and maintain a Web site for Pines One.

Though she had been fairly proficient with a computer before, Pines didn’t feel that she was maximizing its potential.

“As a business, I wasn’t being as effective as I could have been,” explains Pines, who upgraded her computer software and equipment after the workshop. She and her assistant had used different operating systems before unifying on Windows 2000. Pines learned how take advantage of applications such as Microsoft Outlook at the same workshop. “Just from an image standpoint alone, upgrading was worthwhile — today, every business should be leveraging the use of technology.”

One of Pines’ favorite examples of her newfound efficiency is being able to fax a multitude of documents right from her computer, when previously she spent late nights at the office, dialing number after number. “Because I work so much, I’m very conscious of time, so anything I can do to save it, I will,” she says.

Pines no longer limits herself to the Los Angeles-area when scouting for talent. “The beauty of it is that we do everything on a computer, so I never have to think, ‘Oh, this graphic artist is in New York, they can’t work for me.’ If I’m a business that isn’t utilizing technology to its fullest, for example, if I have to stick to what is geographically convenient, I would be limiting the scope of my own business.”

The Microsoft Build Your Business Tour, now in its second year, is designed to aid minority business owners to integrate technology into their businesses and close the “business digital divide.” The 10-city tour is cosponsored by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 12 African-American and Hispanic partners in each of the tour cities, and consists of a series of free technology workshops, customized for African-American and U.S. Hispanic business owners. Microsoft serves as the title sponsor for the Blacks in Technology Summit occurring Feb. 2-3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Radio personality and consumer advocate Tavis Smiley is hosting the Los Angeles summit. As president and CEO of the Smiley Group, Smiley is one of Microsoft’s small-business partners in the venture.

“There is no doubt that black people spend a lot of money on computers and other related equipment, but we are not embracing and appreciating technology for all that it is worth,” Smiley says. “As a small-business owner, I was able to see a bottom-line difference once we upgraded. As an advocate for black people, I wanted to empower other African-American business owners by sharing what I had discovered. The tour has gotten tremendous response. Every Build Your Business event I’ve spoken at has been standing room only.”

Pines wasn’t sure what to expect at the seminar, but was impressed by the knowledge she gained, made the determination to upgrade her computers and software — and never looked back.

“Computers today are faster, more efficient and multitask better, and you need to have a computer that’s capable of using the robustness of your software to its fullest potential,” she says. “And these days, hardware is far more affordable than it was in 1996. I’m not sure if all small business owners realize that, if their last memory was a purchase five years ago.”

Compaq and CompUSA are corporate partners on the Microsoft Build Your Business Tour. Small-business access is a key to their involvement.

“We want to provide small business owners with access to affordable and quality technology solutions,” says Dan Busse, Compaq’s North America SMB Marketing Director. “When small businesses see Microsoft and Compaq together, they know those are two very credible brands that they can trust. They’re able to be confident in the quality of the products and the quality of the brands that they’re getting.”

Pines, whose company has published two of Smiley’s books, explains that the bottom line is what counts to a small-business owner. “People don’t think they have the time or the money to educate themselves like this, especially small businesses; we’re always counting pennies. But the seminar is free, and when I saw what I could get out of it, I just said, ‘Wow.'”

Microsoft research suggests that there are 1.4 million African-American and U.S. Hispanic small businesses (10 employees or less), which represent 18 percent of all U.S. small businesses. Of these, 60 perfect believe that the Internet, combined with productivity software, can help move their businesses forward. While PC and Internet penetration is strong among them, 67 percent of small-business owners with PCs are using 5-year-old versions of Microsoft Windows and Office. Web-site adoption is also slow, with penetration nine times lower than that of non-minority small businesses.

“I’ve been trying to get the message out there to people to not just get in the game, but keep up with the game,” Smiley says. “I try to tell them, ‘When you upgrade your system, you can downgrade your expenses.’ People should at least figure out what they can do within the framework of their budget that will allow them to increase their productivity — sometimes they have to make the investment in the short-run that will pay off in the long-run. There are a lot of us who will postpone making the right technology decision, and the longer we procrastinate, the harder it becomes to run our business. So it becomes a matter of challenging people to readjust their priorities.”

Microsoft, with the support of Compaq and CompUSA, will host 185 free technology workshops in U.S. cities that cover approximately 80 percent of Hispanic small-business owners and a majority of African-American small-business owners. The workshops demonstrate how to streamline processes, reduce costs and market a business efficiently and effectively through technology.

Attendees also hear the experiences of successful minority-owned small businesses, such as that of Smiley and Bernadette Williams, president and CEO of i-strategy.com, who spoke at a Build Your Business reception. Williams pursued a double major — computer science and linguistics — at the University of California at Los Angeles, and before her final year of studies, started a computer-consulting and information-brokerage firm, which she later sold. She then started i-strategy.com, a technology-integration and multimedia-development firm, work she found more stimulating.

Last year Williams received an award from the National Association of Women Business Owners. At a subsequent Build Your Business Tour reception, she presented a case study of how i-strategy.com, which now has 11 employees, uses technology to save money, make money and communicate with its nationwide network developers.

“A lot of what the tour is about is trying to get people to understand the value of integrating technology into their businesses,” Williams says. “With that being a personal, professional mission of mine, I basically turned my company into an example. Continuing technology education is vital. People need to be aware of what’s available, but also have enough focus on their business so that they know what their immediate needs are and what is feasible to integrate in their company.”

Williams upgrades i-strategy.com’s equipment every 9-12 months. She discusses how to judge the business value of technology upgrades in a book she has written, “The Black Enterprise Guide to Technology for Entrepreneurs,” due out in April.

“It’s a strategic planning guide for any small business owner, whether they are an attorney, have a hair salon or a construction firm,” Williams says.

She believes that the Microsoft Build Your Business Tour seminars help bridge the “knowledge divide” that keeps people from being comfortable with technology. “Even if people have access to equipment, computers are only high-tech paperweights unless you educate people and show them a way to use it that’s meaningful to them,” she says.

As for Pines, just being able to fax from her computer was alone worth attending the seminar.

“I honestly don’t know a better way a small-business owner can get the same depth of information on how to use your computer more efficiently and cost-effectively than by attending the seminar,” Pines says. ” Microsoft knows exactly how to talk to you about exactly what your issues are. It is as if they have all been small business owners.”

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