Biz Tech-Connect Opens World of Opportunities

Reed Overfelt, general manager, Microsoft mid-Atlantic small and medium business (left), chats with Ronald Langston, National Director of the Minority Business Development Agency, following a press conference announcing the creation of the online tool Biz Tech-Connect.

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 16, 2007 — In May 2003, when Thomas Bell and three friends decided to go in together on a small business venture, a bed and breakfast (B&B) inn called The DC GuestHouse, they had no idea that one day their undertaking would be one of the top six B&Bs in Washington, D.C. three of which are African-American owned. In the four years that have followed its inception, The DC GuestHouse has been written about in such publications as Savoy and Oprah’s O magazines and The Washington Post, and annually serves about 400 customers who average three-night stays.

The DC GuestHouse is one of the few B&Bs in which the owners actually live on the property. “It has a different feel from a hotel, because it really is like they’re being invited into our home to stay awhile,” explains Bell. Each owner chips in on part of the upkeep of the house, but it is Bell who manages it full time.

The acclaim The DC GuestHouse has received is due in part to its spacious, well-appointed rooms — six available for reservation on a 10,000 square-foot property; a unique and inviting atmosphere that features many works of fine art from all over the world, including an African collection that ranges from 40 to 3,000 years old; a gourmet breakfast that accounts for such limitations as diet and allergies, but is otherwise a surprise every morning; and its prime location in the heart of downtown D.C. However, the success of The DC GuestHouse can also be attributed to the work of Bell, who not only runs the B&B but is also chairman of the B&B Association of Washington, D.C.

“One of the most challenging things about starting a small business is getting the word out,” says Bell, 44. “Marketing and advertising can be prohibitively expensive. Where a chain establishment might be able to advertise in every publication that gets read, a small business like ours may only be able to do so in one. That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing the information and resources that Biz Tech-Connect will provide.”

Marketing tips and tricks are just one of the features of Biz Tech-Connect, an online tool launched today, provides online technology training geared toward women and minority-owned entrepreneurs at no charge. The announcement was made today at a press conference in Washington, D.C. at the National Press Club, by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), and Technology Partnership for Small Business Task Force co-founders Microsoft and AT&T, under the guidance of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Ensuring that women and minority entrepreneurs realize their business success and competitiveness through the effective use of technology is essential to America’s economic strength,” says Ronald Langston, MBDA national director.

Ginger Johnson, 29, began making her own line of beauty products three and a half years ago in New York. Johnson, too, cites marketing as one of the challenging aspects of starting a small business, particularly those owned by women and minorities and she is both.

“I found the marketing and advertising section on Biz Tech-Connect very appealing,” she says. “And the rest of the site is a welcome refresher course on business 101, quick and easy to access, with information that comes from trustworthy sources. I like that. There are a number of nice jewels you can find on the site.”

When Johnson first started Ginger Luxe, her line of beauty products, she didn’t have a Web site and took orders mainly by phone. This prompted her to incorporate and hire a Web developer, who created an online site that Johnson maintains. Now her primary source of profit comes from e-commerce, and her site receives 4,000-5,000 visits per month.

“Mainly, sales comes from being mentioned in publications, word of mouth, makeup artists who have used my products, and MySpace, which is such a phenomenon,” Johnson says. “But it’s not always just people going to purchase products on the site. Just recently, I was contacted by someone who wanted to use my products in a photo shoot. So you never know what can come of it. Having a Web presence and being able to take advantage of the strength of the worldwide Web enables me to be able to compete with larger corporations. Women-owned businesses have a lot to offer, and I think there’s still a stigma that we can’t do the job as well as a man. It’s a challenge to be taken seriously which is important if you’re passionate about your work and love it.”

The Technology Partnership for Small Business Task Force, a first-ever collaboration of an elite group of IT industry leaders, associations representing small, minority and women-owned businesses, and other partners, was convened by Microsoft, Cisco and AT&T to address the underutilization of technology by minority- and women-owned businesses. The Task Force, managed by ITAA, was a response to a 2004 survey conducted by independent research organization Urban Institute. It found that of more than 1,100 small-business owners from six U.S. cities with high concentrations of minority- and women-owned enterprises, companies using computers and other technology extensively were significantly more successful than those who did not, and that more extensive use of technology by minority- and women-owned businesses could potentially add up to US$200 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product each year.

“Women- and minority-owned businesses are among the fastest growing companies in the U.S., and are doing incredible work in all sectors of our economy,” says Reed Overfelt, general manager of Microsoft’s mid-Atlantic small and medium business division. “However, many of these companies are not fully utilizing technology and are unaware of the potential impact it could have on their business success. Because we believe in diversity as a core business value, Microsoft has a vested interest in helping women and minority business owners realize their full potential.”

Biz Tech-Connect offers helpful information and resources on topics such as financial management, marketing and advertising, communications and mobility, and customer relationship management, and also features a video of the day, success stories and how-tos, such as publishing an e-mail newsletter.

“I am really excited about all the new technologies and opportunities that are available to me on the site,” says Faye Lone, 48, an award-winning artist in Washington, D.C., whose quilts and stitch work are available to collectors and museums. “I like the easy navigation, and the wide-ranging information available, from marketing tips to common mistakes to being able to talk to people who are doing the same thing. I don’t have to guess where to go, it’s all there for me.”

Lone, a mother of six who sometimes enlists the help of her children in the making of her quilts, stitches people, animals, and other life-inspired objects, putting them together to tell family stories on the borders of quilts. Typically in the past, Lone able to create two large quilts and eight small quilts at a minimum per year, but due to a new machine, is hopeful that she will now be able to create four large and four small quilts a month.

“I had to teach myself a lot of things, from Web design to marketing,” says Lone. “Not easy when I was working full time and taking care of my kids, as well as needing time to devote to my art. This new resource will help as my business grows, by just being able to talk to other people and not have to rely on commercial reviews, but get real validation from real people and be able to trust the information I’m getting.”

In addition to the community aspect that Lone enjoys, content, features and links on Biz Tech-Connect provide users with up-to-the-minute business news through AT&T’s Small Business TV, instructional Web-based seminars, video training courses hosted by business experts, and information on managing and growing a small business. Business owners can also submit questions to and receive answers from member companies.

“The idea behind Biz Tech-Connect was to create a resource hub that is accessible 24/7 for the woman and minority business owner that is seeking to grow their business capacity and increase their bottom line,” says Overfelt. “At Microsoft, we know that to run a small business successfully, one must be able to maintain the proper balance between excellence and efficiency. Biz Tech-Connect provides the woman and minority entrepreneur that equilibrium.”

Lone, who is an enrolled member of the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation, considers her art as a life quest to educate the world about Native culture. Her long-term goal is to establish a business incubator, a foundation for a business infrastructure, in order to help the reservation and a small community of unskilled workers to understand business management and economics.

“I’d like to create a model for community economic development based on our culture, society and lifestyle,” Lone says. “There’s so much to learn about other cultures and values, and tools like the business portal being made available today help share the wealth, help the world get better, and understand that there’s a humanness beneath it all.”

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