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On the Issues: Society and Technology 

From Swahili to Connectivity

Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, discusses how technology can help African American and minority-owned businesses work more efficiently, extend their reach and become more profitable.

Published: February 14, 2001

Entrepreneurship has strong roots in Africa. Thousands of years ago, the trading area that includes the present-day nations of Zimbabwe, Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya supplied the world with essential raw materials such as brass, copper and gold. Exotic animals, foods, iron tools and fabrics were also exported to civilizations throughout Asia.

So sophisticated were the African entrepreneurs of this era that they created a common language to bridge the many dialects, cultures and customs of Africa’s diverse regions. This language became known as Swahili, and today it is still spoken by millions of people in east and central Africa.

African Americans have carried on this tradition of invention and ingenuity. African-American business districts in communities ranging from Tulsa and Birmingham to Durham and Harlem were thriving by the turn of the 20th century.

One prominent advocate of African-American entrepreneurship, Booker T. Washington, founded National Business League chapters—forerunners of today’s Black Chambers of Commerce—in more than 40 cities nearly a century ago. Washington also established Tuskegee University in Alabama, by hiring students to work on the university’s engineering and construction in exchange for tuition. Today, Tuskegee graduates are highly regarded and widely recruited in fields as diverse as aerospace science, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, and veterinary medicine.

George Washington Carver, who also was associated with Tuskegee as director of agricultural research, encouraged entrepreneurship with his development of several hundred industrial uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans. His discoveries, including methods of soil improvement, encouraged southern farmers to raise other crops in addition to cotton.

As we enter the 21st century, tens of thousands of African-American entrepreneurs throughout the United States are continuing to aspire to new heights. But today the common language is not Swahili, but technology. The power of personal computers and the Internet is playing a vital role in the creation of new African-American owned businesses, and helping existing ones to grow and thrive. Technology levels the playing field for minority entrepreneurs and creates myriad new economic opportunities.

There are numerous examples of innovative and successful African-American owned businesses that were born on the Internet—from Freshwater Software, a rapidly growing company cofounded by Donna Auguste that provides e-business monitoring and management solutions, to Reginald Daniel’s Scientific & Engineering Solutions, a software development firm with 112 employees that is one of the fastest-growing companies in the Baltimore area.

Technology is helping businesses of every size. Ninety percent of African-American businesses are owned and run by single individuals. Yet, thanks to PCs and Internet services, those lone entrepreneurs can now have "virtual" accounting departments, sales forces, print shops and marketing teams, as well as on-call consultants, to expand their reach and allow them to work more efficiently.

At the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the efficiency of e-mail has saved thousands of dollars a year in printing and distribution costs, and Internet collaboration allows us to work efficiently, in real time, with our chapters throughout the United States. As we form a new chapter in London to expand our connections with Black businesses in Europe, we communicate and strategize over the Internet—at a far greater speed and much lower cost than was possible just a few years ago.

The George Washington Carvers and Booker T. Washingtons of tomorrow will probably use bytes and bandwidth to carry on the tradition of Black entrepreneurship. We don’t yet know what great things this next generation will achieve, but their spirit of innovation will be as welcome to all Americans as it was to the merchants and traders of ancient Africa.

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