Entrepreneur attacks stereotypes


April 13, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Joshua I. Smith, who travels the nation to push black entrepreneurship, thinks black power must be rooted in business, not politics.

Mr. Smith, 52, is founder and president of the Lanham-based Maxima Corp., which helps government and business manage computer and communications technology. With more than 800 employees and about $50 million in annual revenue, Maxima ranks among the top 20 black-owned businesses in the United States.

Mr. Smith says the negative perception of blacks in business must be attacked first within the African-American community itself.

OUESTION: In doing business, have you found over the years that you've been stereotyped because you're black?

ANSWER: Today people say, "Oh, my goodness, you made it," and that tells me they didn't expect me to make it. There's nothing surprising about a person who's reasonably bright, with good experience, good discipline, no matter what color, being successful in business. But in -- and about -- the black community, it's a surprise.

There's an extraordinarily negative perception of blacks in business. The problem is not so much the view of others; it's the lack of appreciation by blacks for blacks in business.

When you have economic strength, things change. When you create jobs instead of ask for jobs, things change.

Q: Does that mean that once black Americans attain a certain economic status, discrimination will disappear?

A: No, it will not. But it doesn't bother you as much because you're moving ahead on your own agendas. When you achieve those agendas, you also influence the attitude that is responsible for the discrimination.

Civil rights, to me, is a product of power. When you don't bring power to the table, why should someone change? How can five lions attack 10,000 wildebeest? Why aren't they afraid of the numbers?

The bottom line is they are attacking the weakest wildebeest. Why? Because they can.

The benefit of economic strength is that it may not change the soul or mind of an individual, but it will certainly change their action. When they find you can fight, they will seek other, weaker, enemies. That's the rule of the jungle in economics.

Q: What is the best advice you can give a black person who aspires to a business career?

A: First you've got to like what you do. You have got to go into a job knowing full well you will have your own business. Go out and learn the industry. Get your experience on someone else's payroll. That's what I did. It may take three to six years.

Q: You headed the U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development in the Bush administration. What were the main findings?

A: We found there was an overwhelmingly negative perception of blacks in business. If you're a bank-loan officer and I come into your bank, you just don't think black people can make it. That's where we get stopped in our tracks.

The federal government by law refers to minorities in business as "disadvantaged businesses." How can you compete as a "disadvantaged business"? That is the most lethal term you can ever apply.

Q: What should Congress do, based on the report?

A: Create one agency, the Agency for Development of Historically Underutilized Businesses. Minimize bureaucracy and red tape in the Small Business Administration. The biggest problem is blacks' access to capital.

Q: Will you keep being a Republican Party fund-raiser as you were under President Bush?

A: I was an appointee and a friend of the president.

But, do you know, the White House never acknowledged receipt of the [Commission on Minority Business Development] report?

That really hurt me. That, coupled with the Republican National Convention in Houston, have set me back to the point where I'm on sabbatical.

The party has offended anyone other than people who have a wife or a husband, 2 1/2 kids, a white picket fence and a dog. We've offended women. The gay issue to me is totally ridiculous. As an African-American, how can I be against people who aren't popular because of what they are? This right-wing of the party is destroying the party.

I will always be a Republican, because I believe in economic principles, but there's an attitude there that says, "If you're not like me, you're wrong."

Q: If you're a black person living in a black neighborhood and there's a Korean-owned store on the corner, do you make a special effort to patronize a black-owned business and bypass the local store?

A: Yes, I do. I recommend that blacks buy from blacks. No one admires the Asian or Jewish business communities more than Joshua Smith, because I'm an entrepreneur.

But the basis of the black problem is we more readily accept some other ethnic group in our community to buy from than our own.

We fail to value the benefit of recycling dollars in our community. Every time that dollar is turned around, a job is protected. If blacks would recycle the dollars, that would create more businesses than any government program could ever do.

Black people don't invest in businesses, we're not in stocks and bonds, we have only one-tenth the assets of white America.

You've got to look in the mirror and say, "Who do I blame?" You can't just blame the government or the white man.

Q: Isn't blacks buying from blacks reverse discrimination?

A: No, it's not. It's selective buying. That's what everybody does. What's wrong with black people doing it?

It's not against anyone. It's for the black community. When Asians employ Asians, is it really a policy against blacks? No, it's for them.

Blacks have to have a policy for blacks. Otherwise, we're going to be totally dependent in a very few years on other people for our very survival.

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