The Buzz In Black Business

May 13, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

Reggie Cook has put a post-apartheid spin on an old bit of advice: Instead of going west to seek his fortune, Mr. Cook has decided to go South -- as in South Africa.

When Mr. Cook started getting interested in the country four years ago, he was as skeptical as the next person. But a bit of research convinced him that once apartheid and the international economic boycott was lifted, South Africa would be a great place to do business, especially for an African-American.

"I got to know the people. They're very industrious and entrepreneurial. And investors can get in on the ground floor -- if they act now," Mr. Cook, of Long Beach, Calif., told 300 participants at the Black Entrepreneurship in America conference at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

In addition to Mr. Cook's panel, which explored how African-Americans can get involved in South Africa's transformation, other events focused on how blacks can help build the information superhighway and better support each other.

The three-day conference, sponsored by Dow Jones & Co., concludes today.

Mr. Cook, managing director of South African Partners, said investing in South Africa is important because it helps blacks internationalize their operations. "If you're not thinking globally, hTC you'll be second-class citizens here because the money is increasingly in international business," he said.

Another participant on the South Africa panel, Justin F. Beckett, said demographics are the key to understanding South Africa's appeal. African-Americans may be wealthier and almost as numerous as South Africa's 40 million citizens, but South Africa is a chance for black entrepreneurs to get in on the ground floor of a potential boom.

And working in South Africa can give black entrepreneurs advantages that they don't enjoy at home, both men said.

Top government officials, for example, are infinitely more accessible than U.S. politicians, while African-American entrepreneurs' shared racial heritage with South Africans makes them ideal partners for big companies seeking a toehold.

"Now I'm getting calls from Pepsi about the South African market. I don't get those calls about the U.S. market," Mr. Cook said.

Earlier in the day, television commentator Tony Brown said this sort of entrepreneurial risk-taking is needed if African-Americans are to enjoy the economic success of immigrant groups.

Many groups come to America with little and still succeed, Mr. Brown said, because they establish informal lending organizations and -- most importantly -- because they believe in themselves.

"You can't be an entrepreneur safely. You have to be a risk-taker. It [non-competitiveness] is a mind-set that other groups don't bring to this country. They don't come here to be integrated. They don't come here to be bussed," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown said he was optimistic that blacks and other minorities would soon make significant business breakthroughs, if for no other reason than the demographic fact that by 2000, white males will no longer form a majority in the work force.

Companies will realize that their markets and the racial mix of their future employees mean they have to embrace diversity or suffer financially.

Beyond the speeches and round-tables, the conference was a chance for black owners of mid- and large-sized companies to network, as thousands of business cards and ideas were exchanged between the sessions.

Commenting on one entrepreneur's request for advice on how to expand her business, Parks Sausage Co. chief executive Raymond Haysbert Sr. said blacks have to learn to help each other better. "We are great entrepreneurs, but see how few of our actions are group actions," he said. "They're individual actions."

THE WINNERS

The annual Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards were announced at the Black Entrepreneurship in America conference last night. The winners are:

* Harriet R. Michel, president of the National Minority Supplier Development Council

* Parren J. Mitchell, the former U.S. congressman from Maryland, founder of the Minority Enterprise Legal and Defense Fund

* Joshua I. Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of The Maxima Corp., a Lanham-based computer systems company.

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