Book opens new chapter for black entrepreneur

March 14, 1995|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

When Robert L. Wallace's book "Black Wealth Through Black Entrepreneurship" hit bookstores in summer 1993, it didn't exactly break sales records. But the book did win Mr. Wallace plenty of attention, and placed him on a whole new track in life.

First, there were newspaper and magazine articles and book reviews. A slew of radio talk-show appearances came after that. Then came the fan mail -- up to 50 letters a month -- along with an occasional missive accusing Mr. Wallace of promoting "reverse discrimination."

All that attention -- and no small amount of chutzpah on the part of Mr. Wallace -- has spawned something of a mini-industry for the Ellicott City resident, who estimates that his book has sold more than 100,000 copies at $17.95 each.

He's embarking on a venture to put together a television series based on his book and plans to spin off a motivational video tape, as well as audio cassettes and CD-ROM versions. He also has another book on entrepreneurship in the works.

"There's a whole lot that would never have happened if I had never published the book," Mr. Wallace said.

Soon after it was published and he gained a measure of name recognition, Mr. Wallace found himself called on to give speeches on minority entrepreneurship before business groups and black organizations, such as the Urban League.

It was after just such an event, a tribute to former Maryland Rep. Parren J. Mitchell in late 1993, that things really began to move for Mr. Wallace, a mechanical engineer and graduate of the Minority Business Executive Program at Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck School of Business.

Charles "Chiz" Shultz, a New York-based television and movie producer, and Regge Odom, a Maryland film producer, were in the audience. They introduced themselves to Mr. Wallace and told him that his book held the potential for a videotape. The target market: workshops for minority entrepreneur groups -- an "untapped market," said Mr. Wallace.

The idea has blossomed into a venture to create a long-term television program based on the theme of minority entrepreneurship.

Some shows would be aimed at people with business or government experience who would like to start their own businesses. Others would appeal to people with little or no experience in the business world, including college students at historically black colleges, Mr. Wallace said.

"Bob's got a lot of charisma, and the ideas in his book have potential for bigger and better things," said Mr. Odom, who operates RPO Productions, a free-lance television production company in Greenbelt.

Mr. Odom, Mr. Shultz and Mr. Wallace recently formed a partnership to film a pilot for the television series based on Mr. Wallace's book, which outlines what minorities, particularly blacks, can do to grab a larger piece of the U.S. economy.

Among the telling statistics Mr. Wallace points to in his book: The average black's net worth is about a quarter of the average white's -- $24,000 compared with $103,000.

More troubling to Mr. Wallace, and the main reason he pursued writing the book, was this: Blacks make up 12 percent of the nation's population, but own only 3 percent of U.S. businesses.

The concept for the television series includes having Mr. Wallace interview successful minority business owners and outline how to start and operate a business. Mr. Wallace's group hopes to sell the pilot, which should be completed by this summer, to a syndicate that markets such productions for national distribution.

Mr. Wallace and Mr. Odom believe their concept is marketable to either the Public Broadcasting Service or Black Entertainment Television, a cable service. Mr. Odom estimates potential viewership at 30 million to 50 million in the United States.

Within the next three months, Mr. Wallace expects the motivational video to be ready. And though it's likely to have plenty of competition in the market for motivational business books, videos and audio-cassettes, the group isn't daunted.

"The difference between them and our project is that ours will be aimed at the grass-roots level," Mr. Odom said. "The others are targeted to the top, to people who already have experience and some motion.

"We will provide a chronological, realistic approach" to starting a minority-owned business, he said.

"This isn't a get-rich thing for us," Mr. Odom said. "To survive, we'll have to make a profit to be sure, but we really see what we want to do as a heartfelt way to uplift people" on the lower end of the economic scale.

Mr. Wallace also is pursuing other projects associated with his 289-page book, published by Duncan & Duncan Inc. of Edgewood. They include the proposed audio cassette and CD-ROM spinoffs of the book.

Mr. Wallace said he would market the disks and cassettes through The BiTH Group, his company based in Columbia. The diversified company provides computer system integration services and packing services for manufacturers.

Another result of the book is an educational program. Last summer, Mr. Wallace said, he was hired by the Aetna Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Connecticut-based Aetna, the insurance company. The foundation asked Mr. Wallace to develop an educational program to teach business principles to inner-city youths in eight cities.

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