New, tech-friendly atmosphere helps businesses thrive

Work: The technology boom offers minority entrepreneurs an almost limitless number of opportunities, some say.

November 14, 1999|By Lisa Friedman | Lisa Friedman,Special to the Sun

Baltimore may never be mistaken for Silicon Valley. But over the past decade, the region once known primarily for manufacturing has witnessed a tremendous growth spurt in telecommunications and information technology.

From Columbia to Annapolis, companies that specialize in software development, network management and Web design have taken root. And, local experts say, in this new, tech-friendly atmosphere, minority-owned businesses are thriving as never before.

Neither the Department of Labor nor local agencies keep statistics on the ethnicities of Internet-related business owners. But those who keep a close eye on the industry say minority entrepreneurs have wasted no time jumping on the technology bandwagon.

There is an almost limitless number of opportunities, says Ron Swift, president of Swift Staffing, a Catonsville-based employment agency that places about 50 percent of its clients in the information technology field. "Anyone who wants to get involved in this area can. And I think minority businesses come in, fortunately, on a level playing field."

A recent Milken Institute policy brief noted that the number of minority-owned businesses nationwide has grown "explosively," to about 2 million companies grossing a total of $205 billion annually. Locally, more than 12 percent of firms in the Baltimore region are minority-owned. And, according to the Greater Baltimore Council, the metropolitan region ranks seventh in the country for minority-owned businesses.

Entrepreneurs of color are attracted to the Baltimore region for the same myriad reasons as all business owners. Some are drawn because of family ties or the lure of good schools and reasonable housing. Others, especially in the high-tech arena, say they chose Baltimore precisely because the industry hasn't exploded here. Being an Internet pioneer -- a big fish in a small but growing sea -- has its advantages as well.

Frank White Jr., a Chicago native, says when he sought to leave his position as an engineer and open his own telecommunications firm eight years ago, business sense dictated that he head to the Baltimore region.

"At that time black entrepreneurship was more prevalent out here than in the Midwest," White recalls. He chose Howard County, noting its emergence as a headquarters for high-tech firms because of its proximity to Washington and Baltimore.

Today his firm, Advanced Concepts Inc. of Columbia, takes in about $10 million annually.

York Eggleston owns Crave Technologies. The Baltimore native says he remembers the skepticism of his Harvard Business School classmates -- most of whom were headed for California's Bay Area -- when he decided to start an Internet promotions firm in his hometown two years ago.

The local high-tech industry was small then as now -- especially compared with those in California or even the Washington corridor -- but Eggleston says that didn't bother him.

"I believed the movement was broad enough. One of the reasons I came back was because I believed there was hope and growth prospects in the area," he says.

Undoubtedly, there has been growth.

According to Maryland's Office of Planning, the state saw a 5.2 percent increase in 1998 in business services, which includes everything from janitorial services to computer software development. Though the increase was slightly lower than the previous year's, planning officials note that this segment of the service industry is responsible for infusing more than 60,000 jobs -- more than any other sector -- into the state economy since 1990.

In a study by the American Electronics Association, Maryland ranked 15th in the country in high-tech employment, offering more than 97,000 jobs.

"Some people are already saying that the Washington corridor is the next Silicon Valley. That's spreading here to Baltimore also," Swift says.

Even economically distressed neighborhoods are attracting computer companies.

Michael Preston, spokesman for Empower Baltimore, the nonprofit organization formed in 1994 to administer the city's $100 million empowerment zone grant, says several of the companies moving to the region are in information technology or telecommunications. The combination of strategic location and financing that probably couldn't be obtained elsewhere has made the empowerment zones attractive especially to small Web design firms, he says.

In addition to making room for entrepreneurs, the technology boom has created a drive for qualified employees that has broken the glass ceiling, said Sherry F. Bellamy, president and chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic-Maryland.

"There's clearly a shortage nationwide," she says. "That means people who once may have been excluded from a workplace because of gender or ethnicity or race -- well, people can't afford that kind of narrow-mindedness when they need the skills."

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