NeoTech works to attract black businesses

New panel hopes to lay groundwork in helping facility reach minorities

Howard Business

February 04, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In the brief history of the county Economic Development Authority's NeoTech incubator, Michael Haines has noticed a problem.

Business owners who have landed in the county-sponsored facility have come from as far as India, and as near as Columbia, but not one of them has been African-American.

In a community with a 12 percent African-American population, the lack of participation is a cause of concern, according to Haines, director of business development for the incubator.

"It started to concern me that we're not understanding that side of the business community," he said. "We get very few African-American applicants, and the applicants we get are not quite focused on where we're headed."

But a new committee focused on attracting African-American businesses hopes to make a change in the incubator and lay the groundwork in helping the facility reach other minorities.

The panel, formed last month, is working to identify the reason many minority business owners are not applying, and how the incubator can target them.

One problem, committee members say, is a lack of understanding about the incubator.

"Many people in the business community do not know about the incubator," said Robert Wallace, a committee member and founder of the Bith Group.

"The incubator has to present a business case that lays out what its benefits are," he said.

The NeoTech incubator is an effort by the Economic Development Authority to attract and nurture high-tech businesses in Howard County by putting like-minded technology-focused entrepreneurs in a shared environment.

The incubator is focused on companies that seek to develop or apply technology, not service businesses. It provides office space to upstart businesses for nearly half the going rate in Columbia, and adds some basic office support, such as the use of a conference room and other facilities.

Tenants go through a series of classes to help them learn how to run a business, and are supported by a group of volunteers who act as a board of directors for the company. The facility helps companies with funding because the incubator is often a stop for local-angel investors and venture capitalists.

But many people in the business community don't know about the incubator or what it does, said committee member Clarence Wooten.

"The incubator hasn't done any marketing at all," he said. "I would try to educate the general business community that we, the incubator, are interested in having African-Americans participate. We'll give you office space at a reduced cost. We'll help with your business plan. We'll help you find an attorney."

Since opening in May 2000, the incubator has doubled in size, growing to house 10 businesses, a small-business development center, a satellite office for the state Department of Economic Development and a business resource center with a collection of organizations that provide advice, information and funding to the county's small-business clients.

Three of the 10 businesses that have been housed there were minority-owned. Epitech, the only woman-owned business at the facility, graduated last year.

Considering the small number of African-American applicants to the incubator, committee members have suggested that the incubator do more to be where minority business owners are, and use existing organizations to make their message known.

"Most business owners go to the urban centers. They spend their networking and marketing capital in those cities," Wallace said. "What Howard County has to do is convince them that they should be spending their networking capital in Howard County."

Haines said he hopes the committee can develop a plan that the incubator can use to draw other minority business owners - Asians, Hispanics and the disabled. But Haines said he wants to take one step at a time.

"I don't want to address the whole minority community at once," he said. "Lets get a model that we know is successful."

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