Lena L. West realizes that any African American woman who thinks about starting a tech company today will likely get discouraged if she flips through an industry magazine. “A quick browse reveals very few people who look like me,” she says. It’s a realization that could make any budding entrepreneur shy away from a potentially lucrative business opportunity, says West, founder and CEO of Yonkers, New York-based xynoMedia Development (www.xynomedia.com), a company that helps early-stage firms develop and implement technology solutions.
Put the magazine down, says West, because there are many African American women forging ahead in a male-dominated field–including her. Founded in 1997, West’s firm expects to gross $1.2 million in 2001. She started the company with $225,000 in savings, most of which she earned as a technology consultant. In 2000, West’s achievements garnered the attention of AlleyCat News, a publication that covers emerging growth companies in the New York and tristate area, which named her one of the top 25 women in Silicon Alley.
But early on, West says, she was disheartened by the scarcity of black women in technology. Little did she know that she would become her own unique selling proposition. “The opportunity exists for precisely the same reasons that many African American women would write it off–because we stand out,” West explains. “These days my best selling is done in a roomful of people who don’t look like me–because I stand out, and because they remember me.”
Deborah Lansdowne, president and CEO of Host Technologies Inc. (www.host-technologies.com), in Falls Church, Virginia, has had similar experiences, and says that at any meeting or industry function she’s usually one of maybe two African American women in the room.
Prior to starting Host Technologies with her partner and chief technology officer, Kevin Swarns, Lansdowne worked in the telecom industry. Today, their 10-employee company consults with and develops software for technology companies. Host Technologies is on target to reach $2.5 million in revenues this year, a 400% increase over 2000, says Lansdowne.
As the first Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce member of the board of directors, who was African American, a woman–and the owner of a technology company, Lansdowne attributes part of her success to her uniqueness in the industry. “Chances are good that [clients] will remember my name while they may not remember someone else’s,” Lansdowne adds. “It’s wonderful.”
When Peggy Dodson started Urban Broadcasting Co. Inc. (UBC, www.ur banbroadcasting.tv) in Harlem, New York, five years ago, she was immediately disappointed by the few African American mentors in the field. Her hybrid company–an entertainment-telecom firm that recently launched a national cable network targeting the urban multicultural market–crossed several industry lines, leading Dodson to choose her mentors from several areas.
“The convergence of cable and technology fascinated me, so I sought out mentors who were familiar with that concept and formed alliances with them, though there was a definite lack of African Americans involved [in those fields],” says Dodson, UBC’s founder, president, and CEO. “It was rough in the beginning because of that.”