Use Technology for Empowerment not Entertainment

I have always viewed technology as an empowerment tool. In fact, friends, colleagues, and employees have heard me repeatedly refer to it as “The Great Equalizer.” I just have to survey my own household to witness its advantages. My 16-year-old son routinely tracks down friends through a geolocation site or instantly accesses information for one of his classes by reaching into his pocket and pulling out his smartphone. He literally has his world–all data related to his academic and social activities–at his fingertips.

With young African Americans serving as early adopters of new devices and social media, the “digital divide” has dramatically narrowed, being quickly replaced with the “digital connection.” According to eMarketer Report, African Americans own more cell phones and use more features than any other demographic group. And the number of black Internet users is expected to grow 32% over the next several years, from 21.7 million in 2008 to 28.6 million in 2014.

Today, our most pressing issue is not the quality of our connection but the quality of our engagement. A recent USA Today article, based on a July 2010 Pew Center research poll, reported that 46% of African Americans and 51% of Latinos use cell phones to access the Internet versus 33% of whites. However, the same article reported that minorities may be devoting more time on the Web to entertainment and less time to applying for jobs, building business networks, or expanding their commercial presence.

I strongly believe that we need to become more effective in our use of the Internet, social media, and other technology to drive our businesses, expand our career options, build wealth, and promote social causes. To this day, I find far too many of my peers squandering opportunities or refusing to join the digital revolution, believing the Internet and social media is a province for youth.

Against this backdrop, I want to share my hard-and-fast rules about tech use. For midcareer professionals and established entrepreneurs who still haven’t fully embraced interactive media: Get into the game. Without a Web and social media presence, your competition will most surely eat your lunch. To quote my college basketball coach: “Never up, never in,” meaning you can’t score if you don’t take shots.

I have found that this is the case with far too many of us. For example, a close friend who is an entrepreneur routinely purchases the latest business planning software. The problem is that he never takes it out of the box. He currently has five years of software on a shelf collecting dust. Worse yet, another friend only uses tech for fun and fashion. When accessing her bejeweled iPad, she downloads gossip pages and games. I shared with her that the tablet device should serve as a valuable life management tool, not just an entertainment center. My smartphone, for example, is loaded with apps to help me manage my banking, keep track of my investments, and connect with vital business news and information in addition to obvious communications functions. To me, buying an iPad or smartphone for entertainment is like purchasing an expensive car to shuttle back and forth to the train station.

For young people who have grown up in the digital space: Innovate, adapt, and evolve. Instead of just mastering online games and text messaging, use your skill and creativity to invent the next interactive platform, digital distribution system, or proprietary product or service. Just as important, be careful of how you present yourself on Facebook or Twitter because they are often reviewed by prospective employers.

As a community, we can’t afford to spend our time online for pure amusement. To advance in our personal and professional lives, we must make connections that offer value and empowerment.