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DECEMBER 13, 1999

ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

A Mentor for the Asking
Bernadette Williams wants to provide minority women with experienced guides to the tech biz


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Ask minority women to cite the biggest obstacle to starting a business and the answer, in survey after survey, is consistent: the lack of a mentor. In the tech industry, where female leaders of any color are scarce, the problem is deeper still. That's what prompted new-media and Web marketing consultant Bernadette Williams, a 31-year-old African American, to co-found the Women's New Media Alliance last spring. Mentors were so important in the development of her own business, i-strategy.com Inc., in Culver City, Calif., that she was sure the same would be true for others.

Williams started the company while still a student at the University of California at Los Angeles in the early '90s. Today, i-strategy has $1.5 million in revenues and five employees. Williams spoke with reporter Karen E. Klein in Los Angeles. Some edited excerpts:


Q: What led you to start your own business?
A: I majored in linguistics and specialized in computer science, which meant I took programming. I was never interested in going to the career center and getting a job after graduation. I started doing computer consulting, putting together specialized databases and doing research online, installing hardware and software and training people to use it. The business grew from there.

Q: Have you run into any barriers?
A:I'm young, black, and female, so some people would say I've got three pegs against me just walking in.

But I've learned to use those things to my advantage. If I go to an industry seminar or workshop or networking meeting, I may be one of only 10 people of color in a crowd of hundreds. I stand out—people never fail to notice me and they remember me.

Q: Why are minority entrepreneurs so poorly represented at tech industry events?
A: Well, it's not because we're not out here! I see a lack of outreach on both sides. Mainstream organizations don't gear their appeals to us. And people of color—especially women of color—often fear they'll feel out of place. I decided early on that as an entrepreneur I couldn't let that fear hold me back. But price is another very real factor. I've not seen one major conference where the cost was under $1,000.

Q: How did mentors help you?
A: I recognized how much people working in other industries could teach me. When I would read articles and biographies about successful businesspeople, I'd call or e-mail or fax them and ask for 15 minutes of their time. All they could do was say no. If they agreed to meet me for coffee, I would bring five or 10 questions and then I'd listen.

Q: How will the Women's New Media Alliance help other minority women succeed?
A: We feel that women, particularly those starting their own businesses, need role models. Yes, there's still a glass ceiling, but if women can look to other women for motivation, they can be players in technology. To achieve this in practical terms, we're setting up a mentor-protegee program. This way, girls interested in technology can get to know a woman who has done what they want to do. Everybody can name famous men in the technology field. But if you ask about women in technology you'll get a blank stare. If you ask about women of color—forget it!

We have an application on our site, www.wnma.org, that will allow us to make matches. We'll ask them to commit to a six-month relationship, using instant messaging or e-mail, so we can accommodate people all over the world.




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