Women- and Minority-Owned SMBs Need Tech Support

Thursday Jun 9th 2005 by Colin C. Haley
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A study commissioned by Microsoft leads to a task force and a series of programs to help bring technology training to an underserved demographic.

Last year, Microsoft commissioned researchers at the Urban Institute — a nonprofit economic and policy research organization — to conduct a survey of more than 1,100 small business owners — 75 percent of whom are women and minorities — in six major U.S. cities. The recently released survey results show that SMBs using information technology were far more successful than the companies that did not.

What's more, researchers estimate that increasing the use of technology among women and minority-owned SMBs could result in a $200 billion boost to the economy.

As a result of this survey, Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Commerce, along with other leaders from the technology, corporate and government sectors, formed the Technology Partnership for Small Business Task Force to identify barriers and develop solutions to help these two segments understand the benefits of integrating technology into their business.

The Urban Institute surveyed SMBs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Seattle and Washington, DC. According to Gail Cruise, marketing manager for diversity at Microsoft, these SMBs use computers and have Internet access, but they underutilize the technology. "This is particularly true in operational areas, like inventory control, customer relations, communications and accounting" she said.

Cruise also said that if women- and minority-owned SMBs increased their technology use by 33 percent, they could realize a $100,000 increase in sales, which translates to that total annual impact on the economy figure of $200 billion.

Overcoming Barriers
This particular demographic faces a disproportionate number of technology barriers compared to other SMBs. The survey helped to identify three major barriers.

The first, said Cruise, is the social network. "The owners don't seek advice from local IT consultants. Instead, their social network typically consists of friends and family who are not as well versed or helpful when it comes to technology problem solving. A real information gap exists," she said. "If the SMB owner's network can't define the benefits technology offers, the owner won't invest in it.'

Technology awareness and education is another area of concern. "We found that the business publications these SMB owners reading don't contain strong tech and IT editorial," said Cruise.

The survey also found that lack of computer skills and training is more of a barrier than the cost of technology. For example, only 20 percent of the participants said that they couldn't afford the technology, whereas almost 50 percent said they didn't have computer skills or were uncomfortable with the skills they had.

Cruise said that providing the tools and training is a necessary step to help women- and minority-owned SMBs understand technology products and services. "We found that these SMB owners want hands-on demonstrations, training and interaction with IT experts so they can make the right decisions," she said.

"We partnered with the Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Association (MBDA) last year and created the task force and invited more partners to help understand the market, create potential solutions and to overcome identified barriers," she said.

The task force consists of the following companies and organizations: Cisco Systems Inc., the Hispanic Business Board of Economists, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), the Hispanic Federation, the National Urban League (NUL), SBC Communications, Small Business Camp, the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), and representatives from Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C., municipalities.

Having identified three main barriers, the task force now offers solutions and tools designed to help women- and minority-owned SMBs integrate technology into their everyday business practices.

The solutions include Tech-Connect Live Seminar Series — a series of nationwide workshops; Biz-Connect Online Learning Tool — learn about marketing and advertising, e-commerce and communication and mobility; and a public awareness campaign. You can find complete information on each of these programs, including the seminar schedule at Biz-Tech Connect. Just hold your mouse cursor over the down arrow to read the scrolling text.

Ultimately, said Cruise, the taskforce's goal is to help women- and minority-owned SMB owners understand how technology can benefit their businesses, expand their social networks to include IT professionals and make tech tools and training more accessible.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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