A Mentor For The Asking

Bernadette Williams wants to provide minority women with experienced guides to the tech biz

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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