Best and Brightest Teach Basics of Business on Africa Trip

WebMethods founder Phillip Merrick is among Five Talents' supporters.
WebMethods founder Phillip Merrick is among Five Talents' supporters. (Todd Cross - Twp)

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By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Just about every tech executive in the Washington area counts April Young among his or her most influential mentors.

A couple of hundred entrepreneurs in rural Africa might now say the same.

Young, senior vice president at Comerica Bank in Reston, spent two weeks in August teaching business basics to would-be business owners in poverty-stricken parts of Uganda and Rwanda.

The trip was sponsored by Five Talents International , a Vienna organization that fights poverty by teaching business skills and that has been embraced by many in the local tech community.

"It's an opportunity for people who've never been able to leverage their business skills to help other people," said Hooks Johnston , general partner at Valhalla Partners , a Vienna venture capital firm and a member of the group's board of directors.

The six-year-old organization is associated with the Anglican Church but is grounded in business fundamentals.

Young, who made the journey with seven others, spent her days teaching workshops on topics such as identifying a business, record-keeping and marketing strategies. Those are the same topics covered in MindShare , the year-long, invitation-only class for promising technology entrepreneurs Young helped create in 1997 with Gene Riechers , now of Valhalla Partners, and Harry Glazer , formerly a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig LLP .

"There's an amazing continuity. There are people who get it immediately and people who will never get it," Young said. "The ones who succeed are the ones who take the time to plan and understand what the market is doing -- and of course, there is never enough venture capital."

Five Talents does provide a form of venture capital, in fact. The organization gives micro-loans, usually no more than $300, to impoverished people trying to get small businesses off the ground. In some instances the funds are used to buy sewing equipment to start seamstress shops or tools for hairdressing and agricultural businesses. One woman, Young recalled, was given a $2 loan to buy two rabbits and started a breeding business to support her family.

Along with Johnston and Young, the organization has attracted a number of big names from the Washington tech community. Phillip Merrick , founder of Fairfax-based WebMethods ; Mike Lincoln , a venture capital lawyer at Cooley Godward LLP ;and Gina Dubbe , managing partner of Walker Ventures , have all lent time and money to the group.

"This is something they understand from a technical standpoint," Craig Cole , the group's executive director, said of the tech sector's attraction to the organization. "They are used to seeing entrepreneurs building their own businesses, and they are basically helping people who are making a dollar or two dollars a day go through the same process."

Young said as many as 600 people attended each of the two-day seminars she helped teach, with most of the attendees women who walked several miles to participate.

"You come back with this extraordinary sense of how hungry people are -- not for food, but for knowledge," Young said. "They want a better life for themselves and their children."

Selling 'Tangible Memory' Of Digital Photographs

For all the billions of dollars people are spending on digital cameras, Stephen Giordano Jr. thinks it's still an image on a piece of paper that folks are after.

"It's the only tangible memory of our lives that we have," Giordano says.

For the past five years, his Vienna start-up company, Lucidiom Inc. , has been trying to make a profit selling kiosks that turn digital images into physical ones.

Soon the company's technology will be installed at Ritz Camera Center stores throughout the nation. Giordano is hoping the deal with Beltsville-based Ritz will be the turning point for Lucidiom.

More than 13,000 of the firm's automated photo machines -- they call them "APMs" -- will be scattered throughout the United States and Europe by the end of the month, Giordano says. The kiosks allow customers to crop and print images and to customize them into calendars, T-shirts and key chains.

In most cases, Lucidiom's kiosks are installed at small, independently owned camera shops and a few pharmacy chains in Europe, but Giordano is hoping the Ritz deal will help it break into the chain retail market in the United States.

Giordano and his father and co-founder, Stephen Giordano Sr., have a track record in the photography technology market, but not one filled with successes. The two previously founded Digital Now Inc. , a Reston company that makes high-speed film scanners and production software. That company raised $30 million in a public offering on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2000 but filed for bankruptcy the next year, and the Giordanos were replaced by a new management team.

The younger Giordano describes Lucidiom as the opposite of Digital Now and says he's come to believe that "this is where the market is."

Digits

$7 Million

That's how much money Herndon satellite equipment company iDirect Technologies Inc. was burning through each quarter when John Kealey signed on as chief executive in late 2001. This week the company announced that it will be acquired by Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd. for $165 million. Kealey says iDirect is on track to do more than $80 million in revenue this year.

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail ismccarthye@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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