A Chance To Get Into The Room

By Keith L. Alexander
Friday, November 17, 2006

They didn't leave work until after 4 a.m. Four hours later, they were back in the office -- frazzled and on edge. Sitting around a conference table, eight employees of Enlightened Inc., a technology consulting firm, were struggling to polish a proposal that could well determine the firm's future. It was not going well.

Chief executive Antwanye Ford was rubbing his forehead in frustration. He was dressed meticulously, as always, in a pressed Donald Trump-brand suit and a French-cuff shirt. Not even a succession of 18-hour days could make this man look rumpled. But on this day, he was oozing tension. Enlightened's bid for a multimillion-dollar contract to update the computer system used by the District's probation and parole officers was simply not good enough, he told his staff. The proposal needed more graphics, more punch. As Ford saw it, this bid was his fledgling black firm's ticket to a new competitive league.

Suddenly, Ford's cellphone was vibrating. He excused himself and headed into his private office. It was Larry Daniels, one of the District's chief accountants who oversees city spending. Daniels had received complaints about Enlightened's work on another project, a $400,000 contract to do inventory of D.C. property: police cars, fire trucks, public school furniture.

It was too much. Frustrated and embarrassed, Ford heaved his bottle of water across the room. "You only get one opportunity, maybe two at the most, to prove yourself," he later fumed to a visitor. "As a minority, you have to work extra hard. . . . We're constantly being watched and judged."

As the day wore on, Ford felt that what he had spent years seeking -- acceptance, respect, an unchallenged level of achievement -- had been put at risk. In danger of losing one contract and not winning another he coveted, Ford wondered: Would his aspirations for Enlightened ever be realized? Would he feel this extra pull to prove himself if he were not black?

Ford's anxiety about image is common among black businessmen who are barreling into territory where relatively few of them have established ownership: information technology, construction, real estate, financial management. Many bring with them advanced degrees, years of corporate experience, and cultural and emotional complexities that can both enrich and burden their lives as business owners. Many struggle with whether they must sacrifice their identity to be successful. In Ford's case, that means questioning whether Enlightened should even promote that it is black-owned.

"The dilemma is you don't know whether doing this or not will help," says Barron H. Harvey, dean of Howard University's School of Business and a long-time consultant to minority businesses. "There are some firms that have decided they are going to be who they are and not downplay that they are black-owned. But then they question if they had done it differently, would they have been more successful? You never know."

Ford decided he would take no chances. Enlightened's Web site features stock photos of three young, white men in suits and a white woman gathered around a laptop computer. There are no obvious indications that the firm is run by black men. "We don't want people to shut the door on us before we show them what we can do," Ford says.

The population of black male entrepreneurs has grown dramatically in the past 15 years, as more black men have abandoned corporate jobs and converted their expertise into livelihoods that they control. According to a recent U.S. Census report, the number of black men who own businesses increased by nearly a third from 1997 to 2002, and now number more than 571,000 nationwide. In eight years, at the current growth rate, that number will top 1 million. Previous generations of black businessmen were concentrated in the service and retail fields: They owned restaurants, barbershops, small grocery stores. Most relied on a black customer base. They were people like Ford's parents, who opened an upholstery shop on H Street in Northeast during the 1970s.

But that business model has markedly changed, and black entrepreneurs such as Ford are grappling with a different set of challenges.

Ford is not aware of ever having lost a contract because of his race, but he is mindful of America's history of racial prejudice. If minority companies did not face discrimination, he said, there would not be federally funded set-aside programs. Enlightened participates in such a program administered by the Small Business Administration. The 8(a) program offers business-development assistance and the opportunity to compete for federal contracts that have been reserved for small firms owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged" people, those whose net worth is less than $250,000. Enlightened, which has been in the program since 2001, is certified to participate for four more years.

But even though the program has generated considerable business, Ford is conflicted. He does not want Enlightened to be known as "just" an 8(a) firm. The designation, he believes, whispers: inferior company in business because of government handouts.

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