It's such a familiar picture: the business conference. People are wandering through the hotel in groups, heading somewhere fast, wearing badges. There is a registration desk, where you sign up alphabetically by name. Down the corridor, offices are full of people hustling, copying, making signs, drinking coffee -- putting the whole thing together.
To an outsider, this could be any conference, anywhere. But to Pedro Alfonso, the dull-sounding seminars are full of information, that mind-numbing catalogue is full of interesting facts, and the exhibition hall is full of promise. Here, he has a chance to strike gold. To get to the next level. To do what he has been unable to do even after 20 years in business.
As president and chief executive of the $25 million District telecommunications firm he co-founded, Dynamic Concepts Inc., Alfonso is exactly the kind of person the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration have in mind when they put on the annual Minority Enterprise Development Week conference. Here, big business and big government come together with small, disadvantaged firms that can service them, in the hope that business will happen.
The son of black, Cuban immigrants who spoke no English while he was growing up, Alfonso has come far and achieved much. But he could go so much farther, he said, if only he had the contacts, the recognition, the financing. With those things, he believes, he could build the $100 million business he longs for -- big enough to make a difference and to really compete. Big enough to still be around long after his 8-week-old daughter is grown.
But Alfonso, 51, does not have those things, not the way some companies do. So here he is, sitting in one of those businesslike seating areas that all the big hotels have now, waiting for the conference to start. Waiting to take off.
Dynamic Concepts still meets the government's definition of a small business, but it is not small, in the traditional sense. To many, $25 million in revenue and 400 employees is big business. But in the exploding arena of telecommunications, Dynamic Concepts is both small and disadvantaged. For most big contracts, the company is still too small to be in the prime time; it must settle for a subcontract. And to get to the companies and agencies that put out those big contracts, you need to know the way -- a person or a process.
"At this stage, we're looking at how do we enter [new] markets," Alfonso said. "How do we get access to the corporate sector, where there's not as much public information? How do we find the right person? Hopefully, over the next three days, we'll get one or two contacts that can get that started."
It seems, somehow, that when a company reaches this stage -- Dynamic Concepts is big enough that it did the communications wiring for both the MCI Arena and Redskins Stadium -- it shouldn't be so hard to get contracts. It seems the growth should just happen. But it's not like that, especially for a minority-owned firm.
Access, Alfonso has learned, is the key. But how do you get to the upper echelons of corporate America? As Alfonso sees it, "either through conferences like these, or through volunteer work, whether it's politics or otherwise." Case in point: He met the head of BellSouth Corp. while working on a function for the Boy Scouts of America.
But Alfonso has to work hard for those contacts. He does not belong to a country club. He went to Howard University, not Harvard University. The vast majority of big-time corporate executives do not look like him or move in his social circles.
"There is an inherent disadvantage in this culture for minority firms," he said. But he is not wallowing. He sees it as just another hurdle in business. "The disparities, you just have to work around them."
Among Alfonso's goals for MEDWeek is finding more funding for a start-up he's trying to get off the ground, Dynamic Communications, a local telephone service company that would compete with Bell Atlantic. He is investing about $2 million, and has another $2 million committed from outside investors, but he's struggling to raise the $6 million more he needs.
"Venture capital money is still a good old boys network," Alfonso said. "It's frustrating because I can't pick up the phone and call a college buddy who now runs a venture fund. That's the underlying difficulty in my business that you can't put your hands on."
But you can come to MEDWeek and try to make it happen.
The first seminar Alfonso attends is supposed to be about how you can do business with the energy industry. Mostly it's a bunch of speakers thanking and complimenting other people.
Half listening, Alfonso flips through his conference booklets. There, his eye falls on the name G. Winston Smith, supplier diversity director for AT&T Corp., who is a speaker at another program. Alfonso vows to seek him out at the networking cocktail party that night. Alfonso leaves before the seminar ends.
Later, in the exhibit hall, he moves easily from booth to booth, most staffed by executives in charge of diversity or minority contracts. He is friendly and soft-spoken, but he quickly assesses who knows what they're doing and who is "clueless."
"All these major companies are so large, often the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," he said, shaking his head.
Alfonso talks to people from Raytheon Co., AT&T, Lucent Technologies Inc. and others, explaining what his company does -- telecommunications installation, maintenance and management -- and finding out whether they need those services.
This is how you make business happen, but this is exactly what he doesn't want to have to be doing 10 years from now.
Along the way, Alfonso meets perhaps a dozen friends and acquaintances, all doing the same. Robust handshakes and the occasional bear hug belie the feelings of exclusion he has talked about so much. Among fellow minority business owners and executives, he is contact-rich.
At the cocktail party he finds Winston Smith of AT&T. At a seminar the next day he meets the black executive of a venture capital firm, and arranges to send him a business plan. On another pass through the exhibit hall, he makes contact with BG&E, Hughes and Bell Atlantic.
And when he finally leaves for good, two days later, he is armed with business cards, several concrete leads and the knowledge that many important people will picture a face when they hear the name Pedro Alfonso.
"That's how you get people to return your call," he said.
Alfonso didn't expect any more than that. If you come to a conference like this looking for a touchdown, he said, you'll be disappointed. The best you can hope for is a good playbook.
It was a lot of work, but the real work will be parlaying those leads into contracts, dollars, employees and clout. He wants it fiercely, in his quiet way.
"We're looked at still as a minority firm, and that's an image that I'm not trying to shed. But I want to be looked at as a minority firm and a business that has value, that provides good service, and that hires quality people, black or white," Alfonso said. "Corporate America has to feel it is good business to do business with a constituency that's a part of their customer base."
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Helping Firms Catch Up
Courtland Cox, director of the minority business development agency at the Department of Commerce, says minority businesses, especially small ones, need to work harder to adapt to rapid changes in the business world. The Internet, advances in telecommunications, outsourcing, just-in-time delivery and a host of other changes in the business model are leaving some minority businesses behind. Helping them keep up is part of his job. Among the ways Cox's agency is tackling this problem is through conferences such as MEDWeek, a three-day gathering last week that brought small, disadvantaged businesses together with big corporations. The conference also offered a host of educational seminars and workshops.
"Most minority businesses are really geared to meeting payroll and dealing with day-to-day priorities," Cox said.
"But they need to begin to understand that things are changing."