They have heard all about the dangers in Iraq. They've read the headlines counting civilian casualties. They know the story of Nick Berg, the young entrepreneur from Philadelphia whose beheading was broadcast on the Internet.
Yet, 250 ambitious business people have gathered here this week with eyes fixed on what they see as a wealth of opportunity in a desert on the other side of the world.
At this government-sponsored convention on opportunities in Iraq for small businesses, there has been little talk of the risks. Few of the government speakers dwelt on the subject. Fewer of the attendees inquired.
The media have overstated the danger, many of the participants say, and the important thing is to get a piece of the $18.4 billion reconstruction pie before it's gobbled up by the contracting giants of the world. "There's a risk for everything. But the greater the risk, the greater the reward," said Donald Washington, an entrepreneur from Aurora, Colo., hoping to drum up business for his shipping company, Team Worldwide.
Co-sponsored by the Army and the Department of Commerce, the conference attracted companies from throughout the United States and representatives of Iraqi businesses. Officially, between 10 percent and 23 percent of reconstruction funds is supposed to be spent with small and disadvantaged businesses, according to Judith Blake, associate director of small business for the Army Corp of Engineers.
"We are talking about a country that has had literally no infrastructure support for 35 years. So whatever you can think of, they're in need of," said Mark J. Lumer, assistant deputy assistant secretary of the Army's Office of Policy and Procurement, in a speech. "You are here to help us build a free and democratic Iraq. Congress has appropriated billions of dollars for us to do that and we need your help."
Washington will be happy to oblige. Doing business in Iraq could help his company, which specializes in shipping heavy freight loads, expand throughout the Middle East, he said. He is much more worried about being passed over in favor of larger, established contractors than he is about the dangers posted by Iraqi insurgents.
J.B. Management, an Alexandria software design and integration company, already has four employees working in Iraq to support military computer systems. Harry Gibb, the company's director of international programs, said it would gladly take on more such work, despite the rising costs of providing insurance for employees in Iraq.
Frank S. Besson, director of TerraBuilt, a Middleburg equipment company, is hoping to find an Iraqi partner to help it sell a machine that turns soil into bricklike materials.
The gruesome killing of Berg, who had traveled to Iraq with hopes of finding work repairing telecommunication towers, is not reason enough to back down.
"We all saw Mr. Berg and what happened. But he was warned that he was going to the wrong places," he said.
"You really do have to be sensible."
The promise of untold dollars waiting to be made in emerging markets can make some business people blind to the physical and economic risks, warned J.V. Schwann, vice chairman of the Commerce Department's Iraq investment and reconstruction task force. Companies cannot expect to just show up in Iraq and be put to work, he said.
"You really need to have a game plan. How you're going to get into the country, how you're going to get out of the country and, most importantly, what you're going to do in the country," Schwann said. "If you haven't exported to Canada, you probably shouldn't be exporting to Iraq."
Still, some entrepreneurs figure they have to take their shot at the money.
In the past few years, Jan E. Durham and Dale H. Durham have had to cut the staff at their family computer-aided design firm, Durham and Associates Inc., from 15 to four. Landing a couple of deals in Iraq, they say, might turn the business around. So they squeezed their budgets to fly in from Shreveport, La., and pay the $150 conference fee.
The Durhams, who specialize in creating construction models, are planning to make contacts with larger prime contractors. The conference will have been a waste if the company doesn't get any business out of it, Dale Durham said.
"I've spent 15 years getting ready for this job. This is the one. We'll be able to tell our grandchildren about this," Durham said. "It may take six months to actually get to the point where we can do something, but it's got to happen."