Mixing high tech, high profits, and a social agenda in the Bronx

Rafael Collado and Ramon Morales have seen the future, and it is in the South Bronx. They see it in high technology, and in businesses that have a social agenda as well as profit goals. They tell you about people such as Eddie Garcia, who began his working career as a maintenance man. He now works on computers for the two men, and wants to study engineering.

Mr. Collado and Mr. Morales, friends since junior high school, are chairman of the board and president respectively of Protocom Devices. This leading-edge, high-technology firm serves customers such as IBM, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service from the middle of what is considered America's premier symbol of urban blight.

``We are in the South Bronx because we feel it really is a good place to be,'' says Collado, a thin, bespectacled man whose energy practically sends sparks across the room. ``We came here to show it can be revitalized.''

Collado immigrated with his family from Cuba as a boy, and was raised in the Bronx. He got a scholarship, aimed at bright minority students from poor areas, to a junior high school in Manhattan. He went to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute for an engineering degree, and spent several years with high-tech firms like International Telephone and Telegraph in California's Silicon Valley and in Arizona.

Morales, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in East Harlem, and went to the same junior high school as Collado. He eventually wound up at Harvard University, where he studied economics, and has since worked for city and state governments as a community organizer, and for Prudential Insurance Company.

But as beneficiaries and believers of the heady civil rights and political days of the '60s and early '70s, Collado and Morales have not forgotten their roots as they have become successful.

And so when Collado decided to join the ranks of entrepreneurs several years ago, to market hardware that enables large mainframe computers to communicate with each other, he decided to come home to the Bronx.

An area that literally burned during the '70s, the South Bronx seems an unlikely spot for a high-tech firm. It's high poverty and crime rates are distant from the affluence of high-tech areas such as Route 128 outside Boston.

But the choice does not seem incongruous to Collado. It is close to several major universities, good transportation, and -- most importantly -- the largest market place in America.

``It is only logical to be here,'' he says, ticking off Wall Street and the communications industry as large potential consumers. ``Why be in California if you are shipping all your products back here?''

Both he and Morales see themselves as pioneers in technology and in a socio-economic venture. They refer to themselves as a ``third wave'' company, after the book by futurist Alvin Toffler, who sees the end of the industrial era and the beginning of a technological information age.

Morales, who speaks easily about high technology, although he has learned it all since joining Protocom, uses such terms as empowerment, guerrilla technology, and value-added jobs.

``I've been a believer for a long time that social and economic justice begin in the workplace,'' says Morales, who's mother worked in garment-industry sweatshops.

And he and Collado try to practise what they preach. Their ``social agenda'' includes continuing training for all employees and a commitment to education that includes the ``adoption'' of the same school where they first met. They serve as role models in the Bronx, and as consultants, in promoting computer-based training and in encouraging other firms like theirs to locate here.

The Bronx needs more than garment factories and printing firms chased out of Manhattan by high rents, says Collado. Too many politicians focus on what he terms ``the Vietnamization of economic development'' -- driving up the ``body count'' in bringing new jobs to the area.

``I'm not knocking honorable work,'' says Collado. ``I am saying you can do better. [These old industries] may not add any long-term stability to the area -- just dead-end jobs.''

The city should instead encourage indigenous, future-thinking firms that are ``applications'' oriented. The South Bronx should not try to become Silicon Valley, says Morales, but should look instead at the specific high-tech needs of New York area customers, and be ready to change when needs change. These jobs will require more skills and be higher paying, something the South Bronx could use.

Protocom has grown rapidly, employing 35 full-time workers. Morales expects sales in fiscal year '85 to be around $3.5 million to $4.5 million, with $1 million in profit. Next year's are expected to be $15 million. The company is in the process of going public.

But Morales and Collado would not say that they are minorities who have flourished in President Reagan's deregulated, free-market, entrepreneurial atmosphere.

Morales laughs when he is asked what school of economics he follows. ``I honestly couldn't say,'' he says as he sits in his office at Protocom Devices in the South Bronx. He has watched his friends in East Harlem grow up to find obstacles to good employment and who end up underemployed.

``A few years ago I would have called myself a Marxist. . . .I still have the social orientation of a Marxist.''

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