TEN years ago, in the early days of the personal computer, it seemed as though high-tech industries could have hung up a sign: ``Entrepreneurs wanted. White males only, please.'' The heroes of that era were almost always men and almost always white. Slowly, that's changing.
Here and there, women and minority entrepreneurs are setting up their own high-tech firms.
``There have certainly been a lot more women getting into the high-tech field,'' says Hinda Gilbert, chief executive officer of PhiTECH Inc.
Six years ago, the San Francisco software products company she started with another woman was a rarity. Today, it is becoming commonplace.
``I think it's much easier for women than when I entered the industry,'' says Janet Strazzulla, president and founder of Retail Profits Inc., a small software firm in Santa Clara, Calif.
There are also more high-tech firms owned by minorities.
The number of minority-owned high-tech firms on average is growing more rapidly than the number of minority businesses as a whole, says Timothy Bates, director of the urban policy graduate program at the New School for Social Research in New York. He says these firms tend to be more profitable, less prone to failure, and more likely to serve non-minority clients.
Good statistics are hard to come by, partly because government agencies have changed the ways they count these businesses. Also, ``high-tech'' itself is a vague term that's very hard to define because it cuts across so many industries. Mr. Bates focuses his research on ``skill-intensive'' industries, which include business and professional services.
Many high-tech firms are service-oriented. In fact, most high-tech companies owned by minorities and women are service companies. But a growing number of them make things. Ms. Strazzulla's company developed software that stores use to transfer funds electronically.
Government set-aside programs help many of these firms get started, analysts say. Typically, federal or state government contracts require 10 to 15 percent minority participation. So large companies who bid go shopping for partners. Digital Equipment Corporation, for example, recruits minority- and women-owned partners.
But access to government contracts has cost minority firms some credibility in the private sector.
``The hardest thing we have to overcome is the stigma of a disadvantaged small business,'' says Kevin Landry, manager of a subsidiary of black-owned ETA Technologies Corporation in Los Angeles. Mainstream businesses wonder if these companies succeeded because of preferential treatment. Many of these companies downplay their minority status to avoid the stigma. Analysts say the next big hurdle is to grow these companies into big-league players in the private sector.
``The challenge for American corporations is to help them get there,'' says Harriet Michel, president of the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). Ten years from now, ``we will either have captured or missed a great opportunity.''
`IN the next three to five years these programs are really going to swim successfully upstream ... or they will decline and people will get discouraged,'' says Marcus Weiss, president of Boston's Economic Development Assistance Consortium, which helps minority businesses.
For example, only about 20 of Digital's 800 to 1,000 business partners are owned by women or minorities. Company insiders say the program has slowed to a crawl and needs to be revamped.
On the other hand, AT&T recently won an NMSDC award for its support of minority-owned businesses. One of its success stories is Network Solutions Inc., a Herndon, Va., telecommunications company. Last July, AT&T awarded the company a $12 million contract - perhaps the largest ever from a US company to a minority firm - as part of its $15 billion effort to upgrade US government telephone systems.
Large corporations spend years helping their suppliers develop and grow, but they're reluctant to invest similar effort in minority- and women-owned firms, says Clyde Jackson, manager of purchasing and transportation for AT&T's federal systems division.