How do you capture the attention of busy entrepreneurs, harried policy professionals, and a group of cynical telecom lawyers to advance diverse entrepreneurship in the modern communications era? Put together a dynamic panel of successful diverse entrepreneurs. On July 10th, a rapt audience toasted the success of the lively group of entrepreneurs during an animated discussion at MMTC’s 11th Annual Access to Capital and Telecom Policy Conference.
Much of MMTC’s work focuses on the challenges and barriers to entry for minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) in the media and telecommunications space, but success stories abound as well. In a refreshing change of pace, MMTC’s past few conferences have taken the opportunity to highlight MWBE success, giving attendees the opportunity to learn from the collective experiences of each distinguished panelist. During the conference, MMTC and its guests celebrated the success of a panel of diverse business owners as they shared their experiences and provided advice for future entrepreneurs.
MMTC Board Secretary Ari Fitzgerald guided the discussion, which covered startup and entry into the industry, access to capital, and the importance of mentorship and building a valuable network.
Broadcasting Success is a Labor of Love
Presenting the broadcast perspective, Steven Roberts, Co-Founder of The Roberts Companies, parent company of Roberts Broadcasting, described the challenges and opportunities for new entry. Roberts Broadcasting applied for its first license in 1981, but only after significant time and expense did the company receive it in 1986. It wasn’t until 1988 that the station began broadcasting, seven years after it first applied for its license. Roberts advised aspiring entrepreneurs that “it’s a pretty tough process. So, if you go into broadcast, TV, or radio, just understand that it doesn’t happen overnight, unfortunately.”
Further, Roberts outlined the difficulties of gaining access to capital in the broadcast business, especially when working with banks that don’t always understand how to invest in broadcast licensees. The Roberts Companies was able to build on the success of their home shopping stations that had their own revenue stream before they converted stations to more independent channels.
Today, the media and telecom arm of The Roberts Companies is quite successful. With four television stations and one radio station to its name, the Roberts Companies also created and launched the first African American-owned wireless company in the United States.
The initial opportunity to get into wireless service arose from Designated Entity set-asides in major spectrum auctions. After building out the network and affiliating with a major carrier, The Roberts Companies also had the opportunity to get into the retail side of the wireless market.
Noting the necessity for the FCC to ensure diverse participation in the upcoming incentive auctions to provide a chance for MWBEs to compete, Roberts sees several entry opportunities for minority and women entrepreneurs.
Roberts perceives real opportunity in low power, Class A, and full power stations in smaller markets. Roberts explained, “Even today, as competitive as it is in the wireless, television, and radio business, there are always niche opportunities for us… that the larger players cannot move quickly enough to take advantage of.”
Diverse Leadership Nourishes Diverse Communities
Second-generation entrepreneur Brigitte Daniel, Executive Vice President of Wilco Electronics Systems, has been focused on leveraging and diversifying the success her father achieved in cable to grow into a technology company. Wilco fulfills a unique need in their Philadelphia community, providing services to low-income communities. Responding to its customers’ needs to access broadband, Wilco has been able to establish and leverage partnerships arising from the Recovery Act’s Stimulus Package to start delivering broadband services.
Further, Daniel was able to leverage her connections and experiences as an Eisenhower Fellow to bring affordable tablets and handheld devices back to her community. Wilco just launched Knick Knack Learning, an educational startup company that connects underserved schools with digital resources.
When it Comes to Digital Platforms, Content is Key
Antonio Guernica, CEO of Guernica Marketing, illustrated an alternate channel to serve multicultural communities through media and telecom. Guernica’s background in broadcast management helped him start his marketing consulting firm, which provides strategic insights on effectively reaching and serving Hispanic consumers. Guernica, who advises entrepreneurs and media companies that want to break into the Spanish field, recognizes tremendous opportunities in both the digital and mobile platforms. He does, however, see one constant – content. While the method of delivery may be changing, compelling content continues to drive the audiences to consume.
Guernica identified several current entrepreneurial opportunities for the media and digital space:
- Innovating ways to marry online consumer behavior and television or video content
- Serving the growing English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Latino communities
- Entering radio as the declining cost of broadcasting present an opportunity to succeed in local radio
- Leveraging an understanding of the broadcast, telecom, or digital space to market and consult for industry players.
A Tech Company Can Be Born from a Tweet, But Still Needs Access to Capital
Ana Roca-Castro, Founder and Chair of Latinos in Tech Innovation & Social Media (LATISM), started her journey in entrepreneurship from her bed during sabbatical from the United Nations. Frustrated by not being able to join social networks to communicate with family overseas, Roca-Castro built a social network exclusively for diplomats and their families. This startup was sold within the first year, illustrating how quickly companies evolve in the Digital Age. The timeframe for starting a tech company is much different – much shorter – than in broadcast.
LATISM, which is a platform of volunteers using social media to empower the Latino community, was born from a single Tweet. Roca-Castro’s current startup, Plaza Familia, grew out of LATISM’s school intervention program, visiting schools to talk with students about their experiences and to give students access to successful STEM professionals. Plaza Familia, the first bilingual education platform to prepare children in both English and Spanish, took eight months to build. At the end of eight months, the company opened a limited two-week registration period with the goal of signing up 300 schools. Plaza Familia was forced to close registration early after it received more than 500 signups – essentially more than $9 million dollars of invoices within that timeframe. Roca-Castro has been able to leverage her position as a leader in the Latino community to persuade companies to invest in the Latino community as a condition of working with them.
Roca-Castro advised that, in order to make it as a tech startup, entrepreneurs must be a little crazy and a little masochistic, but most of all they need to have access to capital – venture capitalists that believe in their ability to succeed.
While access to capital remains a key concern for entrepreneurs in media and telecom, the stories told by this expert panel gave hope – and invaluable advice – to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to achieve the same level of success.
- Jacqueline Clary is the John W. Jones Fellow at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. In this position, she focuses on a variety of policy issues to advance minority participation in the media and telecommunications industries. Ms. Clary earned her B.A. from John Carroll University, her J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, and is a member of the New York State Bar.
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