Black founder of Internet domain registry, Network Solutions, reminisces on racial barriers in tech sector
Albert White sits and takes a long sip of iced tea. It’s summertime in Maryland and he’s preparing for the annual family get-a-way out of the country for several weeks. But if things had turned out just a bit differently in the tech industry several years ago, White would actually have joined the ranks of multi-millionaires and billionaires who retire early and spend slow-paced days golfing, investing and buying islands. Not so, however, for this man who just happened to find himself under the wrong circumstances albeit at the right place at the right time many years ago.
Years before Google, before tablets, heck, before the Internet was a popular term, and even before the first domain name was offered to the general public, a predominantly African-American team actually once controlled the Internet; or at least your domain access to it. Few may know it today, but Al White was a vital part of that team and still thinks longingly about those heady days when sink or swim business decisions were made by the minute and when untold amounts of money were within grasp’s reach — if they just could have held out long enough.
Once upon a time a couple of friends got the idea that this tech stuff might be a good business opportunity. Emitt J. McHenry was working diligently at the time as a vice-president at the former Union Mutual Insurance Co. Between this position and a former one which he held as a systems engineer at IBM, he could see how the dots were beginning to connect in a new way in business so he, along with some partners, started a little company called Network Solutions in 1979.
The venture actually began as a consultancy company providing engineering solutions for such corporations like Nations Bank (now Bank of America); but one day the group got a tip from the head of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the Internet was going to be big. It was suggested that Network Solutions, given its expertise, track record and core competency, put in a bid to the government to manage the domain name registration services for the Internet. They figured, “Why not?,” put in the bid, and won the contract. Won sole authority to develop the system and issue web addresses ending in .com, .net, .org, .edu and .gov.
“You have to understand,” explains White. “We had no competitors for the bid. Not AT&T. No one. No one really knew what this Internet thing was, so it was not on anyone’s radar. And had it not been for the head of the NSF at that time, it would not have been on ours either.”
Around this time, White had been brought on by his friend McHenry in order to head up corporate marketing at Network Solutions. His role included many responsibilities, but one of the main ones was to evangelize about this new platform called the Internet. He remembers that it was tough-going but that, in time, Network Solutions grew to approximately 400 employees.
“Slowly some people began to understand or at least be curious about the Internet, and we started to get more and more requests for the domain names,” says White. But the tech architecture to handle such an emerging industry was costly to create, to say the least. “We had no income producing model for this,” White explains. “The agency (NSF) would not let us charge for issuing the names. That was part of the deal, and we had no idea the thing would move the way [it] did. When you hear it now it seems crazy but, yes, we actually gave away all those domains for free. Had to.”
Capital was needed, and now. The issue was how to raise it, and that issue quickly became two-fold. One, White says that Network Solutions could not raise money because people did not believe the Internet was ever going to be anything of great value. Two, if it were something of value, it was perceived that anyone African-American couldn’t possibly be on top of it. “ I know as I was out doing my thing, I could sense that it was literally like, ‘if it was going to be big, white people would already have this thing,’” says White. “We got dismissed again and again, by white and black investors alike.” So, after 16 years of both good and bad times, they sold it to an outfit called Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for $ 4.8 million in 1997.
But this is not where the story ends.
SAIC would then turn around and later sell Network Solutions in 2000 to VeriSign for $21 billion dollars and make history in one of the biggest tech deals to be completed in the United States at that time. Network Solutions remains one of the most important companies in the Internet industry.
Traumatizing. Devastating. It is for such events that these adjectives were probably created. In fact, White and McHenry even stopped speaking to each other and parted ways, bitter with disappointment.
This situation might be a distant memory, but could remain a looming concern for many young black tech entrepreneurs today — and therefore the U.S. economy overall — because there is no full-proof inoculation against business growing pains. Are many entrepreneurs falling prey to a similar strain of “Network Solutions syndrome” today? Where, for example, are the faces of color in the current Best Buy television ad that features a number of successful Caucasian males trumpeting their inventions? From the duo that started Words with Friends, to the man who enabled mobile phones to take photos, each man starts off saying, “I invented….”
While watching that ad, one can’t help but think, “They created those things, but it’s African-Americans who actually over-index in mobile phone purchases, usage, expenditures, features and mobile video viewing.” Need verification? Google “Nielsen Mobile” and find out. Clearly, we are not timid about the use of technology, so perhaps there is something more.
“[P]art of the problem,” explains White, “is that we have very little reference to our history of contributions to building America. We don’t know our history, particularly within tech. We don’t know that we come from a long line of inventors and entrepreneurs so there is little psychological support for today’s black entrepreneur. But we do, we have and we can still create amazing things… even in this economy!” White cites contributions within Bell Labs, broadband and more where blacks have played a vital yet clandestine role in the rise of technology.
We just may have an opportunity to begin to turn things around, however. White is encouraged that through the jobs bill people will soon be able to invest in companies on-line via a new twist on crowd-funding. This could be a huge game-changer for economic growth (particularly for people of color), regardless of whether one might be on the entrepreneurial or investor side of the table.
“What we need to do now is start to understand this opportunity and, for example, create investment clubs around it in order to review potential businesses and take full advantage of it,” White excitedly explains. “This is a huge move that the SEC is doing because it will put power in the hands of the individual; buyer and/or seller. All one will have to do is produce a business plan, have the right background credentials and take it to a crowd-funding site. You’ll be able to get up to a million dollars, if you’ve got the right idea. This makes access to capital much less problematic and levels the playing field for those who want to invest in the new tech companies that will be the black-owned Apples and Samsungs of tomorrow.”
For White and McHenry, time has changed many things. It’s taken several years, but the two former business partners have found their way back to friendship and continue to share with each other’s families and at events. McHenry owns and runs a $300 million company with firms such as Nokia among its clients.
But where they, and we, go from here is — as the character Neo says in the closing scene of The Matrix — a choice I leave to you. White has some guiding words of wisdom.
“If there is any advice I could give black entrepreneurs today,” explains White, “it would be that you must stick with what you are doing, if you feel it is right. Don’t allow other people to tell you that you don’t have anything important like we did. That is really the key. That’s why we suffered. Listening to other people… who didn’t know.”
Hopefully, future African-American tech entrepreneurs can benefit from White’s drama of lessons learned from a life in the tech arena.
Lauren DeLisa Coleman is part of the new technorati-to-watch. She is a mobile strategy specialist and analyst specializing in the convergence of Gen X, Y with hip tech platforms, and the author of the new e-book, Rise of the Smart Power Class. Follow her on Twitter at @mediaempress.