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Darien Dash Brings Internet Technology to Urban America

Aired September 23, 2000 - 3:30 p.m. ET


JAN HOPKINS, HOST (voice-over): Racks of Levis, used air conditioners and faux designer clothes -- marketers think they can sell anything on America's inner-city streets. Darien Dash saw one important thing that was missing: technology. His answer: DME Interactive, a New York-based company that provides Web site design, e-commerce, content and Web access. His goal: to profit by bringing Internet technology to urban America.

DARIEN DASH, DME INTERACTIVE HOLDINGS: I know the realities, the economic realities of African-American markets and Hispanic markets. And, you know, if you look at today, African-Americans spend $533 billion a year on consumer goods, and Hispanics spend $490 billion. So that's a trillion dollars in consumer buying power.

HOPKINS: In the U.S., 41 million whites have accessed the Internet, while only 5 million African-Americans have gone online. That gap is what is known as the digital divide, and Dash vows to close it.

DASH: Where's everything going right now on the information superhighway? Where? I can't hear you? On the Internet, right?

HOPKINS: Twenty-nine-year-old Dash is no stranger to challenges. His father was a drug addict who died when Dash was 17. Dash made the decision to overcome his anger and depression. Now, he's trying to teach others what he learned about building a brighter future.

DASH: So if you don't have a PC in your house, and right now 70 percent of black people don't have PCs in their house -- look around you. Imagine this. Imagine that 10 years from now, everything you buy is either going to be bought with a credit card or it's going to be bought online. And if you don't have a credit card and your not online, then you're not going to be able to participate in this economy.

HOPKINS (on camera): You do a lot of work with Congress, with churches, with organizations and schools.

DASH: Absolutely.

HOPKINS: You do a lot of things for free, basically.

DASH: Absolutely.

HOPKINS: Does it help the business?

DASH: Well, you know, there's been a saying that's been popping over the last year, especially since the whole digital divide issue has come about called doing good while you do well.

HOPKINS (voice-over): And Darien Dash is doing very well. He founded DME in 1994 with profits from a successful record label he created when he was a freshman in college. DME stock began trading in 1999, making DME the first publicly traded Internet company run by an African-American.

Dash is now worth over $30 million on paper. DME's revenues are up 70 percent from a year ago, and now Dash is out to expand his company's reach to individuals, teaming up with big guys like America Online, proposed merger partner of CNN's parent, Time Warner.

HOPKINS (on camera): Your connected with AOL now?

DASH: Absolutely.

HOPKINS: Is it good for a company like yours to be connected with...

DASH: A bigger corporation?

HOPKINS: ... a bigger corporation?

DASH: Yes, the answer is yes. I mean, America Online has been a great partner for us thus far, and I think that their commitments will continue to grow. And it hasn't been the big behemoth coming in and stepping on the little guy.

HOPKINS (voice-over): So far, Dash has avoided being stepped on by behemoths in his work life, but his personal life has seen its shares of setbacks.

When MOVERS returns, Dash talks candidly about how faith helped him turn tragedy into triumph.


HOPKINS (voice-over): This is Public Enemy, a rap group popular in the '80s. Public Enemy's music introduced Darien Dash to the struggles of inner-city life, a world far removed from his life in suburban New Jersey.

DASH: I always had an affinity toward looking up to those people as my role models or wanting to be around that fast life. And when you're young, it's so seductive, you know, it really draws you in.

HOPKINS: But while Dash was drawn to the fast life of the streets, he came home to a different reality: life with his mother Linda and his older sister Stacey.

(on camera): You always were kind of torn between a middle-class upbringing and the street? DASH: Right. When I was growing up, the role models, the people that were doing it, that would be looked up to in my community, were people who were, you know, who were, as they say scrambling and hustling, people who were making money. Because those were the people with the flash and the cash. You know, that's what you wanted to be like. But I was blessed that I didn't have to go home to that every day, that I could go home to a household, you know, during my teen-age years and my young-adult years, where there was some stability.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Dash's parents divorced when he was a child. At 8, his family moved from the Bronx to Paramus, New Jersey, away from his dad who was fighting drug addictions.

The stability of the family home grew stronger when his mother married Cecil Holmes, a top executive at Casablanca Records, the record label that signed Donna Summer and the Village People.

DASH: My stepfather was very successful in the record industry and a legend and an overall well-liked and well-respected and loved man. So he gave me a whole 'nother side of life and showed me a whole 'nother side of life, me and my sister. And really, you know, it was thanks be to God for my stepfather, because he was our saving grace that allowed us not to have to live, you know, that life in the street or in the inner-city projects and so forth and so on.


JULIE BROWN, ACTRESS: Dionne, you're up.

STACEY DASH, ACTRESS: Oh, no, Miss Stoeger, I have a note from my tennis instructor, and he would prefer it if I didn't expose myself to any training that might derail his teaching.

BROWN: Fine -- Amber.

ELISA DONOVAN, ACTRESS: Miss Stoger, my plastic surgeon doesn't want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.

STACEY DASH: Well there goes your social life.


HOPKINS: Dash's sister Stacey, a successful actress, played Dion in the movie "Clueless." Between his sister and his stepfather, Dash was never short on role models. But when he was 17, crisis erupted all around him, leading to his religious awakening.

DASH: I was in high school and my house burned down. My dog died, my father passed away, and my girlfriend at that point who I had been with since 14, who was now my wife, and I had broken up.

HOPKINS (on camera): All of this in a very short period of time.

DASH: Yes, absolutely.

HOPKINS: So how did you -- you know, you're a teenager. DASH: Yes.

HOPKINS: How did you respond to all of this?

DASH: I think it was one of those defining moments in life for me, where I truly found my faith. And it was through -- by the grace of God and divine providence that I was able to make it through that period. And, you know, it came to a point where my mother said to me, she said, either this is going to make you into a stronger man and a better person, or it's going to break you. So I had to accept that it was the will of God.

HOPKINS: But your father was very much tested by the street life, too.

DASH: Absolutely.

HOPKINS: He was a drug addict, right?

DASH: Well my real father taught me a lot. His battles and his struggles that he had to go through with his addiction was not something that he hid from me. You know, it was something that he put in front of me to teach me, you know, that there's a better way, to show me what can happen if you allow these things to get involved in your lifestyle, if you allow these things to happen to you in terms of using drugs as an alternative means or an outlet.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Dash has made it his mission to teach others that there is a better way. The man who got religion as a teen now preaches the gospel of technology.

DASH: This is the revolution that's not being televised. This is the opportunity you all got to wake up, stand up and participate in, otherwise we're going to be lost forever. If this doesn't happen, if we don't participate in technology, there's no coming back for us.

HOPKINS: Impassioned speeches are Dash's way of reaching his target market. Now he has to turn his listeners into the DME customers.

When MOVERS returns, Dash's plan for profitability and the painful cutbacks he was forced to make.


HOPKINS (voice-over): DME Interactive sponsors the Bronx basketball tournament Hoops in the Sun. It's all part of Darien Dash's plan to recruit customers while also providing a community service.

DASH: We bought a tournament this year, where we lead sponsored a tournament out in Orchard Beach, which is a hot spot, you know, for the summertime, where our brand is being premiered. And we're going to be doing PC giveaways out there and really promoting places of color and promoting the concept and the movement, because for us it is the movement, which is about more than just making money, although making money is an important part of it.

HOPKINS: Darien Dash is so determined to turn a profit, he will fight his account over even nominal expenses. This time, the amount in question is $2.

Dash has good reason to count pennies. DME survived this year's tech-market shakeout, but just barely. To cut costs, Dash was forced to lay off more than half its staff. DME is down to 50 employees.

HOPKINS (on camera): You changed your whole strategy, didn't you, as a result of what was happening in the market?

DASH: Well, the shakeout forced us to evolve our strategy and definitely go in and take a closer look at redundancies. I mean, we did have some redundancies in employees, we had redundancies...

HOPKINS: So you had to lay people off?

DASH: Absolutely, we've had to scale back the organization. And that's probably the best thing that's happened for us. It's unfortunate that we had to lose some very good people that I was very, very excited about, but at the same time the upside is we've controlled our overhead. It's made me, as an entrepreneur, and I think the rest of our management team, realize that we don't need a lot of people spending a lot of money to really go out and make money and do an exceptional job of accomplishing our mission and increasing shareholder value.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Now Dash is launching Places of Color, a DME subsidiary geared to market PCs and Internet service to urban minority households. Already partnered with AOL, DME recently struck a deal with a major mainframe computer company to sell deeply discounted new computers to Places of Color subscribers.

DASH: Our price points start at about $150 and they range up. And that's the price of a pair of sneakers. And that's the way that we look at it. You going to buy your son a pair of Jordan's this Christmas or you going to buy your son a new machine or refurbish a certified pre-owned machine?

HOPKINS (on camera): And then the idea is that then you make money providing Internet access?

DASH: Well our goal is to start people in a dial-up environment today that gets them started. You have to get people crawling before you walk. And then our hope is that we'll be able to migrate them over time into becoming paying customers.

HOPKINS (voice-over): DME is not the first company to try to bring urban customers online.

Journalist Carolyn Brown covers technology and has followed DME closely.

CAROLYN BROWN, "BLACK ENTERPRISE": We have a lot of companies now who have sort of jumped on the bandwagon when you're talking about sites that catering to the urban market, also to the African-American market. So you have people like Urban Cool Network, where they're coming out with Net kiosks now, where essentially at some point you'll be able to go into your local McDonald's and be able to log on to a computer and have access to the Internet.

Definitely Net Noir has been a key component, and they're starting to do more now than just have online content. They're starting to provide media services. So when you look at sort of who's his competition in terms of sort of the African-American community, there's definitely a proliferation of Web sites and Web portals and destination sites.

HOPKINS: Dash says shifting DME's focus from strictly content and Web design to hardware and software sales will help DME stand out in a crowded market.

And he's not afraid of the competition.

DASH: I mean, the fact that Russell Simmons has 360 Hip Hop and is up today, and is there. There are a lot of great urban-content sites that are out there. Our goal is to be able to feature those sites and bring them into the marketplace, but most importantly lay the infrastructure that people need to get there.

HOPKINS: Dash's pursuit of profits means he's rarely in one place for very long.

He figures he spends four days of each week on the road. Much of that time is spent talking about what technology represents for minority consumers and entrepreneurs.

Dash spoke recently at a civil rights conference in Washington, D.C.

The lack of infrastructure in these communities means that there's opportunity for entrepreneurs who normally wouldn't be a part of the infrastructure relationship to the customer, which is where the real opportunity in technology lies.

HOPKINS: Next on MOVERS, why the power of technology is not the only kind of power that interests Darien Dash and why he was called on to advise President Clinton.


HOPKINS (voice-over): From dinner parties at the White House to private meetings with the nation's political power brokers, Darien Dash has penetrated Washington, D.C.'s inner circle. Dash's political influence is seen clearly in "Falling Through the Net," a definitive report on the digital divide prepared by the Department of Commerce. Dash contributed to the October 1999 study and later toured the country with President Clinton, speaking out against cyber segregation.

HOPKINS (on camera): You also, I know, believe passionately that this is a huge political issue... DASH: Sure.

HOPKINS: ... that the inner city has to be wired or people are going to be left out.

DASH: That's right. We're bringing in people from other countries to help fill the 800,000 jobs that exist today in this country when we've got people right here domestically who can fill that void, who need to fill that void.

HOPKINS: Have you ever thought about politics?

DASH: I thought about it when I majored in it in school. I was a poli-sci major in school.

HOPKINS: So it might be somewhere in your future?

DASH: I don't know about that. I mean, politics has always fascinated me because I believe that there's true power in politics, especially in our country, this great country that we have. But for me personally, what I'm thinking about is finishing what we've started, going out and expanding this infrastructure within the communities and monetizing that and building a good, strong business model.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Dash learned early what it takes to build a business. He was just 17 when he and his cousin, Damon Dash, started Original Flavor, a hip-hop production company. Within a year, the business was profitable and signed future rap star J.Z. (ph).

Damon and J.Z. are now partners in Rockefeller Records.

DASH: They are wildly successful, and I'm proud of them, as well, because they've really taken something from nothing and built it into an empire.

HOPKINS (on camera): Why didn't you do that?

DASH: There came a point where we ultimately said, you know what? Either I'm going stay in school or I'm going to come home and do this. And I decided I wanted to stay in school. And a lot of that decision had to come from my mother, I must admit, because she wasn't really trying to hear about me come home and be in the record business without finishing my college.

HOPKINS (voice-over): These days, Dash relies on his cousin to keep him connected to the New York City hip-hop scene. They often end up at Mumba, a downtown Manhattan hotspot.

Dash says he has very little time for a social life. His biggest challenge is finding a balance between work and spending time with his wife, Debbie, and three kids, Darien, Dennis and Devin.

DASH: I try to be there as much as I possibly can. My son just celebrated his 8th birthday part. And his name is Darien. And he's -- I'm so proud of him. He's getting so big, and Dennis and Devin, which is my daughter.

I miss out, I think, on the going home and being there for dinner every night or being at karate when they're getting their new belt or -- you know, I try to be there for all of that, but sometimes you just can't because of your obligations to the company and what you have to do to make sure that your meeting your fiduciary responsibilities to your shareholders. And that's the reality of the situation.

But, you know, again, my goal is to be able to create a business and to create something within our community that's sustainable so that when my kids grow up they'll see the legacy.

HOPKINS: And Dash is well on his way to leaving a legacy.

Journalist Carolyn Brown says his ability for self promotion has made all the difference to DME's success.

BROWN: The fact that he was one of the first African-American Internet companies to go public, the fact that he's young, the fact that, you know, he's charismatic. I mean, he's someone where whenever there's a sort of a technology summit or a conference or whatever, he's there. You know, and I think that's key, and I think that's important. That speaks not only of him personally, but, you know, in terms of his company. And it also let's people know that, you know, he's a key player.

HOPKINS: For all his success and networking with the high and mighty, Darien Dash never forgets that his business depends on regular people in America's inner cities, especially young people. And that's what keeps Darien Dash moving.

DASH: To see a kid's face when you go in and talk to them in a classroom and they hear that you own the first African-American Internet company to be publicly traded, and, you know, your only 28, and you look like them, you talk like them, they can identify with you, I can identify with them. You know, that's fulfilling. And that's really why I get up every day and do what I do.



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