Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Without it, communities and individuals are faced with a range of social, economic, and political disadvantages. This is a concept entrepreneur and business executive Darien Dash identified more than two decades ago, and it became the driving force behind his early success in technology and digital innovation, which he achieved through his company DME Interactive Holdings, Inc., the first African-American-owned Internet company to be publicly traded.
For Dash, who is now 48, the goal of DME Interactive—which provided Web access, website design, e-commerce, and content—was to expand Internet hardware and software infrastructure for minorities in urban areas. In an interview with host Jan Hopkins for CNN’s Movers program that aired Sept. 23, 2000, Dash describes bridging the digital divide as “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,” he adds, referencing minority communities. “If this doesn’t happen, if we don’t participate in technology, there’s no coming back for us.”
In the interview, he predicted a future where the Internet plays a critical role in the economy, from online shopping to marketing. Without access to the Internet, people aren’t able to effectively participate in the economy. This is as true today as it was at the turn of the 21st century, demonstrating the fulfillment of Dash’s prediction.
Although Dash’s desire was to empower people of color and connect them to an integral technology, he also saw the exchange as mutually beneficial in terms of financial success. At the time of the interview, black and Hispanic individuals had a combined consumer buying power that surpassed a trillion dollars. However, only five million black people had gone online compared to 42 million white people, and Dash saw that as a lucrative market on which he could capitalize.
Doing Well and Doing Good
In Dash’s early years with DME Interactive, he adopted an effectively varied business approach that combined philanthropy and activism with his entrepreneurial savvy, and in doing so, he played an instrumental role in delivering Internet services and digital marketing to minority communities. In the interview, Dash discusses doing pro bono work with churches, schools, and other nonprofit organizations, in addition to consulting for political bigwigs, taking private meetings with political power brokers, and increasing profit margins.
“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,’” he says.
In the interview, he talks about DME Interactive being a lead sponsor for the basketball tournament Hoops in the Sun, held in Orchard Beach. Dash shares how he utilized the opportunity to premiere the brand, but also make a positive difference by doing personal computer (PC) giveaways, promoting places of color, and advocating for increased access to technology. A few years into its existence, DME also launched its subsidiary Places of Color, which was geared toward marketing Internet service to urban minority households and selling PCs at a deeply discounted price to subscribers.
“For us, it is the movement, which is about more than just making money, although making money is an important part of it,” Dash adds.
Two decades later, corporate philanthropy continues growing in value, especially among millennial and Gen-Z consumers. Younger generations often factor in the social and political values purported by a company when choosing where to purchase products and services.
In terms of activism, Dash also contributed to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s report “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” and participated in a national summit during which participants responded to the report. In the same year, DME Interactive was recognized by the Department as the minority technology firm of the year.
Additionally, Dash toured the country with former president Bill Clinton and delivered public speeches at civil rights conferences and other events. According to the interview, Dash focused his activism on critiquing cyber segregation and illuminating how a lack of infrastructure and access to technology disenfranchises minority entrepreneurs and consumers—economically and politically. These impassioned speeches served as Dash’s entry point for engaging prospective clients and turning them into DME customers.
Asked whether he would consider pursuing a role of politics, Dash responds, “Politics has always fascinated me because I believe that there’s true power in politics, especially in our great country, this great country that we have.” He concludes, however, he is committed to the power of technology.
“What I’m thinking about is finishing what we’ve started, going out and expanding this infrastructure with the communities and monetizing that and building a good, strong business model,” he says.
Darien Dash Keeps Evolving to Keep Up With the Competition
Although Dash’s company was not the first to bring minority communities online, he achieved a unique level of success. Part of that was due to teaming up with larger companies, such as America Online, which merged with Time Warner in 2000.
He had a few important role models to look up to, including his stepfather Cecil Holmes, a top executive at Casablanca Records, and his sister Stacey Dash, a successful actress best known for playing Dion in the 1995 film, “Clueless.” Dash himself got an early start in business when, at 17, he helped his cousin Damon Dash start Original Flavor, a hip-hop production company.
When the technology sector faced a shakeup at the start of the new millennium, DME survived by restructuring, eliminating redundancies, and laying off more than half its staff. Although Dash regretted the loss of “some very good people,” it allowed the company to control its overhead and adopt a more effective strategy.
“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,” he says.
Another of Dash’s strengths that enabled him to stay competitive despite a proliferation of websites and portals, according to CNN journalist Caroyln Brown, was his ability for self-promotion. He made himself and his company key players in the technology industry by touring, attending technology summits and conferences, and immersing himself in that world.
According to Dash, his goal—which has come to fruition during the past couple of decades—was 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.”