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Fiorina, tech execs tackle digital divide

Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina tells a Silicon Valley audience that hiring a diverse work force and wiring communities left out of the tech world will help their bottom line.

SAN JOSE--Carly Fiorina urged businesses to seek a diverse work force and to help train underserved communities to use technology, saying that it would help their bottom line in the long run.

"Somebody who you help to help themselves today may very well be your partner, your customer, or your very best employee tomorrow," the Hewlett-Packard CEO told the audience Wednesday at the 2003 Digital Connections Conference here. The event was organized by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.'s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to bring business leaders together to tackle the digital divide--the gulf between those who use the Internet and those who don't.

Fiorina said only 10 percent of the world's population can afford a computer, and getting everybody else wired presents a business opportunity.

She said HP's digital divide initiatives have already helped to wire communities such as East Palo Alto (a poor neighborhood in the middle of Silicon Valley). The efforts have generated business and jobs, she said, by providing people with access to technology. "It's not about talent, it's not about lack of ambition," she said. "The talent is there, the ambition is there. It's about opportunity."

Fiorina, one of the highest-ranking women in the tech industry, told the audience that Jackson had called her to offer encouragement during her heated, and eventually successful, battle for HP to buy Compaq over the objections of some members of the company founders' families.

"It suddenly made me realize how big this battle really was," she said. "I got off the phone and said, 'Oh my god, I've just been praying with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.'"

Four years ago, at the height of the technology boom, Jackson raised the ire of some Silicon Valley leaders when he told them they hadn't done enough to attract minorities. Now, the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate is in town to rally a group that's been disproportionately affected by the layoffs that have slammed dot-com workers. The unemployment rate hovers at around 12 percent for African Americans and at around 7 percent for Hispanics in the Silicon Valley.

Jackson told the conference crowd to think big, to draw inspiration from minority CEOs speaking at the conference and to network like crazy. "So many people have the capacity to jump through all the right hoops, but they just don't have the access," he said.

Securing success
Also speaking at the conference was Symantec CEO John W. Thompson, whom Jackson compared with Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in the major leagues.

Thompson made headlines in 1999, when he took the helm at the security software maker just two days after Jackson had lambasted Silicon Valley's lack of diversity. During his speech, Thompson said that back then, he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. He said he told an editor at the time, "Why don't you show up in two or three years? It will be the story of our success, not the story of our arrival."

Four years later, Thompson told the crowd Symantec is growing despite the downturn. It projects growth of 9 to 10 percent this year and plans to hire 1500 people in 2003. "The fact that (Silicon) Valley is at a low point doesn't suggest there aren't opportunities," he said.

Thompson said biotechnology, network management, and industry-specific customer relationship and enterprise management software represent some of the biggest openings in the tech industry.

"There are opportunities for smart, young entrepreneurs," he told the crowd, noting that his company recently bought a start-up headed by a Hispanic for $135 million.

Chuck Smith, CEO of telecommunications company SBC West, urged the crowd to look for mentors and to mentor others. "As lucrative as my business is and as successful as SBC is, it doesn't matter, if there are people who have been left behind," he said. "We can make a difference with a little bit of creativity. When you go back to work tomorrow, remember how you got there."