Dressed in familiar baggy jeans and a baseball cap, corporate CEO Darien Dash is preaching the gospel of the Web to a crowd of teens at the Alexander Hamilton housing projects in Paterson, N.J. Knowing that for many of these kids the closest model of financial success is the local drug dealer, this 29-year-old dotcom entrepreneur speaks to them in language he knows they understand. "The new hustle," declares Dash, "is technology."
For the past six years, Dash's life has been all hustle--a constant struggle to make it in the New Economy. Last year he became the first African American to take a dotcom public. The mission of his DME Interactive Holdings Inc., based in New York City, is to help urban youth join the technology revolution by providing them with hardware at a cost they can afford--and make some money for himself and his investors in the process.
DME's original business plan was two pronged. First, it would offer business-to-business Internet services, including the development of e-commerce sites. Next, it would help minority consumers get connected and create website content targeted at them. Then reality caused Dash to change course quickly. Before he could sell the consumers websites, Dash needed to go back a step: turns out that a lot of inner-city African Americans still didn't own computers. So DME's new goal became filling that need by selling low-cost computers in the urban marketplace, in effect acting as general contractor in the project to build a bridge over the digital divide.
The venture capitalists, however, weren't buying into Dash's new vision, leading him to seek his capital elsewhere. In June of last year, DME acquired an ailing auto-leasing company called Pride Automotive, which gave him some old-economy collateral--good enough to raise $1 million through an investment bank.
Meanwhile, he managed to capitalize on some good publicity his project was generating, as well as some big-name corporate connections. For Dash personally, it led to a White House invitation, while DME was named the minority technology firm of the year for 1999 by the U.S. Department of Commerce. When he took DME public last June, Dash's net worth reportedly shot up to $30 million--on paper. Then last spring, when Wall Street soured on dotcoms, DME fell on hard times, and investors scurried away. Dash weathered the storm, but DME was forced to lay off more than half its staff. A plan to sell $249 PCs, with free Internet access in New York and New Jersey through a subsidiary, Placesofcolor.com went ahead. But DME's hopes of providing urban-oriented content had to be put on hold.