Summer 2003

Doreen Thomas -- Technological Literacy Toward Technological Fluency
by Randal Pinkett

This article is part three of a three-part series that shares case studies from the Creating Community Connections Project, an ongoing effort at Camfield Estates, a predominantly African-American, low- to moderate-income housing development in Roxbury, MA, since 1999. As part of this project, MIT researchers have worked with residents to establish a technological infrastructure by offering every family a new computer, software, and high-speed Internet connection, along with comprehensive course and a web-based community building system. The project combines these elements in an effort to achieve a social and cultural resonance that integrates both community technology and community building by leveraging indigenous assets.

The first article in this series, "Edna Jackson, Technology and Community Building: From Staunchest Opponent to Greatest Proponent,” profiled Edna Jackson, a senior citizen and survivor of emphysema, and demonstrated the positive influence a community can exert on its members. The second installment portrayed the experiences of the resident project leader Rodney Williams, a college student, and his evolution throughout the initiative. This third and final narrative shares the story of Doreen Thomas, and provides a deeper context for understanding what it means to move from technological literacy toward technological fluency as an entrepreneur.

The Story of Doreen Thomas

The year was 1986 and Doreen Thomas, a single mother of three, was unemployed and in search of her next position. One year earlier she left her job working on the bar scene to pursue a family day care operation run out of her home. When she became dissatisfied with childcare as a long-term career move, she worked an interim job. During that time Doreen, a graduate of hairdressing school, was reminded of her degree in cosmetology that she had successfully completed a few years ago. This prompted her to take an open position at a local hair salon.

Unimpressed with their level of service and professionalism, she quickly came to the conclusion that she could a run a better hair salon herself. After only eight weeks of employment. she quit this job, convinced two of her close friends to contribute the $1,100 she needed as a deposit, along with an additional $5,000 to purchase equipment and furniture, and secured a storefront on Tremont St. in Roxbury. As a result, on August 19, 1986, A-1 Concepts of Hair Gallery, Inc. was founded.

Doreen, a resident at Camfield since 1972 and long-time member of the adjacent People’s Baptist Church, is one of a number of small business owners at the development. An extremely confident and outspoken woman, she is also one of the founding members of the Camfield Tenants Association where she remains active to this day, along with her youngest daughter.

Preparing for the 21st Century

When the Camfield Estates-MIT project arrived, Dorreen was one of the first to sign up for the program. She had been using computers and the Internet for a number of years as a result of using a computer to manage A-1’s operations, including general record keeping, a customer tracking database, and a web site. However, she had not previously enrolled in a computer course, which limited her use primarily to sending/receiving e-mail and browsing the web.

"I had already purchased about three computers… but I had very limited skills on the computer. I knew how to put my data in at the salon,” said Dorreen. “What other kinds of things was I doing? Personal. No work. Like, my girlfriend lives in Connecticut. She was e-mailing me and stuff. Yeah, that was about it. Susan would e-mail, too, and that was it. Then go on different web sites when you see them on TV and go see what they have. You know, get information.”

In addition to the prospects of a new computer and high-speed Internet access, one of the attractive features of the project was the opportunity to augment her skills. She completed the ten-week course along with the other participants in Round I, and received her computer on November 15, 2000. However, what was perhaps of greater benefit than any specific skill she acquired during the course was a completely new attitude toward learning. “I’m more confident now,” she says. “I can do more. I didn’t know before, now I do now.”

Armed with a new set of competencies and a new perspective, in January 2001, Doreen happened upon a booklet in her mailbox from an independent distributor for the Herbalife company. “Sometimes you look at stuff, and it looks good to you [and] you read it. And sometimes you get stuff that doesn’t look good and you just throw it way, right? So this day I happened to look at the book, and I said, ‘Oh.’ So I read it. I read the whole book, [and] being I had a computer I went, and I pulled up the stuff… I read all the information, and it sounded good to me.” It sounded so good, in fact, that Doreen decided to contact the distributor, a woman named Chris.

Sowing the Seeds of Entreprenership, Again

Doreen, intrigued by the product offering and the prospect of earning some additional money from home, purchased an initial information packet from Chris. After a follow-up telephone conversation, Doreen was sold on the opportunity. She then purchased a complete set of marketing materials and Herbalife products, making her an independent distributor for the company.

With the company’s assistance, Doreen then registered the domain and assembled a fully-functioning web site complete with online marketing information, credit card billing, usage statistics, and a web-based request form that automatically notifies her of potentially interested customers via e-mail. She has also sought ways to integrate technology into other aspects of her business.

"Since I’ve gotten the computer I have been able to print out my envelopes for my new business in the different formats. Also, I communicate everyday by email with the Herbalife system. I’m currently being mentored by the Herbalife system through email and faxes. This allows me to run my business from home.

"I also communicate via touch phone (conference calls). That’s how they talk to us. We get our reports as well as product reports, and if we need to find out some information on [anything]… if somebody has some kind of ailment, we put it out on touch phone and the people that are listening to us, whoever their clients are or customers are that have had positive results on this… talk to us back. And then we get our faxes from Herbalife through there. And my upline sends me faxes or things to help."

In addition to the items mentioned above, Doreen expressed a strong interest in learning more about Microsoft Word to design flyers and other marketing materials, and about Microsoft Excel, to track inventory and expenses for her new business. She has also made use of the Camfield Estates web site to seek advice and further her marketing efforts. For example, when searching for recommendations on a good book about Microsoft Word, she posted her question to the “Help” discussion forum. Furthermore, her Herbalife business is listed in the resident directory and also on her resident profile. Lastly, shortly after completing the courses at Camfield Technology Center, she and her daughter entered A-1 into the Camfield online business directory database.

Toward Greater Technological Fluency

A-1 Concepts of Hair Gallery, Inc., has been a profitable and rewarding endeavor for Doreen and her family for more than fifteen years now. There is every reason to believe that this success will continue well into the future. Doreen’s Herbalife business is still in its infancy. Her current plan is to assemble the time and resources she needs to grow her second entrepreneurial venture into another viable and lucrative entity.

It is interesting to note that alongside Doreen’s personal and professional evolution has existed a parallel and interrelated path toward greater technological literacy. She has steadily moved from record keeping and data entry to e-mail and web-browsing to strategic use of the Internet for business. While she has not taken an active role in building either of her two web sites, she has a very clear understanding of how to make productive use of these sites as well as other digital technologies (i.e., computer, fax, etc).

This suggests that her trajectory is now in the direction of achieving greater technological fluency, or knowing how to construct things of significance with technological tools. The evidence for this claim is found in her articulated desire to create flyers and brochures and even birthday cards. Such creative activities lie at the very core of the notion of being an active creator and producer. First, they facilitate expression and require a “product” from the end-user. Second, they are social endeavors, meaning there is an implicit audience for whom they are targeted such as family members, friends, or neighbors. Doreen can be expected to be engaged in a number of more fluent activities in the future.

Finally, what stands out from Doreen’s story is not the fact that she has started two business, although that is a laudable accomplishment in its own right. What is most impressive is the way she has leveraged local resources (family, friends, Technology Center staff, etc) and fashioned technology to achieve these goals while advancing a community-minded agenda. For Doreen, perhaps more important than being fluent, she has demonstrated a capacity to get there.

Dr. Randal D. Pinkett is the President and CEO of Building Community Technology (BCT) Partners, a technology services and consulting company.

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