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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: It Just Comes Naturally - Software Executive Helps Open Up The Technology Field For Minorities by Pia Sarkar


Michael Fields is not one to preach about giving back to the community, even though he's done more than his share.

As an African American who has held several high-level positions in the technology industry, he has helped recruit women and minorities into the field, provided office space for companies that are just starting out and worked aggressively to create technology jobs in the Virgin Islands, where his wife grew up.

For Fields, giving back to the community is something that comes naturally.

"I have the capability to do it," he said. "I certainly have the desire."

African Americans have long held only a small percentage of jobs in the technology industry, and an even smaller percentage of the executive positions like the one Fields now occupies. At 61, he is the chief executive officer of Kana, a software company in Menlo Park. He previously worked as president of Oracle's domestic operations and started his own software company, OpenVision.

Wayne Hicks, past president of Black Data Processing Associates, an organization focused on attracting more African Americans to technology, said that a low high school graduation rate coupled with a lack of exposure to technology jobs makes it difficult to increase those percentages. There is also a very small network for African Americans to tap.

"We don't have someone in those executive suites looking out for us," he said.

Over the years, Fields has tried to elevate the profile of African Americans in an industry rich with opportunity but limited in accessibility. That is why, in 1997, Fields bought an office building in Oakland and devoted the space to five businesses run by women and minorities. He also set up a high-tech training program at the College of Alameda.

These days he focuses on providing scholarships to students in the Virgin Islands who are interested in pursuing careers in technology. He is also trying to create jobs that will keep technology workers on the islands instead of leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

Fields said technology holds great possibilities for African Americans if they decide to go down that path. And he is happy to lead the way.

"I think it's important that we see more diversity in the tech arena," he said.

Stephan Adams, who co-founded Adamation, a software company in Oakland, said that he cold-called Fields years ago hoping to find an African American mentor, a rarity when he started in the industry. The two struck up a relationship over time. As Adams' company grew, Fields became an investor.

"He was a beacon to us, and still is," Adams said. "A lot of us were given an opportunity that we wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for Mike."

Hicks, who now heads the fundraising arm of Black Data Processing Associates, said African Americans could benefit from more people like Fields.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, African Americans represented 12 percent of the population but only 6.7 percent of the computer science professionals, 3.9 percent of engineers and 7.5 percent of engineering and science technicians.

Nonetheless, it is an improvement over the 1990 Census, in which African Americans represented 11.8 percent of the population but only 5.7 percent of computer science professionals, 3.5 percent of engineers and 6.9 percent of engineering and science technicians.

Like Fields, Black Data Processing Associates hopes for more improvement. Headquartered in Maryland, the organization was established in 1975 to address the lack of minorities in the data-processing field, especially in middle and upper management.

It also seeks to improve recruitment and preparation of minorities for these positions. Last fall, it began offering classes at Auburn University in Alabama, providing management training in information technology for people starting out in the field as well as those with experience who are looking to get ahead.

Hicks said that because technology has changed so much, there are more opportunities in a number of sectors, including banking, real estate and health care. Computers are no longer the giant mainframes that only a few people know how to program. Now all it takes a few strokes of a keyboard.

"Technology is piece of business instead of off to the side, which means there's lots of opportunity," Hicks said. "It's not just strictly, 'Can you write a program?' "

While African Americans are still underrepresented in technology jobs, Hicks said the situation is improving as more people realize the potential in the field. And although racism may exist, he said that it should be no more of a hindrance than in any other field.

"Yeah, there's racism, but that's just a part of where we live," Hicks said.

Fields said that for him, racism has never really been an issue. "There were points where racism could have sent me down a different path, but I had mentorship that didn't let that happen," he said.

Fields started out as a program operator in 1964. A year later, he went into the Air Force, where he programmed mainframe computers made by Burroughs Corp.

As he made his way up the chain, Fields found mentors -- and not just ones who were African American -- along the way, to whom he remains grateful.

"I think back that if it wasn't for the focus given to me, I might not have been able to reach the levels I have," he said.

Over the years, Fields has made it a point to become a mentor himself. He has also worked closely with other African Americans to provide them with the capital they need but might not have access to.

Fields was the original angel investor for ViaNovus, a construction-management software company in Alameda co-founded by African Americans Darrell Garrett and Arthur Bart-Williams.

"As a businessperson, he's very, very savvy," Garrett said of Fields. "He certainly understands what it takes to make a business grow. He understands small companies as well as very large companies."

Garrett agrees with Fields that the technology industry is wide open to African Americans if they want to be in it. But he acknowledged that there are still challenges.

"It's always a struggle to build up a network of support for young CEOs," he said. "A lot of work has been done, a lot of progress has been made, but there still needs to be more progress."

Pia Sarkar can be reached at psarkar@sfchronicle.com. This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.


Pia Sarkar

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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