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Tech tour targeting minorities

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SEATTLE — Microsoft Corp. is offering workshops in 14 U.S. cities to teach minority business owners about technology in a strategy aimed at building goodwill and new customers.

Some, however, are criticizing the timing of the new program, which comes shortly after Microsoft was hit was a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination.

Orlando Ayala, Microsoft's group vice president for worldwide sales, marketing and services, said part of the reason for the program is to get new business. But, he added, "We're not going to go in just to make a marketing pitch or a sales pitch."

Ayala, a native of Colombia, said Microsoft's research has shown that all small businesses are somewhat leery of technology, but that minority businesses are the most affected. Microsoft found that 30 percent of mainstream small businesses use the Web to sell products, while only 3 percent of African-American businesses and 6 percent of Hispanic businesses conduct Internet commerce.

"I think perhaps access is not as prevalent," Ayala said, "and I think perhaps minorities haven't really been targeted."

The workshops will include tips for everything from electronic commerce to organizing an office. Local software salespeople will be on hand.

"The bottom line is, Microsoft is trying to sell more products," said Denise Pines, director of business development at The Smiley Group Inc. "But they're being very smart about that, too. They're going to these communities and saying 'Hey, I'm not an expert in this community,' and they're partnering with African-American business communities and . . . working with vendors."

The Smiley Group, a company run by Black Entertainment Television network personality Tavis Smiley, is one of two minority-owned businesses Microsoft is featuring on its tour. Jeff Lopez, president of Dekra-Lite Industries, a holiday lighting company that's also being showcased, said new technology can also be intimidating for minorities, especially nonnative English speakers.

"In this computer world we live in there's this jargon," he said, "and I think it's tough enough for a layman to understand in the English language."

In a lawsuit filed in January in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seven current and former black employees sued Microsoft for $5 billion. They claimed they were discriminated against through evaluations, passed over for promotions, paid less and forced to resign at a higher rate than white employees.

Ayala dismissed Hoffler's allegations.

"People always read between the lines and say, 'OK, they are doing this just because of that,"' he said.

He said Microsoft's long-term commitment to the program will show the company isn't just trying to look good.

"The real proof of that will be out there," he said, "not just for this year but for the next five years."

The workshops — 85 in all — will be held through October in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego and Washington, D.C.