Afrolink Software Inc. -- First Of Its Kind, Afrolink Software Puts Issues On Line

A pioneering African-American electronic bulletin-board system based in Renton, the first of its kind in the nation, is aiming to increase black awareness of the power of personal computers.

Using its introductory message displayed on screen, ``The Power and Passion of Information'' as a slogan, AfroLink Software intends to ``reach a market that has not been considered previously,'' says the bulletin-board co-director, Kamal Al Mansour.

Statistics are elusive, but most indicators (industry employment, purchase figures) show PC and technical sectors to be white-male dominated, with less than 5 percent representation by non-Asian minorities. Despite the expectation that technical, engineering and scientific employment will grow by 40 percent over this decade, less than 3 percent of those currently employed in the fields are African-American, according to the National Action Council for Minorities.

Although there are more than 200 electronic bulletin boards in the Puget Sound region - and thousands nationally - minority concerns have little representation on any. Subscription services such as CompuServe and Prodigy offer networking possibilities through ``forums'' and electronic mail, but otherwise don't specifically address minority issues.

AfroLink, by contrast, offers half a gigabyte of data, or more material than 10 average 40-megabyte hard drives hold, related specifically to African and related culture.

``Our message is that people should have the same fast and easy electronic access to black-oriented information that they have to other kinds of information, such as Dow Jones, on-line news services or whatever,'' Al Mansour says.

The board offers educational, historical, political, technical and information on a variety of other subjects related to African, Caribbean and African-American cultures. Members may send electronic mail to one another, and a business-card exchange provides networking for black entrepreneurs.

A simple menu structure guides the user through various subject headings. Under the ``U.S.'' heading, for instance, categories are listed including ``business,'' ``economics,'' ``sports,'' ``law,'' ``politics,'' and so on.

Choosing ``economics'' brings up a list of articles with headings such as ``U.S. Cancels $1 Billion in African Debt,'' ``1988 Labor and Unemployment Figures,'' ``African-American Women Narrow Earnings Gap,'' and ``Professional Jobs Filled by African-Americans.''

Under the ``Professional Jobs'' listing, statistics are given for African-American self-employed, corporate and government workers, clergy, engineers, lawyers, physicians, teachers and so on.

Databases for other countries, including African and Caribbean nationalities, work similarly. Al Mansour envisions the board as a useful research tool and educational service: ``Schools and businesses can make valuable use of our data,'' he says.

The board is called CPTime Online, a reference to an old expression, ``colored people's'' time, ``referring to lateness or tardiness,'' Al Mansour said. ``We're saying now that CP Time means on-line time for people of color, too.''

The 31-year-old lawyer co-founded the board with his wife, Angela Al Mansour, after the couple moved here from Boston last year. But the idea for a black data base first struck him more than two years ago.

``I had been involved in several conventional businesses but got interested in looking at Africa in 1988,'' Al Mansour says. ``I began collecting data, transferring it from notebooks into electronic form.''

The bulletin board is run with a Macintosh computer using Red Ryder communications software. Any standard IBM, Commodore, Atari or Macintosh computer equipped with a modem can access the bulletin board after users pay a $39 startup fee to AfroLink. On-line usage fees run 48 to 52 cents a minute.

Although still small with only 30 paid subscribers, the board has members in Africa, Europe, Jamaica, Philadelphia, Texas and other states.

``There are lots of black professionals out there who need to know about electronic resources,'' noted Valita Sheriff, an Atlanta-based computer consultant and computer business owner who was the only black woman in her 1983 electronic engineering class. Sheriff is in the process of setting up a bulletin board in Atlanta available for government, local and private companies seeking talented minority employees.

Besides the bulletin board, AfroLink offers CPTime ClipArt ($34) for graphics and desktop publishing, Africa Insight, African-American Insight and Caribbean Insight (HyperCard stacks for the Macintosh for $49 with data about African cultures), and a black history program called Who We Are ($69). The Insight series is being developed in several African languages, French and Spanish.

Who We Are has proven popular among educators and students, Al Mansour said: ``I get grateful calls from parents saying they're so glad something out there is an alternative to Nintendo.''

Al Mansour also is working to make available AfroLink's database on compact discs and in multimedia form, with animation and speech.

Al Mansour, who has been called the ``pioneer of blackware,'' says modestly, ``I don't know if that's exactly true, but there's no question this is a growing field with much more demand than has been recognized. Our time has come to get on-line.''

Strategies appears weekly in the Business Monday section of The Seattle Times.




-- Employees: 3.

-- Headquarters: Renton.

-- Business: Black-awareness software and electronic bulletin board.

-- Chief Executive Officer: Kamal Al Mansour.

-- Expected 1990 revenues: Less than $100,000.

-- Major customers: Personal computer users.

-- Major competitors: Information services.

-- Strategy: To promote computer networking among black population.