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Biz-savvy couple uses cable to connect black community

Jin-ah Kim

“There is no silver bullet in this thing called business,” says Alexis Brooks, vice president of marketing and communications of Inside Cable Inc. Instead, she and her husband Derek rely on hard work and technical expertise — and a Rolodex to die for — to keep the wolves at bay.

Together, they’re the brains and the hustle behind Inside Cable, one of the few black-owned telecommunications/data network infrastructure companies in what Mrs. Brooks calls Boston’s “parochial business environment.” Mr. Brooks, 44, a former telecommunications design engineer with a law degree, serves as the company’s president and chief of operations. Mrs. Brooks, also 44, studied broadcast journalism at Northeastern University.

The couple launched the company from their kitchen table in Lexington in the winter of 2001. Since then, Inside has exploded, moving into 5,000 square feet of office space in Woburn, adding 14 employees and earning a projected $3.1 million in revenues in 2007.

Its high-profile customer list includes clients like mass transit rail provider Siemens Transportation Systems, discount retail giant The TJX Companies, Liberty Mutual and the Democratic National Convention Committee, as well as heavy-hitting political supporters like U.S. Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

“We’ve been blessed enough to get to know pretty influential people in the decision-making processes of small businesses,” says Mrs. Brooks. “They have provided good ears to listen to what we have to say as practitioners of business.

“They see what we’ve achieved — a relative amount of success — and they want to know the same thing you want to know: ‘How did you do it?’”

Armed with their networking skills and technological know-how, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks have positioned themselves and their company as advocates for small business reform to benefit minority- and women-owned businesses in Massachusetts — a role that has become the key to Inside’s growth strategy, says Mr. Brooks.

“We realized the importance of our being advocates for small business because we are involved in it. We see inequity. We see struggle. We see the loopholes,” says Mrs. Brooks. “If we can help change the landscape, then we can get benefits from it, too.”

Toward that end, the Brookses have been involved both locally and nationally with organizations like the Center for Women and Enterprise, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

One major aspect of the couple’s advocacy focuses on the importance of getting one’s business certified, a critical element that Mrs. Brooks says many minority entrepreneurs overlook. The Brookses have taken the lead in teaching minority and female business owners about certifications, offering training on how to use them more effectively through programs and workshops.

“There are a lot of people of color, minorities and women that have businesses or want businesses, [but] have absolutely no idea how the whole system of certification works,” says Mrs. Brooks, who serves on the board of the Center for Women and Enterprise.

Companies owned by minorities can seek certification as minority business enterprises (MBEs) or disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs), which are necessary to participate in state- and city-run minority set-aside programs. Female-fronted businesses can apply for a similar certification as women’s business enterprises (WBEs).

To earn DBE certification, for example, a business must be owned and controlled by one or more socially and economically disadvantaged persons whose personal net worth — the net value of an individual owner’s assets after total liabilities are deducted — must be less than $750,000. Also, the business’ size, measured by average annual gross receipts over the last three years, must be under a specified dollar amount that varies, depending on the industry.

In Boston, city departments are required to “make best faith to contract a minimum of 15 percent with MBEs and 5 percent with WBEs,” according to the city’s Web site. On the state level, $240 million is targeted to efforts by the State Office of Minority and Women Business Assistance (SOMWBA) to aid certified minority- and women-owned businesses.

As more money becomes involved, more players want to join the game.

“[There’s] a lot of paperwork, a lot of compliance annually you have to meet — it becomes more rigid because a lot of people take advantage of it,” says Mrs. Brooks. “There are so many [certifications]. You have to decide. I wouldn’t advocate just going out and getting involved. It depends on who your target customers are, where you are trying to go, and what you want to get out of it.”

Since its 2001 launch, Inside Cable has obtained more than a dozen different certifications, a fact Mr. and Mrs. Brooks aggressively promote and one that has proven quite lucrative.

“Most customers we’ve met because of our certifications,” says Mr. Brooks with a chuckle. “It’s one tool in your bag.”

But as Mrs. Brooks points out, the tool can only work if you actually take it out of the bag and use it.

“It’s only helpful if the company that’s certified knows how to leverage it,” she says. “You’ve got to show people that you have the tool.”

Many certified companies have still failed because they were not proactive about marketing their certifications to customers, according to the couple.

“We benefit from it only because we put a lot into it. Once we get certifications, we decide we are going to market them,” says Mrs. Brooks.

How they do so varies, as Inside Cable touts different certifications to different prospective customers. To government customers, for example, it promotes its certification in the federal Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB) Program, a set-aside plan designed to give SDBs a more level playing field when competing with larger, entrenched firms.

Through Inside Cable, the Brookses are doing their part to level the playing field for minorities by working to bridge the so-called “digital divide” — the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital and information technology, and those without it. Since day one, the company has had a separate division called Inside Cable Community Technology Initiative (CTI), whose mission is to develop programs that bring technology to minority communities in need.

“My job after college was a design engineer for a phone company. While I was in those design meetings, I learned that there were certain areas in the city … where they wouldn’t put resources, because they didn’t think they can get any returns,” says Mr. Brooks. “So there are holes [in] networks in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.”

His goal is to fill up the holes.

The first step to doing so came in 2003, when Inside Cable and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts set up an Internet kiosk at the Dudley Square bus station in Roxbury where people can check e-mail and surf the Web at no charge. Such partnerships are the key to the CTI, particularly when seeking to outfit areas like schools.

“When we started, we didn’t have any money, but we had technological know-how and relationships,” says Mrs. Brooks. “So what we did, and still do, is when we set out the design of the initiative, if the school needs computers or programs, we bring together our partners and customers that have construction capabilities, that have computers, that have all those things, put them together, donate their services and make the thing happen.”

In two months, Inside Cable CTI will launch “Tech for Tots,” a program designed to bring technology and training to children in the inner city and a dream that Mr. and Mrs. Brooks have held since 2002. That Rolodex helped the dream come true — thanks to the support of Mayor Menino, the couple was able to connect with The Timothy Smith Fund for “Old Roxbury,” a trust that has authorized more than $4 million in grants to establish computer learning centers at nonprofit organizations throughout Roxbury.

“You don’t have to be endowed millions of dollars to give back to the community; we just want people to know that everyone has the ability to do it,” says Mrs. Brooks. “Even while you are climbing, you can help someone else. Don’t wait until you get to the top.”