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In The Balance

Young women and minorities find success in the face of economic disparity.

At the tender age of 14, Sidney Warren knew he wanted to run his own small business someday. "I've always been a natural salesman," says the now-33-year-old entrepreneur, who has grown up to be a partner in two Cincinnati-based TCBY Treats/Mrs. Fields Cookies co-branded franchises. Despite his upbeat attitude, however, Warren maintains a certain pragmatism: "Coming from a minority group, I just felt I wasn't going to be as financially successful working in corporate America."

Enter entrepreneurship--not just for Warren but for a host of like-minded women and minority twenty- and early-thirtysomethings. Their mission? To do their own thing--first, last and foremost. But given the fact that no business exists in a vacuum, it's clear that Gen Xers like Warren must also contend with social forces beyond their control. In theory, today's crop of women and minority entrepreneurs are reaping the benefits of decades-long battles for equal opportunities--the proverbial leveling of the playing field. In reality, however, these Xers are in the curious position of coming into their own at a time when equal-ity-driven initiatives such as affirmative action are being criticized--and, in some cases, struck down altogether. It makes you wonder: Just what kind of playing field are Xers competing on, anyway?

"What you're seeing now is not just a repeal or rollback of affirmative action," says Granville Sawyer Jr., who heads Norfolk State University's Department of Entrepreneurial Studies in Virginia. "In my opinion, what you're seeing is a change in the sentiment of society. People are saying [to women and minorities] `That's all you're going to get from us.' "

This societal shift impacts young entrepreneurs. "It's making it somewhat difficult," says Warren. "But I think for true entrepreneurs, it won't stop them. It builds a level of tenacity."

Partners Kirsten N. Poe and ReneƩ E. Warren (no relation to Sidney) know a thing or two about tenacity. As co-founders of Noelle-Elaine Media Consultants in New York City, Poe and Warren jokingly say they've "been thrown out of the best places" in an effort to build a stellar client roster that includes Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell.

"Affirmative action was needed initially--and it's needed now," says ReneƩ Warren. "Many people are still denied opportunities."

But even as small-business success stories add up, there remains the nagging perception of a playing field that's yet to level out. "Is it impossible for these young entrepreneurs to succeed? Absolutely not," says Sawyer. "But are they required to do more and produce at a higher level? I believe the answer is yes."

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: In The Balance.

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