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Minority and inner-city entrepreneurs face challenges

MILWAUKEE – Wisconsin’s inner-city and minority entrepreneurs face a unique set of challenges, and these obstacles – as well as the resources designed to overcome them – were the topic of a discussion Wednesday at the Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee. A panel consisting of State Secretary of Commerce Cory Nettles, Art Smith, chief executive officer of the Initiative for Competitive Milwaukee, and Mark Burwell, executive director of Green Bay-based Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center, discussed the ways entrepreneurs can succeed in urban environments.

Secretary Nettles began the dialogue by alluding to several initiatives the Doyle administration is implementing to encourage and enable minority and disadvantaged entrepreneurs.

“[In the past] we have not really put a lot of resources into minority business development in this state,” Nettles said. “What we hope to do is make resources available to help you learn the skills to run a successful business.”

He said the administration is taking a broad and proactive approach to mending the situation in Wisconsin by working to offer more resources than previously available with the goal of supporting not only start-up minority-run businesses, but established companies as well.

Nettles cited specific government initiatives including the Marquette Interchange, a project involving the DOC and the Department of Transportation, which is intended to increase and support minority entrepreneurship. The Marquette Interchange, he said, has very high minority-participation goals and both existing and start-up companies can take advantage of this $800-million-dollar public works opportunity.
Gaining access to venture capital is an unremitting problem for almost all entrepreneurs, particularly those located in big cities like Milwaukee. Nettles said a $40 to $50 million dollar venture capital fund that would encourage minority businesses in minority neighborhoods is being considered. It is not exclusive to minorities, rather, geographical location. In addition, Nettles said there are plans to create a “one-stop shopping,” centralized certification plan, which would reduce the governmental paperwork required for business ownership.

The Initiative for Competitive Milwaukee is also working to support this particular group of businesspeople. According to Smith, the organization grew out of the realization that larger cities have untapped resources and opportunities. Launched in September 2003, the Initiative collaborates with many organizations, such as Marquette University, to deliver programs like a business plan contest, an owner manager program organization and a family business center for established companies.

He said for minority businesses to further develop in Milwaukee, the poor and underutilized portions of the city should be viewed as untapped resources.

“To me, part of our solution with the City of Milwaukee is to find to a way to create more opportunities for people to start own businesses,” Smith said. “Milwaukee needs to have a more positive self image of itself, which will then create an environment for more people to do business in Milwaukee –whether you’re an entrepreneur or not.”

Burwell touched upon the importance of empowering and placing minority industrialists in leadership roles. His organization, the Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center, teaches business skills to minorities and emphasizes mentoring and creativity.

The center works to move program participants beyond “just handing out business cards” to engaging in meaningful networking and innovative business development. He suggested that because of the diverse nature of today’s entrepreneur, perhaps another word would be more descriptive.

“I don’t know if we’re really entrepreneurs anymore. One of the things with building communities that we need to look at are ‘inno-preneurs,’ meaning more innovative,” he said. “When you’re speaking to people now, there’s great diversity. … We’re underestimating, a lot of the time, what our minorities have. We’re putting them into different categories.”

While some start-up businesses may face difference challenges than others, Smith encapsulated the tenacious, risk-taking spirit of entrepreneurs, no matter their location or ethnicity.

“Entrepreneurs are never prepared to give up. We might throw something at somebody, but we are never going to give up.”

Kristin V. Johnson is the Associate Editor of WTN. She can be reached at

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