20 Apr Inner-city entrepreneurship isn't 'Easy Street,' but some are walking the walk
St. Timothy’s Church on Milwaukee’s North Teutonia Avenue is a place where people can expect to hear a thing or two about angels, but usually they’re angels who are depicted in flowing robes as they descend from heaven.
At a meeting in the church last week, Alder Michael McGee Jr. wanted to discuss a different type of angel – “angel investors.” These angels don’t have wings, but they may have a high-flying checkbook.
In a Milwaukee neighborhood that is no stranger to economic hardship, some citizens are thinking about launching their own businesses. McGee, a first-term alderman whose father is a familiar figure in Milwaukee politics, is trying to help.
McGee, a member of the Milwaukee Common Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee, has launched a series of “Financial Fitness” workshops for North Side residents at St. Timothy’s. I spoke there last week to 10 people whose ideas for new businesses ranged from high-end candy to a new design for a snow blower.
Their questions ranged from definitions – the difference between angel investors and venture capitalists, for example – to other sources of capital, training and business start-up advice. What are the pros and cons of having partners? How can a lawyer or accountant help me? Those questions and more weigh heavily on the minds of people who are just starting a business.
“It’s all about building capacity and trying to move to the next level,” McGee said. “In Milwaukee, there’s a great need for minority-owned businesses.”
There’s no disputing that fact. The four-county Milwaukee region lost 29,800 non-farm jobs from 1999 to 2004, a 3.5 percent decline. That placed Milwaukee at the bottom of the list of the 16 peer regions. Only four of the 16 metropolitan regions lost jobs in the six-year period, while the 15 other regions collectively registered an average net gain of 3.3 percent.
In the span of three decades, Milwaukee has lost two out of three factory jobs. Much of that loss reflects global trends, but the city has been hit harder than most. Those hit hardest of all have included African-American and other minority workers.
The number of minority-owned businesses in Milwaukee — a key indicator of the commercial health of the region’s de-industrialized urban center – “placed dead last,” according to a recent report by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Area Chamber. Revenue from those minority businesses, measured on a population-adjusted basis, ranked third-lowest among the comparable metro areas.
Metro Milwaukee’s 2002 unemployment rate for African-Americans was 17 percent, which ranked highest among the 12 metro areas that track employment by race. Separately, the 4.2 percent of minorities employed as “officials and managers” in the Milwaukee region was lower than the 5.1 percent average of the other 15 regions.
Those figures speak to the need for more minority entrepreneurs in a city and region that is key to Wisconsin’s prosperity. There are signs of progress, however.
For the first time in five years, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported this month, Milwaukee will appear on Inc. magazine’s “Inner City 100,” an annual ranking of high-growth companies in the nation’s distressed urban centers.
Two Milwaukee enterprises made the prestigious Inc. list for 2005: HMB Contractors Inc., an excavating and demolition firm that began life a decade ago by plowing snow from residential driveways, and Coakley-Tech LLC, which produces custom orders of DVDs, CDs and print-on-demand books.
The awards are tied to the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a Boston non-profit group that dedicates itself to restoring old-fashioned capitalism, profit-driven businesses and non-government jobs to urban neighborhoods across the country. The Initiative for a Competitive Milwaukee has been launched to adapt those strategies to Wisconsin’s largest city.
In the state Department of Commerce, the Bureau of Minority Business Development (608-267-9550) can help connect entrepreneurs to loans, training programs and more. The UW-Extension’s Small Business Development Centers, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other agencies can also help. The Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference will be held June 7-8 in Milwaukee, and it will include many “how-to” sessions for start-up businesses.
McGee and the “Financial Fitness” group at St. Timothy’s church are reaching out for information. For entrepreneurs with ideas but a multitude of questions, that information can be the jump start they need.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.