MILWAUKEE — A new incubator space in Bronzeville is looking to steamroll hurdles facing aspiring African American entrepreneurs.
“This is just one of just under 30 Black-owned or Black-led organizations with a co-working space in the United States,” Ossie Kendrix, President and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin said. “This will be a monumental opportunity for Black entrepreneurs and those who want to build wealth.”
Kendrix showed TMJ4 the Chris Abele Legacy Co-Working and Innovation Space back in February. Thanks to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) donating $144,400, they will be able to finish construction before the end of the year and hope to get members inside in January.
The COVID-19 Pandemic highlighted some of the worst disparities facing African Americans. From health, education, technology all the way to business, African Americans have been hit the hardest. Through it all though, the co-working space may be a turning point towards achieving equity.
“This is what equity looks like when you think about entrepreneur space,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said. “We’re investing in communities of color. This is a primary example of that.”
This is the second time in as many weeks that an incubator space geared towards helping African American entrepreneurs, is getting a big boost from the state. UpStart Kitchen was opened last week in the Sherman Park neighborhood. WEDC supplied a $50,000 grant to the space to help it get started. Efforts like these, two weeks in a row, aim to lift African Americans through the systemic ceiling they’ve faced for decades.
“We all know, now more than ever, we need that support system in place to help Black businesses that are incredibly important for lifting the whole community,” Missy Hughes, Secretary and CEO of WEDC said. “Putting these building blocks into place means we have these foundations that will hopefully start to dig us out of the incredible hole we’re in. Statistics show, Wisconsin and Milwaukee at the bottom of statistics when it comes to Black economic wellbeing. We have got to move the needle on that. Creating this foundation will help these things live longer and stick.”
It’s fitting the space is on Historic Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. As one of the most famous civil rights leaders, who famously spoke about his own dream, the next generation of Black entrepreneurs in Milwaukee can achieve their dreams of starting their own business.
“This facility lights a little of that fire to give them that support and resources needed and space, honestly, needed to be able to take that idea to reality,” Deshea Agee, Executive Director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District (BID) said. “Dr. King had a dream. Every entrepreneur has a dream. Each of us has dreams. Our kids will have them and I think those who are locating here, coming in here and doing business out of here, people who influence them and people they influence who will see those individuals becoming more happy, more vibrant, having opportunities they think they deserve and they do to grow as an entrepreneur.”
But, for aspiring African American entrepreneurs, there are a number of hurdles facing them in starting a business. Systemic issues like redlining have made it more difficult to own a home or establish wealth. Because of that, it can be more difficult to qualify for a loan from a bank so many start-ups will need to rely on their own cash reserves to succeed. It’s why the Small Business Administration estimates only 13 percent of small businesses in the state are minority-owned.
The co-working and innovation space hopes to change all of that. Not only will they offer the space at low costs, but there will be opportunities to gain the education they may not have otherwise received to help level the playing field and show them the path to learning how to run a business.
“We want to ensure we provide a place where innovation, entrepreneurial synergy, and potential business owners can come and learn how to put a business together, grow it and solidify it,” Kendrix said. “We will work with them to make sure it happens.”
"When you’re coming in and trying to start your small business and struggling with an issue, you’re able to find three other people who struggled with that issue before,” Hughes said. “You can get their advice and their thinking and reach out to Ossie and his team to say, ‘How can I make this work better? What are the resources for this?’ You can find that so much easier and not spend your time looking for those resources. They are there at hand.”
The AACCW says the building will be finished by late November and they hope to start moving in by December. Their grand opening is tentatively set for early January 2021.
However, these initiatives are clearly making an impact. Agee says there are very few empty storefronts along the stretch of King Drive. However, a space like this could help fill in those small gaps.
“To continue Bronzeville development,” Agee said. “And take Dr. Martin Luther King Drive from blight to bright.”